Quotas, Good and Bad

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.


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10 Responses to Quotas, Good and Bad

  1. curtrice says:

    Nice essay, Athene. You succeed in conveying your mixed feelings quite well. I wanted to toss two points into the discussion.
    1] The “softer” version of quotas is “targets” and they seem to have a big impact. Just setting a goal leads an organization to think about how to achieve that goal. At my university, we’ve increased the percentage of women professors fro 9% in 2001 to 28% in 2011, in part through the use of targets and accompanying measures.
    2] I think part of the concern about compromising quality is built on a belief that we can objectively rank a pool of applicants. If we look at their portfolios, we can unambiguously say who is the clear best, who is second, who is third, and so on. And a quota would potentially then take the person who is third and move them to first, hence undermining quality.
    But I don’t think we actually can do that. We can rank them on some ad hoc set of criteria, e.g. most publications, most grant money, seniority, best teaching evaluations (thinking now of university life), etc. But is there some “objective” sense by which those criteria are ranked? What if we added criteria like “best able to lead a variety of people” or “best able to make a research group function” or “best able to nurture students”? Is that compromising quality? I think we should perhaps move away from having for each individual hire a goal of highest (subjective) quality, and think more about hiring to complement the staff we already have. This allows us to think about variety and diversity as part of quality. And it makes it clear that in settings where there are too few women, the quality of the organization can be enhanced by hiring women.

    A couple of posts of mine on this topic are:
    How to get more women professors http://bit.ly/womenprofessors
    Equality targets as a leadership tool http://bit.ly/zjx0aa

  2. Karen Sund says:

    Just a quick comment from a converted quota opponent: When Norway started discussing having gender quotas (they work both ways) on boards of listed companies, there was an outcry from many men that this was impossible as there were just not enough qualified women. In addition, many women (me included) raised the argument that it was not desirable to be given a quota-position. However, this has been in place a few years now, and the result is more professional boards, more deliberation by election committees on what types of people (not only gender) are needed and better board discussions. Many of the women are also on boards that do not need quotas and bring valuable experience and mind sets to the table. Importantly, there is noone claiming that there are no qualified women any more. To the contrary, there is a frequent mention from some women that they “replace less qualified men”. So, to remove the fear of working with the unknown, quotas work – experience shows that they have hand unfounded fears. Norway has the most gender-divided workforce in the OECD and finds comfort in working with like-minded. However, innovation is often better where there is real discussion and new views on familiar issues. More professional boards (and management) is important in more difficult times and this system has accelerated the revamp of many boards. They should not be a parking place for men before retirement, but active and responsible for companies success and risk management!

  3. Robin Cousins says:

    In my job I found myself visiting offices of a London borough with a very good reputation for being an equal opportunity employer. At first sight there seemed a good mix of men and women from differing ethnic backgrounds. After a while however I realised that every man that I dealt with was white, and every woman was black or mixed-race. Whilst targets for race and gender were being met half of the population were still effectively excluded.

    I have an interest in how language evolves and I am trying to understand how some of our cultural inheritances might be more successful than others. I won’t embarrass myself here by trying to explain a half developed model. I do think that it is healthy to test a model by making the most ridiculous hypothesis that it will allow. The general hypothesis was that women from a Northern European background would be better at extemporised language than those from the South. Specifically I decided to look and see if women of a European heritage with blue eyes did better in Parliament than those with brown eyes. The only data suggested that I found suggested that 0.45% of the women in the Cabinet and Shadow Cabinet should have blue eyes. In fact of the eleven women in the two cabinets only two, Dawn Primarolo and Cheryl Gillan, had brown eyes (Binomial Progression P= 0.013). You cannot make assumptions about an individual on the basis of eye colour but across a group I think it highlights a cultural inheritance. Blue eyed women made up 20% of the two cabinets and make up slightly over 20% of the general population. The deficit in female numbers was entirely down to the absence of brown eyed women. (I am more disturbed than pleased that the hypothesis was proved)

    I am not trying to advance my own rather quaint ideas here (feel free to provide you own explanation), but I wish to illustrate that gender, class and cultural inheritance all interact and do so in a more complex way in this country than elsewhere in Europe. Unless one understands the exact cause of a problem then you have to very careful in suggesting a remedy.

