Can you be what you cannot see?

Josh Brown Open University

Women hold just 24.3% of parliamentary seats worldwide. Just 10% of heads of state are women globally, and in the private sector, women occupy 22.5% of board positions for Fortune 500 companies worldwide.

In the UK, the parliament is 32% women, and 27.7% of Fortune 100 companies have women on the board. The figures for women in senior management roles, such executives are equally dismal, yet most of these institutions and organisations ascribe to equality of opportunity. They let anyone apply for positions but pick the best candidate on merit.

If this is the case, then this implies two reasons for the above statistics. Either too few women apply for these positions of power or women are less suited to these positions. Maybe there is a kernel of truth to the idea that too few women apply, but there is also a more plausible third option. That the process of selection is not fair, individuals harbour unconscious bias and therefore the selection process is weighed against women. Those that ascribe to the third option often call for quotas to help overcome this problem.

Using quotas: You can’t be what you can’t see

Many people think that women need to be seen doing certain jobs, like being a politician, in order for it to become a realistic goal for other women and girls.  

This view has been backed up by research in India. The Indian parliament has a reserved number of parliamentary seats for women. This guarantees that at least some women will be elected to parliament.

Apart from the primary effect of more women in positions of power, some interesting  secondary effects were found in this study. The parliament passed more policy outcomes aligned with women’s needs – which was to be expected. Further there was an improved perception of female leaders and increased aspiration from young girls to be politicians.

This proves the theory that you can’t be what you can’t see, or at least it’s harder to be what you can’t see. The final effect was a  change in voting behaviour that made it more likely for women to be elected after quotas were removed.

It seems that once voters see women parliamentarians, they are more likely to vote for women the next time. Therefore quotas don’t have to be permanent but instead they can be a way to jumpstart a change in perceptions. The quotas will become unnecessary once unconscious bias is stripped away.

How should quotas be used?

In politics, quotas could be used to increase the number of female politicians thereby changing perceptions and creating a positive feedback loop where more representation breeds increased female participation.
In the professional world, such quotas now exist in some countries, including Norway, which from 2008 required that company boards contain 40% women or the companies would be dissolved. Other countries using a similar approach included Belgium, Sweden and Italy. In the UK, no quotas have been set, but companies with over 250 employees are required to publicly publish their pay data. The government also set up guidelines to push companies to reach a 33% representation of women on the FTSE 350 boards by 2020.