Quotas and gender justice

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.


My name’s Daniel Lee. I’m an enthusiast for open source and sharing. I grew up in the United States and did my doctorate in Germany. I've founded a company for planning solar power. I've worked on analog space suit interfaces, drones and a bunch of other things in my free time. I'm also involved in standards work for meteorological data. I worked for a while German Weather Service on improving forecasts for weather and renewable power production. I later led the team for data ingest there before I started my current job, engineering software and data formats at EUMETSAT.

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3 comments on “Quotas and gender justice
  1. Nancy Wills says:

    I agree with you completely. In the 80s and 90s, the US used the quota system to ensure that women and minorities were given equal access to jobs, pay, and benefits, and it backlashed. While corporate America had to abide by those requirements, it actually aggravated discrimination and prejudice.

    Many were given positions for which they were not qualified, simply to fulfill quotas, and then when they did not fulfill their role well, it was blamed on the overall incompetence of their race or gender rather than acknowledged that they were put into a position for which they were not prepared.

    The quotas were revoked in the mid-nineties. While they did do some good, in the sense that they shone a spotlight on the gender and racial discrepancies in upper management, they actually did more harm than good in the long run.


  2. Poola says:

    Hi Daniel,
    This is a nice piece I bumped into. Well all the aspects mentioned are totally agreed and accepted.
    But to a great extent I support the gender quota- but I also feel it should come with
    1. when should the same be renewed-as to against time, or after reaching a certain benchmark, or after facing certain issues
    2. It should also be liable to termination against some consequences over a certain period of time.(I guess all these r taken care of but i felt i should mention)

    My opinion for this is.
    As u mentioned Men are fighters by nature, women wait for their turn.
    U mentioned the cases where a less deserving person put to a position just because of the quota. Well we face this even with the same gender also due to many unsaid reasons, why notice only when it is quota is my point.We also have cases when the position is being taken away even if the taker himself is also not so deserving, just because the other person is okay with waiting (well I have witnessed this). Well in such cases, she has the right to fight.If the position has been taken by manipulations.(Deserving do not manipulate but there are also many manipulators in the market). Ya one big issue that we face is by giving say 10 places based on gender , out of them I take it at least two will perform well, may be outperform.Well this happens only when they are either put there or forced to be there. The two percent might realize they actually can perform the task well.But again we are taking chance for two against eight bad choice and ten choices that are denied(lets also consider out of them two do not deserve). Well is taking this chance worth,only time can tell.So the quota stays or not should be the result of this over a certain period. Because with time and locations many cases differ. Well in the long run it might help, or at least we will get used to it or we fight against it.

    Secondly one more issue Men are perfectionists, women are multitasks.How this is relevant is I’ll tell, I myself always preferred a Sir for Maths and Physics- because he use to tell exactly what we are learning and what is expected of us and to the point. And importantly used to give us enough room to apply and think(research). And I preferred a lady for languages, because she allows you to think
    of everything that’s not in the context and if u somehow connect it she is fine. So we get a chance to put in our wild fantasies but there never was room to research.Well the same holds good at the work place also(Always exceptions are there). Well thats their nature- but do we treat a language teacher and the science sir same. No, so to prove herself she is forced to venture out of her arena and yes as you said many times face the consequences.How many Kindergarten teachers ,PA’s we see are men and how many professors are women. but if we somehow be able to give the same importance, may be quotas can get extinct . till then it will have to stay. And the shuffling due to this might sometimes turn to an advantage (or disadvantage).As men are fighters, they take this opportunity in other fields and they might outperform also. Well that is also a good change right.

    Well we can know this only if it is implemented.And one more point is men are known to take more risk and handle them better, than their counterpart. So they are paid better.Well they are acting to what their nature is! why discrimination in treating both then.They wont stop taking risk what ever the pay is! and women wont take risk how much ever high wage you pay. why should a women have to prove it in the same way is my point. It is same as we famously quote that men can operate an aeroplane with ease but not a washing machine. But do we treat both jobs equally. No- why? But she is pushed beyond herself to prove herself.so quota is one step for that.

    Well all these we know only if we have the issue in place but should be more particular being when to stop and where to stop.All i say is it a ‘CHANGE’.Change is always good , cause t allows us to know if the issue is good or bad- but always should be judged against the results (cases i mentioned in the beginning).And as to being fire extinguisher for forest fire, lets take it as a match stick which makes up the light- good or bad we face.

    And the media, according to me either they are interested in women in very high position to awe them or of a pathetic women to pity her and sympathies her(men too have many problem , do they show them.If you cry then u are on air-live).Everything in between is just not seen. I dislike the shows like Jane makeover and some such shows. Well tell me seriously,it is only thing women are interested.(And men with gadgets) Its either that or glamour or pity absolutely nothing else. They are only behind TRP.

    Well for all u know this issue might just be a political gain.

    But the conclusion is- hey wait didn’t I mention Iam a lady!

    On the go
    – so had lots of time in hand but well spent I guess


    • erget says:

      I agree with you on a lot of points, but in many places I feel that quotas, however good they night have been in the last, have become more a hindrance than a help. Of course there are all kinds of examples of people getting positions that others would be better qualified for, quota or no quota. But if you have a quota it’s easy for people to assume that the person didn’t deserve the job. I’ve observed a few times how a woman was hired somewhere with a quota. They were very qualified and surely would have gotten the job anyway, but because of the quota people assumed that they didn’t deserve it. They had a lot more work to prove themselves even though they were very well suited to the job. In such circumstances, the quota hurt them more than it helped them. But of course it always depends on the circumstances.


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