    Also, beware of blue eyed women suggesting that the answer to our problems is to make the world more Scandinavian.

  4. Ken Rice says:

    You mention at the end of your post situations in which the appointment is for someone who is “meant to be unequivocally ‘the best’”. I would suggest that even this is ill defined. If the role of a Chair or Fellowship holder is simply to publish lots of papers and get lots of citations, then maybe it is easy to define. In many cases, this is probably how it is viewed. I would suggest, however, that we could solve a lot of the issues related to gender balance (for example) in academia if we had a broader view of who might be the “best” candidate for a position. There are many different ways in which one can have impact in science. If a department already has lots of people leading big groups or PIs of big international project, maybe the “best” person for the next job would be someone who runs a small group and does their science differently (experimentalist vs theorist for example). I guess I’m arguing that diversity is – in itself – good for science and having a broader view of what might make someone the “best” candidate for a position may be a step in the right direction.

    Looking forward to your talk in Edinburgh in Thursday.

  5. Dr Barbara Holtz says:

    your point about the difference in quotas for geographies vs quotas for women is very valid.

    I am personally very much in favor of quotas for women however, because I do not accept that this will lower standards. Any lowering of standards has to be understood as a reference as it is a relative statement: a reference to what?
    Ironically we refer to a state where all appointments were made under a quota: the quota of 100% males. Somehow nobody seems to question the wisdom of that quota and we all seem to accept without fail that we have reached the pinnacle of science/banking/society despite the fact that we excluded half of the population and all the potential that lies therein.
    Men never have a problem with the following statement: ‘Who wants to be told you only got that post because you’re a man?’ – maybe we should start embracing the same?!

  6. Dear Athene

    I have followed your blog and tweets for quite some time and I really enjoyed it. I’m interested in (and concerned about) women in academia questions ever since I started to notice how all my female PhD colleagues disappeared after graduation.

    Anyway, my comment is related to the quota discussion but also about the general theme I have notice in so many blogs and comments “But I want to be asked due to my qualifications not because I’m a woman….”

    I think, we as females in academia need to start to look at that statement from a different perspective.
    In general, male colleagues have in all times been asked by their senior male colleagues to join different committees or such just because they are men and they fit the norm. Many of them have been very well qualified and some less but I have never heard a man say “But you only ask me because I’m a man and fit the profile of what a scientist should be like. I want to be asked because I have an outstanding track record”.

    That was one part. My other point is that do we ever consider that this statement “We only ask you because you are woman and we need a woman on the committee due to the rules” is a very obvious example of a Master suppression technique. We can safely assume that they wouldn’t even ask you if they didn’t think you would do a good job but to make sure that you follow their lead and don’t start a revolution, they add that sentence and sometimes continue to undermine the female candidate. But do we actually need to buy that?

    One can get more into this and discuss this even more. I have a very practical and somewhat selfish approach to this. If I want to be a part of a group or committee, give a talk or have a leadership position, then I will give it a go and I care very little about the aspect “We only invite you because of gender diversity”. I will do a good job and I will do it in a setting that I want to be a part of. The contrary also applies -I will not take part of a committee or such just because of gender diversity, it is the context that matters.

  7. Ken and Curt
    You both say rather the same thing, that what is the ‘best’ should include criteria beyond simply research-oriented ones, to widen the objectives to include leadership,mentoring etc. I totally agree with you, but most universities do not in practice operate like that, although they might be happier/better and more innovative places if they did. Implicitly I have discussed this recently here and here.

