Are quotas a quick fix?

March 23, 2010 | NeW Staff

Are quotas the solution to fixing the problem of unequal numbers of men and women in spheres of the corporate workplace?  The New York Times is weighing in on the debate and asking a field of ‘experts’ their opinions and suggestions.  In 2002, Norway passed a law requiring that by 2008 women should make up 40% of all board members at state-owned and publicly listed companies.  Now, other European nations are following suit.  The Times asks if quotas could be the cure-all solution for America.  The diversity of responses surprised me.  Here are the highlights…

Marit Hoel, director for Center of Corporate diversity in Oslo, says the new law has been positive for Norwegian business:

“In 2009, the Statistical Bureau showed that because of the high educational level among female members of the board, the general level of education rose in the boardrooms.”

Amy Dittmar, a Professor at the University of Michigan, noted the drop in value of companies after the new law, not because of the women, she says, but because of less qualified individuals placed on the board.  As a result, Dittmar, asks the age-old question:

“Considering this evidence, the Norway experience demonstrates that there are costs to quotas. But since the value loss is due to less experience rather than sex, it raises the related question: Why are women not more prevalent in upper management?”

Next, Peter Baldwin, a history professor at UCLA, argues that quotas are bad for business.  However, he goes further to say that we should require quotas in American politics:

“Quotas are a demand-side solution. They inflate the jobs available for a certain group, whether there is sufficient supply or not…Now, if someone wants to talk about quotas for politics, that is a different matter. There we are woefully undersupplied with women, and the European solution would make a great deal of sense.”

Sharon Meters, author of Getting to 50/50, argues that women should have a more prominent role in the workplace, but quotas are not the solution:

“Quotas are one way to allocate positions of power — but they come with a lot of risk and resentment. Instead, we should put good process in the place of bad assumptions.”

Finally, Linda Hirshman, a retired philosophy professor and author, believes the problem of inequality is more severe at home.  Quotas in the workplace, she argues, are “too conservative.”  Hirshman says,

“The real glass ceiling is at home. Although exceptional women always make it against the odds, for most women, such offers are a siren song to tempt them to pick up the slack their go-getter male partners won’t strap on.”

Lots to chew on here.  What I found most interesting is that none of the Americans agreed with the Norwegian quota system entirely; however, they still believed there was inequality in the workplace and had their own solution to fix it.  I agree with the majority of these experts that quotas are not the answer but for different reasons.  Quotas seek to enforce equality of outcome instead of equality of opportunity.  In Norway, for example, just because more women have the opportunity to sit on boards, we still see men losing this same opportunity–men who might be more qualified.  There is something to be said for bringing together a diverse group of individuals with differing experiences, academic focuses, and career backgrounds; however, quantity of one group of people should never replace quality.  We should seek to provide equality of opportunity for women and men and not force equal outcomes that will in fact, be unequal.  

I think Amy Dittmar’s question is one we should contemplate: “Why are more women not more prevalent in upper management?”  Is it because they do not have the opportunity to get there, is sexism prevalent in the workplace, or is it a job that women generally (there are always exceptions to the rule mind you) do not prefer?  I think if we get at the heart of this question, we can work to provide equal opportunities for women and men
in fields they are suited for and ones they enjoy.
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