Although it’s neither new, nor is it an original idea, there’s been a lot of discussion in Germany lately about gender quotas. Despite my strong feelings about the importance of equality, as well as my opinion that women are indeed underrepresented in much too many aspects of leadership and public opinion, I feel like quotas are like prescribing cough suppressants to fight tuberculosis. I don’t support them, at least not in this case. Here’s why.
This post of course refers to situations that I am familiar with, and there might be cases where I’d think that quotas are a good idea. But let’s talk about familiar ground here.
What’s wrong with this picture?
In any country that I know enough to know the numbers, women make less money than men, are less involved in leadership, and are often underrepresented in the media.
Of course, a lot of things are wrong about that picture. For starters, why should a woman earn less money doing the same job as a man? That is obviously unjust. Second, why are there fewer women in leadership positions? Somewhat more complicated, I’d imagine. And third, why are less women asked for their opinions about important news items? That we can probably, in this simplified context at least, as a product of problem #2. What causes these problems?
Earning the same and getting less
Let’s take a look at the first problem. Maybe bosses are so old-fashioned that they really think that women deserve less money than men. My perhaps naive assumption is that this species of trilobyte died out long, long ago, but mankind has demonstrated an impressive and resilient ability to disappoint me, extending from the beginning of time up until the present day. Fortunately, mankind often impresses me, so I’m not complaining. Regardless of whether my extinction theory is naive or not, though, I’m willing to bet that this species is at least endangered at present, at least in Germany and I would assume in the US as well. So let’s move on to look at more mainstream causes.
So we can start off by imagining that women make less money because their bosses know that they’d be offering a female worker above-market prices if he were to offer her the same pay as a man. In some cases, that might even be true. Companies try to maximize profit. One of the ways to do that is by minimizing costs. Most companies have their highest costs from HR. So this would be pretty rational behavior, if not mean. It might not even be meant as blatant discrimination – the same boss might do that same kind of math for all of his employees, not just for the women, and the math would be the part where discrimination came into play. So the real problem in this case would be the market and some bosses’ willingness to obey its influence without thinking about the moral ramifications. Sounds familiar from other contexts, so I’d buy it.
Another reason could be that women bargain less for their pay. Many companies could argue that they offer a certain salary, and that the employees bargain for it, or ask for a raise at a later time. It’s definitely conceivable that women generally ask for a raise less often than men. Studies have shown women communicate differently than men – men interrupt a lot, women don’t, and women underestimate themselves, whereas men overestimate themselves.
Knocking on the glass ceiling
As noted above, it’s a plain old fact that women are a minority in upper management. The simplest way of explaining this would be to assume that nobody believes they can do the job. However, I’m gonna stick to the dinosaur thesis here and say that the breed of people who thought this have long since become members of the endangered species list.
Perhaps this is a product of sex-specific competitive strategies. To repeat myself, men tend to overestimate themselves. They also tend to claw their way into the foreground. Some women do that too, but a lot of them don’t. So perhaps the average man beats the average woman because he competes for a position he wants, whereas the average woman waits for it. I don’t want to sound sexist here, but take a look at some studies from the communication sciences and you’ll see that that’s the general way of things that has been established during experiments.
Another reason might be that there are less qualified women for the jobs. Why? Perhaps because men and women – be it due to their upbringing, their natural instincts, or some other reason – prioritize their careers differently. In the past, there have been great discrepancies between men and women in the subjects studied and degrees gained. These discrepancies have receded in many cases. But suddenly requiring half the managers in large companies to be female doesn’t necessarily mean that enough women can be found for all the positions that needed to be filled. It also doesn’t mean that all the qualified women – or men – want such positions. If I look at myself, for example, I’m quite happy being where I am. No need for a promotion here, not at the moment. And there are high-up jobs where I work that I don’t think I’d ever want, regardless of how long I’ve worked there. I’m just not the type for that.
Harboring unsolicited opinions
Some people complain that media outlets ask fewer women for their opinions than men. I think that depends on the topic. I don’t know a lot of journalists, but I used to know a few, and my impression was always that they looked at a person’s posiiton before asking for an interview – not their gender. So I contend that this discrepancy is more a product of other discrepancies.
So what do we do about it?
Let’s pretend the list of problems above is comprehensive and think about possible solutions.
Equal wages for equal work
Yes, I’m all for people getting the same pay for the same work. However, I don’t know that this is the way things can or should go in a capitalistic economy. Let’s leave capitalism alone for the moment – that’s a whole other debate – and say we’re sticking with it. One main tennent of capitalism is that profit motivates. People work more if they’re paid more and they’re more motivated if they feel that they can receive higher pay for better work.
So what if I were in a position where I received set wages, and as long as I stayed in that position that would never change? A few things could happen. I could really want a promotion, for one, in order to get better pay. I could relax and do my work at my own pace without worrying about how good it is, because my wages will always be the same no matter what. I could ignore it because I’m intrinsically motivated. I think all of these cases would occur if our economy had set wages for certain types of work.
Then there’s also the question of who decides what these set wages should be. Should it be a committee with lots and lots of paperwork? A benevolent dictator? Unions? An all-seeing, all-knowing oracle? The person or organization to decide all of this would have to be really smart, know the markets very well, and be 0% corrupt. Oh, and companies would, again, lose their abilities to adjust pay to the market situation. Perhaps it could be done on a company-internal level. I’m not sure.
This could work, but we should think real hard about it first.
