Gender quotas – a topic that has been bouncing around on our national media for the last few weeks, has stirred up a lot of controversy, passionate differences of opinion and, of course, the usual dash of bigotry and prejudice.
But what does it really mean? And how can gender quotas as a concept be applied to our everyday life in corporate, societal, and political spheres?
When we talk about gender, and particularly in the context that has been in the media over the last two weeks, we speak about male v. female. However, the reality is that there are five WHO recognised genders, each of which is massively under-represented in senior management, politics, and boards.
This does however start to make things more complicated; issues arise in cases where if a quota is implemented that is inclusive of all minorities/genders/ages, what happens if the employment pool is not there to fill the positions? Does it mean that the company becomes discriminatory by default? This subject is worthy of its own article and I am by no means dismissing the even greater shortfalls in representing other genders and the sheer amount of prejudice they encounter going for any job, let alone decision-making ones. But for the purpose of the debate that has been ongoing in the Maltese press, I will choose to focus on men v. women.
Did you know that out of all of the Fortune 500 global companies, only 21 have women at the helm? Did you also know that, statistically, companies with a higher representation of women in senior management, and/or women in the top role, perform approximately three times better than those that do not have women in top roles?
At present, the under representation of women on Maltese company boards is embarrassingly low. As of 2016, women accounted for just four per cent of female CEOs, 14 per cent of executives, and three per cent non-executive board members. Considering the fact that girls do better than boys at school, graduate in large numbers from University, and make up 53 per cent of the local workforce, it is quite staggering that so few seem to be progressing to senior levels and decision-making positions.
A suggestion put forward by Joseph Muscat is to introduce gender quotas, first in local politics where women only make up 13 per cent of representatives and then possibly in the corporate world. A quota system is defined as “any hiring policy requiring that a specified number or percentage of minority group members be hired”. In the context of gender, it refers to ensuring that a corporate, legislative, or decision-making body has an equal, or at least have a more equal representation of women and men in senior positions. This system has been introduced as a temporary measure in many countries across the world and it has been a successful way of increasing the number of women in decision-making roles and helping to eradicate the discrimination that has built up over hundreds of years.
It is however my opinion that the concept of gender quotas is a very complex one, and one that should be considered as a tool to be used as a part of a multi-faceted approach to eradicating gender discrimination in its entirety, rather than being considered as a one size fits all solution. In other words, as well as assertively ensuring that women are not overlooked in the workplace, we need to get to the root of the problem – the on-going discrimination that is so prevalent and commonplace in our society. I believe that introducing quotas on their own will not solve the problem. Eradicating gender-based discrimination from its root cause is the only way to achieve a natural environment where the need for quotas is removed, and where experience, qualifications, and suitability are the only things that matter.
As well as introducing quotas, we need to focus on activism, education, training, exposure, and improved ways of reporting and handling discrimination and gender based harassment in and out of the work place. Women also need to be encouraged to go for roles they might not have had the confidence to go for in the past, and the new generations of workers and politicians need to understand that a woman’s contribution to society both in the microcosm of the workplace, and externally, is just as valid as a man’s. Special attention also needs to be paid to the fact that the burden of childcare and familial duties should be shared equally, and not just shouldered by the mother. Women should be made more aware that they can raise a family and have a high-powered job and that one does not, and should not exclude the other.
But there is this irritating word that I keep hearing, and that is “tokenism”. There seems to be some misunderstanding of exactly what a quota is and what it is meant to achieve. A quota is not mean to put a minority into a position just to fill a seat, just to make up numbers, and just to fulfil a quota. Nor does it mean that unqualified individuals will be given jobs for which they are completely unsuitable. The purpose of a quota is to eliminate discrimination based on something like gender and to ensure that jobs are given based on merit, relevant skill sets, experience, and qualifications. There are numerous studies which show that when employers are presented with CVs of identical standards, more often than not the man will be offered the job as opposed to a woman. This is the purpose of a quota, to make sure that women are put into positions of seniority based on their knowledge and are not continually overlooked just because they are female.
It isn’t about tokenism, it is about forcing ingrained and institutional discrimination to change and it really needs to. This is not about charity either; we are not poor, hard done by beings that are desperate for a slice of the success pie; all that women want is the same opportunities as their male counterparts. Things need to change and the era of male orientated nepotism and ‘old boy’s clubs’ is coming to an end.
And yes, it will be hard for that first generation of women who are a part of a quota system. Yes, they will have to fight to prove their worth (even when they have every right to be there), and yes, they will come up against opposition, undermining comments, and even humiliation, but do you know what I say? I say to hell with that, it is worth biting the bullet and getting on with it to pave the way for future generations. To quote a friend, Stephanie Falzon: “Our pride is not more important that the advancement of women.” She could not have put it any better.
We find ourselves in a situation where we need quotas because if we leave things to develop holistically, the year on year increase is so pitiful that it would take possibly hundreds of years for us to reach true equality and that is just not acceptable. To have a functioning democracy, you need to have a fair representation of all society. To have a functioning business you need to have a fair representation of the employees. This is the truth of the matter and one that we cannot continue to overlook and dismiss in the hope that it will improve with time.
The companies that sit and twiddle their moustaches about whether they should introduce these measures are the ones that will be left behind. The world is shifting and the smart ones will realise the need for change and start to implement it, and trust me, we will look back in 10, 20, 30 years’ time with disdain and pity that there was ever a need for such drastic measures in the first place.