Quotas – debunking the merit myth

The mention of quotas for women’s representation in politics and the private sector still triggers the staunchest of opposition from supporters of so-called ‘merit’ and those who claim quotas are ‘condescending to women’. These responses fail to dissect what merit means and why quotas are vital to enact cultural change.

It is no coincidence that the current Federal cabinet lacks adequate female representation, that less than a third of board members of ASX 200 companies are women, and why typically women-dominated industries are lower paying.

The myth of merit means that women have to work harder to be considered for the same role because they are held to a different, and at times higher, standard than men. Women are both expected to achieve the same as men at work and take on ‘masculine’ characteristics lest they be seen as too fragile to succeed. But when women display ‘masculine’ characteristics, their ambition can be as off-putting as their success. This is an impossible matrix for women to navigate, placing them on the back-foot from the very beginning of their careers. Maleness is said to be synonymous with competence and capability, while women’s strengths are perceived to lie in interpersonal and care-giving relations. Whether this is true or not, women lose out. If it is true then higher-paid roles don’t tend to value these ‘feminine characteristics’ and women-dominated industries (such as teaching) are seen as ‘feminised’ and lower paid; if it’s not then women are being stereotyped in a way that is incompatible with many industries.

Upon asking a person why gender quotas are unfair, the first response is usually that they are unfair to men, as they provide women with an unearned advantage. We have to move the conversation forward. The first step is acknowledging the barriers to equality that exist in the first place, such as inflexible workplaces, male-centric views of success and the unpaid labour gap. Cultural change will naturally dissolve these barriers in the long term, so long as short term ‘unnatural’ steps are taken, such as quotas. And then the competition truly becomes fair.

What has to be understood is that fairness doesn’t exist in a structure that privileges one group (men), and merely hopes for the best outcome for women through lip service. Fairness means deconstructing the structures that hold one group back, that degrade them, that discourage them, and shut them out of discourse and decision making. Because if nothing changes then nothing changes.

While many consider women inferior in capability or skill, it is difficult to extract such an admission from the most polished of sexists. It is those people who maintain that the root of their objection to quotas is the merit argument rather than sexism, that must be convinced. Women make up the majority of university graduates, bar a few sectors. Women are socialised to juggle numerous expectations in the private and public spheres. Women bear the burden of the community sector which advocates for the most vulnerable in our society: domestic violence and sexual assault survivors, migrants, refugees, people with disabilities. And it is often women’s voices in parliament and the public arena that have catalysed progressive causes.

I believe in merit as much as the next person, but I also believe the metric for merit is male-centric and reductive. It provides a clear explanation for why the Australian federal government has the lowest representation of women in 20 years. Why women make up just 14% of the National Party, and 22% of the Liberal Party in the lower house. And why less than a third of ASX 200 CEOs are women and there is still a 15% gender pay gap that hasn’t improved for 20 years. The other major party – Labor – does not have this problem. No surprises here: they have had quotas in place since the 1990s. It should be noted that Australia ranks 50th in the world for representation of women in parliament, in between the Philippines and South Sudan – not really giving women a ‘fair go’ after all.

Aside from outright sexism, or as an extension of the ‘merit’ argument, there are a number of familiar responses to quotas. Firstly, opponents use ‘women’s choices’ as a trump card for why certain industries and politics are less representative of women. But using the example of the Labor party, who have had quotas instituted for years and almost equal representation at every level of government, this can be debunked. Labor women are not having less babies than would-be Coalition women nor are either side of the political spectrum more or less capable mothers.

I support a woman’s choice to remain or return to the workplace as well as her choice to be the primary caregiver at home. This logic also extends to men and their choice to shun traditional expectations that they are the auxiliary childrearers. Realistically, quotas will never ‘force’ a woman to choose to return to or become involved in work rather than be the primary caregiver within the home.  Instead, quotas support and empower those women who choose to return to or remain at work.  They extend our autonomy rather than limit it.

Secondly, people will often comment on the institutional barriers holding women back while simultaneously rejecting the effectiveness of quotas to address these barriers. In the private sector, this is the difficulty in returning to work after parental leave, the prohibitive costs of childcare that compel a parent (usually the mother) to stay home. In politics, it is the often male-dominated pre-selection panels, and the years lost by women who look after a family that provide apt time for men to build resumes and solidify the practice of backroom ‘favours’. These favours are often just a guise for middle-aged boys’ clubs. This practice plagues both major parties in Australia, and it shuts out many minorities and disadvantaged people.

But how a quota is instituted makes all the difference between a box-ticking exercise and a cultural shifter. Under Gail Kelly’s leadership, the initiatives and targets put in place at Westpac took into account nuance and effectiveness that would enact cultural change rather than only place already senior, qualified women onto boards. A voluntary quota or ‘target’ of 50% women was set for leadership recruitment lists, leadership roles and high potential graduate programs, to be achieved by 2017. 46% of Westpac leaders are currently women. Kelly recognised that women also aspire for senior executive and branch manager positions rather than just boards, and because of the size of boards, it realistically only ever had a handful of women.

It seems that at every level barriers must be accounted for; a company cannot just compile a blanket gender policy or vague objectives without quantifiable targets. Similarly, board quotas may only achieve gender representation targets at the highest level of a company, arguably detached from the everyday culture and happenings that women must endure.

Whether it be politics or the private sector, quotas force people (men) to give up their institutional and societal privilege. Women have traditionally been shut out from public life. Having limited opportunities for public roles, we naturally took on private roles. There are generations of barriers and layers of sexism to be dismantled, and quotas are but one necessary part of this of change.

Photo by Max Panamá on Unsplash


Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies.  She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.


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