If we were to do this, it might remove some of the problems with having high bonuses for bankers that do risky transactions, so it might not be such a bad idea. But it would mean such a huge restructuring of how we manage human resources that we should think long and hard about it before we do it, if we do it, and make sure that we do it right – if indeed we do.
Don’t just work for the man
And now we’re back at the actual issue that’s the cause of this post: Putting more women in management.
Let’s start off with two short anecdotes. In my department at work, we have several women in management positions. I deal directly with three that are ranked higher than me. I do so in the knowledge that they have gotten their positions without quotas, and although I don’t follow them blindly, I would never think of accusing them of only being there because of their gender. I believe that they’re competent and that’s why they got the job.
At the university I used to work at, we didn’t have quotas, but women and handicapped people were always hired if it was possible. I was witness to some situations where a very qualified person didn’t get the job, even though the people who were hiring wanted him. Instead, the job went to a woman.
Now, this could be good or bad. In a situation where women don’t have any changes at all, it’s surely a good thing. But no matter whose shoes I tried to put myself into, that situation just doesn’t look sunny for me.
First of all, the guy who didn’ t get the job. I would feel that that was unjust. The people htat wanted to hire me would most likely assure me tha tthey’d do their best to get me the next job down the line. But in the meantime – without necessarily being mad at them – I’d probably be looking around for more opportunities that would give me the chance of being hired, regardless of whether I was competing against a woman or not.
Then the colleagues. They see the whole situation and probably have the uncomfortable situation of not wanting to take sides, not knowing whether they should tell the new colleague about what happened, etc. Of course, nobody would approach her and say, “By the way, the boss didn’t want you, but he had to take you because you’re a woman.” But if it came up in conversation – fully conceivable – do you try to hide it from her?
There’s also the boss. The boss probably wants to give the new colleague a chance, but surely is a bit miffed about the situation in general. The person who was actually supposed to get hired probably knew the topic well, could have started right away, wouldn’t have needed time to read up on background information or to figure out the organizational structures of the university. In the free economy, this often isn’t the case, but this is a pretty typical situation at universities.
And, last but definitely not least, the new colleague herself. Perhaps she knows about the situation, perhaps she doesn’t. Probably, she’s well qualified for the job, but the colleagues don’t know that and might think that she only got it because of the quota, which sucks for her.
The bottom line is, quotas wouldn’t make equality. They’d make tension.
And this situation is probably the optimal quota hiring situation thinkable. In other cases, the colleagues aren’t so nice, and maybe the person hired because of the quota isn’t as qualified.
Did you ask your mom?
There are editors that require that at least one female source is quoted in every story. And if you’re dealing with sexist reporters, that might be a really good idea. And in most stories, there is at leaste one female perspective that is relevant or interesting.
Nobody wants to be Miss Quota.
But there are situations where all the people you’d want to interview are male. Nothing you can do about it. So what do you do? Ask your mom?
Quotas in this situation are just silly.
Fire extinguisher vs. forest fire
If we use quotas, we risk creating an environment which supports the cultural discrimination of women.
Yes, men and women are equal. But they’re also different. Nobody’s surprised to hear that most women prefer men as partners, and that most men prefer women. There are exceptions, and I support that, but the numbers speak for themselves.
Where does this come from? Is it genetic? Cultural? Sociological texts use the ter “structural violence” to refer to societal structures that are oppressive, without the need for anyone to be a big jerk about anything as an individual. Textbook examples could be not allowing certain people to vote, or charging higher taxes from a certain group.
Equality does not mean sameness.
Our society definitely has different, gender-specific role models. That’s nothing new. I see it all the time when I ride the subway, both in the other passengers as well as – and often more clearly – in advertising. Men and women are supposed to dress differently, think differently, pursue different goals and hve different ways of looking at things. The media often exaggerates this, but we often see that this is really the case. Is this a natural state of being or is it caused by the ideas we are fed our whole lives?
I don’t know for sure, but my opinion is that it’s a mixture of both. And I don’t think that the government can or should change that. How? By censuring all published media? By watching how parents raise their children? And if we replace our societal role models with new ones, who defines them? Should all men and women think exactly the same? Where are the borders between personality and gender differences? Is it a crime for a man to be manly, in the sense that we currently think of men? Is it a crime for a woman to be womanly? What about vice versa?
Again: I don’t think this is the government’s job, mainly for the reason that I don’t want a government that is capable of doing that kind of crazy 1984 stuff. I think we have to decide these questions as a culture. I don’t want women or anyone else to be discriminated, but I think that the causes for this discrimination go far beyond employment numbers, pay grade or wages. My best idea of shaping these things is by voting with my money – I vote against media that I think is discriminating by not consuming it and not paying for it. I’m honest about my opinions. The fact is, though, that men and women are seen differently, and they’re not the only groups that we look at differently in our society. I don’ t think that will change over night, and probably not in a decade either.
Does that mean that we have to accept that? Does that make it right, or make it wrong? Maybe. But those are questions for another debate. All I’m saying is that the reasons for the problems noted above have causes that reach much further than a quota can grasp. So before we put a bandaid on a gunshot wound, or open a window to cool the apartment down in winter, or do anything else that could be used in a metaphor for fighting symtoms while ignoring causes – like introducing quotas for women or anybody else – we need to take a stern look at the causes, figure out if we can change them, if we want to, and how we want to do it. Only then will we find a solution that lasts.