    Interesting points about how we women may collectively buy into the framework of male as norm. However, I’m not sure I totally agree that we wouldn’t be asked to sit on some committee or other unless they thought we’d do a good job. Sometimes I fear it does go no further than a tickbox mentality, along the lines of ‘let’s make sure we look as if we’re meeting diversity goals by asking someone to make up numbers, and let’s hope they never speak in case they express a contrary view’. One of the reasons I think affirmative action in its original manifestation in the US was so damaging is precisely because minorities were hired who really weren’t up to the job, and we’ve had to live this down ever since. It is also why I think the US has a more negative atmosphere on this front than the UK, which never has practiced positive discrimination. I can’t comment on the Scandinavian countries which maybe have done an even better job, as the comments here imply. However, I totally agree that if given an opportunity to do a piece of work – because a woman or for any other reason – the thing to do is to throw oneself into it and do the best one can; ideally the experience will be beneficial even if the outcome isn’t always as desired.

    As for targets, they are fine if they work. I think the concern is always that laudable goals are often easily circumvented and hence the push for the coercion of quotas. To my mind perhaps the most important thing is simply to make sure that the topic of diversity is not forgotten, that assumptions of the norm don’t just get perpetuated indefinitely because no one says, hang on we should not just have white males (or indeed black females or any permutation thereof) around the table.

  8. Cherish says:

    I guess I’m still not sure what the problem with quotas is. Saying that women only get certain posts because of quotas is, in my opinion, pure bunk designed to make women continue to feel inferior. Women who are selected to various posts because of quotas are often women who have accomplished as much more more as their male counterparts but victim of that odd tendency to want to choose people ‘like’ ourselves. When men are making the selections, they’ll continue to choose men. I see quotas as a way to counteract the tendency to choose likeness. People making these decisions will rationalize why they continue to pick mostly white men, and quotas are there to make sure they can’t continue to do so. In other words, they make sure that women are fairly represented for what they have accomplished.

    I’ve pretty much come to the opinion that it doesn’t matter what I do, there are some people who will assume that my accomplishments are because of the fact that I’m a woman even when it’s obvious I’ve accomplished more than some of my colleagues. It’s because of this mindset that I think quotas or targets or other efforts to force people out of their comfort zone are necessary.

  9. Kate Jeffery says:

    I think I share your ambivalence. I can see that there is a place for quotas, but not all the time. I think it depends on the situation. I would not like, for example, to see quotas for professorial appointments, because the problem is not with the appointment of professors per se, it is that there are two few appointable women – i.e., women Readers (Associate Professors). So to sort that out we need to go further back and fix the leaky pipeline.

    On the other hand, in some cases it seems that there is a pool of appointable females but they don’t get appointed for whatever reason. MPs spring to mind, and I guess perhaps the boards of FTSE companies. University committees is another one – why are two thirds of the members of the Equal Opportunities committee at my institution female, but only one quarter of the Finance committee (or indeed, any of the committees whose job is to move and shake, rather than persuade people to be nice)? I once found myself on a thoughtlessly assembled strategy committee of 20 men and one woman (me), convened to represent the interests of a group that is 40% female. I think in these cases there is a systemic problem, and here, maybe quotas would help (or at least a request for justification of the gender ratio).

    Regarding the potential disparagement of people who are on the receiving end of affirmative action (AA), here I think I agree with some of your respondents above – the negative effect of the disparagement is potentially outweighed by the positive effects of the action itself. I would rather be an FRS with a question mark over me than not an FRS at all (of course, I would prefer most of all to be the FRS without the question mark! Still working on that one…). The disparagement is arguably counteracted by the kudos of having gained entry to such a select club. For this reason, I think AA probably works best when there is a very uneven ratio to begin with.

    That said, I agree it’s important not to use AA to appoint lower quality people. However, as one of your respondents pointed out, having a quota, or a nudge in that direction, may force some re-evaluation of what “quality” is. For example, a measure of quality in science is how many Science and Nature papers one publishes. However, these journals publish very few papers in the area of behavioural science – which is, possibly not coincidentally, a subject very attractive to women (75% of the undergraduates in our Psychology programme are female). So, is it a case that science has defined “quality” as being “things men are more interested in”? So synapses and circuits yes, thoughts and feelings no. (Not sure, just speculating).

    The Norway example is a great one that we should think about emulating. I imagine that the need to be prescriptive would eventually disappear as ratios normalise and people get used to seeing women in these groups, and feel odd if they are absent. First we need to change people’s mental images of what women do and what organisations look like, then take it from there. (Next up: ethnicity).

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