I have always felt that the idea of quotas – for increasing the number of women on FTSE100 Boards, for instance – is a bad idea because it implies women need help in order to get themselves into positions of seniority. Likewise, when I heard a number of years ago that the NAS had in mind to have a fast-track for women to become Fellows (I don’t know if they ever did actually introduce this), I had no wish to see the Royal Society follow suit. Suffering from impostor syndrome or not, I simply don’t think women want to believe, or even suspect, that they only were admitted ‘because they were a woman’ because then they would automatically become second class citizens in their own minds, if not those of others. A similar fear was manifest in the comments made in the MIT second report on the status of women, where there was a
perception that standards for hiring and promotion of women faculty are lower than for male faculty
a pernicious and dangerous undertone to a working environment, as I discussed previously.
However this week I met Nicole Dewandre, a senior EU official with particular responsibilities within the Digital Agenda for Europe, but also an ex-physicist with a strong interest (and previous responsibilities) around women in science issues. She put a different argument as to why quotas should not be regarded with such suspicion, and one that seems very straightforward and yet…and yet I’m still not convinced and I’ve been trying to work out why. Her argument, speaking from within the EU, was that for many committees quotas by geography are the norm, so she was puzzled why people are so nervous about quotas by gender. I understand if you are discussing fishing allocations around the shores of Europe, it might not be helpful if only landlocked countries were involved in the discussion; and I can see it makes sense if debating farming subsidies that countries with different traditions of agriculture should all contribute to the discussion; in these contexts quotas by geography make perfect sense, so why do I still feel nervous saying there should likewise be quotas by gender as well as ‘country of origin’?
I think there are a couple of clear reasons why geography and gender are so very different as parameters in this way. Firstly I think there is a deep-rooted cultural issue. In western culture, we have had centuries when overwhelmingly the man was the bread-winner and women were not expected to earn either at all or at least not comparable wages. Women, by and large, are still playing catch-up; relative status remains a question mark in some instances. If equality cannot be presumed in all spheres – as indeed it cannot specifically in the case of women in science, as Larry Summers’ remarks of a few years back still makes plain – then there is an inherent tension. Politically, one country in the EU may be richer, more powerful politically or have a longer history as a coherent entity, but I don’t think anyone would dare to say that the standard deviation about the mean of any character trait was larger in one country than another. That, however, is exactly the argument Summers made about the gender differences in maths in his remarks of 2005 which provoked so much debate and ire. It is of course precisely because equality cannot be assumed to be accepted or acted upon that the matter of gender composition on committees has such force. That is why quotas may be necessary. It is equally why they can be so dangerous in situations such as appointments themselves – for instance to posts and fellowships. Who wants to be told you only got that post because you’re a woman? It is definitely less offensive to be told you were only asked to serve on a committee to make up numbers – it might even be useful to get your feet under the table, stir things up and then retreat to the undergrowth again.
Country of origin and gender may both be regarded as accidents of birth (or habitation), but there are other differences, and my second point refers to the question of numbers. Let’s suppose there were only two countries, not the 27 of the 2012 EU and these were the UK and France, for instance, would the norms feel the same? I think not. If we were populating a committee to decide anything of importance I suspect the expectation would be a 50:50 split, and if it was a committee to decide something to do with cricket (or boules) it is hard to see that it would be anything other than a preponderance of one nationality or the other. The ‘natural’ expectations could probably be matched quite easily. But if you are trying to set up a research council committee, or a committee to study teaching and learning goals or appoint a new lecturer within a university, it isn’t nearly so obvious what the expectation should be when it comes to gender. The natural tendency would be to fill it up in crude proportion to the pool from which you’re drawing wouldn’t it? And if the pool is engineering professors and there are (as is only too likely to be the case) a tiny number of women in that pool then, by that logic, it would be OK not to have any women on the committee. For an appointment committee it might well (though certainly not necessarily) then transpire, in the absence of women, that there was no obvious champion to say ‘let’s make sure we spread our net wide and encourage women and other minorities to apply.’ Such action is, by the way, perfectly legal; this is simply positive action but experience tells me people get very confused between positive action and positive discrimination (the latter is, of course, not legal; for useful definitions of these two terms see the ECU website). My university does try to make sure there is at least one woman on every such committee; not all universities do the same (a point I find worrying, particularly if they don’t even consider the matter).
Does this amount to a quota? I suppose it does, but this one doesn’t bother me in the same way as appointing someone to a post simply because they’re a woman. An appointments committee for a lectureship really doesn’t have to be made up only of professors. Hence there will be a large number of people who could be asked to sit on the committee. It isn’t a case of trying to say one person is ‘better’ than another so much as this is a reasonably balanced group of individuals who all have something to offer. It makes sense in that situation to make the committee as diverse as possible. I think this is the argument used to try to introduce quotas onto Boards of FTSE100 companies. However, in either case it can only work if the appointees genuinely do have the relevant experience – and also the confidence to challenge the rest of the committee. If they don’t, they will be useless.
If this sounds as if I’m confused about quotas then I’ve conveyed my position accurately. I think there are clear situations when quotas amount to positive discrimination/ affirmative action. I saw the consequences of the latter when I lived in the USA in the early 1980s and I think the unintended consequences still colour the landscape there, as the MIT report made clear. But I think there are other situations when introducing minority members to encourage a diverse approach can only be a good thing. When you are choosing from a large pool of potentially good candidates, who each bring something different, gender can just be one of many attributes that are taken into consideration. On the other hand, when you are selecting a single individual who is meant to be unequivocally ‘the best’, to appoint someone only because they are a woman who is vaguely qualified is dangerous and unhelpful to the individual and the organisation (and is illegal in the extreme way I’ve expressed it here). An appointment to a Chair or a fellowship is likely to fall into this category. I guess FTSE Board membership falls somewhere between these two extremes.
So quotas? Well, it depends.