Bill Muehlenberg

Women, quotas and affirmative action

Tuesday was International Women’s Day and one of the sillier things said in relation to it came from someone who should have known better.

I refer to Liberal heavyweight Joe Hockey and his comments about quotas for women. He said on Monday night’s Q&A that there should be a 30 per cent quota for women as board directors. 

He decried the fact that women make up 11 per cent of boards of ASX 200 companies, and said if this target is not achieved by companies themselves by 2015, then quotas should be put in place. Fortunately other Liberal leaders quickly distanced themselves from such foolish ideas. 

Opposition Leader Tony Abbott said, “’I’ve always been cool on quotas … If women are given the chance to show their abilities they will get places on their merits.” And deputy leader Julie Bishop remarked, “It would not make sense to impose a compulsory quota for female representation on company boards when the Liberal Party does not have a quota for female representation.” 

The idea of imposing quotas is part of a larger move of government-led social reorganisation known as affirmative action. The idea was first developed in America in the 1960s, and was meant to help minorities gain equal standing in various areas. 

While leftist governments have long championed such programs, conservative voices have pointed out their many shortcomings. Indeed, entire volumes have been written pointing out the inherent flaws of affirmative action programs, preferential treatment and quota systems, and related efforts at social coercion. 

Black economist Thomas Sowell has penned dozens of volumes on these themes, including his important 2005 book, Affirmative Action Around the World (Yale University Press). Much of what he has to say on this topic centres on race, but his thoughts are also applicable to gender as well. 

But many women have written about gender-based affirmative action programs and quota systems. Let me cite a few here. Jessica Gavora wrote an important book on this in 2002. Let me quote from an earlier review I did of this volume: 

And with many affirmative action programs, it demanded not just equality of opportunity, but equality of outcome as well. And when unequals are treated equally, or are mandated to have equal outcomes, then real inequality results. New discrimination and inequality came into play. Boys and men, and boy’s and men’s programs, especially in sports, were the real casualty. Many male sports programs and activities were axed or cut back in funding, in order to get the 50-50 mix. 

But it went even further, and Gavora documents the many heart breaking cases. For example, one University was not content with the 50-50 mix in athletics’ spending and programs, but insisted it be 53-47, since 53% of the student body was female. 

And it was not just males and male programs that suffered. Females also suffered. For example, if a girl really preferred to be a cheer leader instead of a football halfback, she often found her desires frustrated, with the gender equity police insisting that females not take on what they perceived to be traditional female roles. 

A regime of androgyny, in other words, was enforced by the gender benders, regardless of the whether it was in the best interests of all concerned. Thus tax payers subsidised a system which was often out of kilter with the biological realities of those involved. 

The feminists insisted that male-female differences are only social constructs, not something rooted in our very nature. They insisted that the sexes are identical in their interests and abilities. And they insisted that such parity be fully represented in our schools, even in our sports, with the full force of the law brought to bear on those who do not comply. 

Guided by these stubborn, and often irrational, convictions, they insisted that if a school has 33 boys playing soccer, then 33 girls should be playing it as well. They insisted that if males are over-represented in advanced maths and sciences, then this ‘obvious injustice’ must be remedied by force of law. Never mind that there may in fact be good reasons why such iniquities exist. Never mind that males tend to prefer sport more than females. Never mind that boys may be hotwired by nature to excel in science while doing poorer in other academic subjects. 

Other women have written on these topics. Phyllis Schlafly has a number of books devoted to this. She offered seven reasons why affirmative action is wrong in a major 1987 article. Her first two reasons are worth citing: First, “the woman receiving the benefit is not a woman who was ever discriminated against. The benefits are not targeted for the victims. Nobody should be entitled to receive a remedy for any injury suffered by someone else.” 

Second, “it is based on a theory of group rights as opposed to the American tradition of individual rights. Women are not a monolithic, cohesive group in which a grievance suffered by one woman should translate into a right or a remedy granted to another woman.” 

Or consider the so-called glass ceiling. Says Schlafly, “Just because there is a small percentage of women in senior management does not prove discrimination. It proves instead that the majority of women have made other choices – usually family choices – rather than devoting themselves to the corporate world for sixty to eighty hours a week.” 

F. Carolyn Graglia’s valuable 1998 treatise on feminism also speaks to this. Graglia, a lawyer by training but housewife by choice, says she never encountered any opposition to her rise in the marketplace. She reminds us that Betty Friedan wrote back in the early 1960s that women in fact chose to eschew careers in favour of family life. 

She cites many other feminists who grudgingly admit that it is mainly personal choice, not some inbuilt discrimination, which is keeping many women out of the top jobs and major boardrooms. Despite a half century of the feminist war against homemaking and motherhood, many women still simply prefer those options, and don’t want to be told their only fulfilment comes in the paid workplace. 

And quotas and preferential treatment do nothing to help women. Instead of knowing they have achieved a position or placement due to merit, they will just wonder if they are filling a quota. As Kathryn Crosby puts it: 

Quotas suck. Women will only be equal when there isn’t an artificial incentive for women to be promoted. If management staffing decisions are made with a frame of ‘we don’t have enough women so we should pick a woman’ then how can a woman ever be respected in that position? If quotas exist, how will women ever be considered worthy of their roles, deserving of them and equal to the task, rather than equal to the quota? 

Carrie Lukas agrees. In her helpful 2006 book on feminism she says, 

Affirmative action creates an environment in which people wonder if these women truly earned their success or if they merely rose to the top of a rigged game. . . . Embracing affirmative action institutionalizes a far more damaging form of sexism: the official recognition of an assumption of female inferiority. Feminist groups make a grievous error when they pursue government-mandated advantages; true feminism means trusting that women can compete and succeed on their own. 

Or as Judith Sloan writes in yesterday’s Australian

While there is doubtless some support for quotas among some female directors, many others object to the confusion that would arise should their appointments be seen as filling a quota rather than being made on the basis of merit. Their argument is that feminism is about the equal treatment of men and women, not the elimination of merit-based appointments. I fit into this camp. 

There is also a strange fixation in this debate about representation at the board level. After all, it’s the managers who actually run companies. If power and influence are the real concerns, then the low representation of women in senior management positions is much more significant than in board positions. My assessment is that the impediments to women taking on senior executive positions are much greater than is the case for directorships. 

Many of these senior roles are inevitably 24/7 and are simply incompatible with rearing small children. Some women look through that glass ceiling and conclude that it is not for them. Of course, management structures in most companies are pyramidal and there are relatively few senior executive jobs. 

So only a relatively few ambitious women are needed to improve the representation of women at the top. Companies are well-advised to identify and remove any unnecessary barriers to female participation in senior roles. But they don’t need the government either to tell them to do so or, worse, to regulate outcomes. 

Sorry Joe, but you are dead wrong on your call for mandatory quotas. And plenty of women know you are wrong as well. 


Post a comment