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Across the world women held only 24.3 percent of parliamentary seats in 2018. Just a tenth of heads of state are women, and they occupy only 22.5 percent of the board seats of Fortune 500 companies (an annual list by Fortune magazine of the 500 largest US corporations).
In the UK 32 percent of Members of Parliament were female in 2018, and 27.7 percent of Fortune 100 companies have women on their boards. The figures for women in senior management are also disappointingly low, yet most of these institutions and organisations subscribe to the doctrine of equality of opportunity: anyone can apply, the best candidate succeeds.
If that’s so then either too few women apply for positions of power or they are not suited to the vacancies. Possibly too few apply, but a more plausible third option is that the process is unfair because individuals harbour unconscious biases and selection is weighted against women. Those that ascribe to this 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 in certain roles, like being a politician, in order for it to become normalised as a realistic goal for other women and girls.
This is supported by research. 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. A final effect was a change in voting behaviour that made it more likely for women to be elected when quotas were removed.
This example offers evidence for the proposition that you can’t be what you can’t see, or it’s harder to be what you can’t see.
It seems that once voters see women parliamentarians, they are more likely to vote for a woman the next time. This means 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 the negative effects of unconscious bias have been eliminated.
How should quotas be used?
In politics, quotas could increase the number of female politicians thereby changing perceptions and creating a positive feedback loop where more representation breeds increased female participation. In 1993 the UK’s Labour party adopted a policy of ‘all-women shortlists’ for its parliamentary candidates, and in 2002 the government introduced laws to allow positive discrimination in the selection of candidates until 2030. The 2019 election marked the first time that female representation in the House of Commons reached more than a third, compared with less than a tenth in the 1990s. It has also meant that the issue of gender balance receives more attention.
In the commercial world quotas exist in some countries. Norway requires that companies be dissolved if four out of ten members of company boards are not women. Other countries using a similar approach included Belgium, Sweden and Italy. The UK has no quotas but companies with over 250 employees must publish their gender pay gap. Its government also set a target for companies to have one third representation of women on the FTSE 350 (a published list of the most valuable 350 companies on the London Stock Exchange) boards by 2020.