There is a gaping void of female leadership in one of the most developed, democratic countries in the world, but hardly anyone, gender equality activists, senators or corporate executives, dare say the dreaded word, “quota.” In the U.S., it is still considered an extreme stance to suggest the government take more aggressive action by requiring a larger percentage of women on corporate boards and lists of political candidates. According to a Harvard Business School survey, only 25 percent of American women surveyed support quotas for women.
One of the most important feminist debates in the past few months focused on whether or not successful women can balance work and parenthood but most women will never make that decision. Most women will never reach the pinnacle of their profession as Ann Marie Slaughter or “Go home at 5 o’clock” Sheryl Sandberg has. To make that decision, you first need the support of mostly male bosses, internship coordinators and professors to boost you into the talent pool that other elite men choose from. Then you need to convince those elite men that you are just as if not more qualified than the man you’re competing against. As a political candidate, you will have to go one step further and convince the Ed Schultzes and Bill O’Reillys of the world that you can beat your chest as loudly as the rest of them.
Women have taken that traditional route for many years now and it isn’t working. Women represent 4 percent of CEOs and 16 percent of corporate boards. In politics, women make up 17 percent of Congress, 17 percent of city mayors and 23.7 percent of state legislators. Considering the numbers, I don’t think it is extreme that the government institute a form of affirmative action or quota system for women at corporate boards and elected office. Until there are more women leaders, many talented entry-level women will find themselves excluded from the talent pool.
Affirmative action was and is controversial. White people continue to cry reverse racism, as in the case of Fisher vs. University of Texas. They claim that unqualified minorities are taking jobs that rightfully belonged to them. It’s a familiar charge. When feminists ask why employers don’t hire more women, employers often say there aren’t enough qualified women. But as a larger society, we decided that affirmative action was a necessary step for our country to take.
The government acknowledged that minorities were disadvantaged from the early years of their lives. If life were a board game, it wouldn’t matter that minority men and women answered all of the questions correctly. Their white peers were two steps ahead of them before the game even started. Affirmative action is far from perfect, but it has given minority Americans a degree of social mobility they didn’t have before.
According to a Tulane University study, the share of black and Native American men and women from 1973-2003 grew more on average at federal contractors subject to Affirmative Action than at non-contracting firms. At the end of contract durations, increased numbers of minority workers persisted after the firm was no longer a federal contractor. A Georgetown study also found that affirmative action bans at colleges decreased underrepresented minority groups and increased white enrollment at those selective colleges.
The idea that someone is disadvantaged from the start is a mindset that many people feel uncomfortable applying to women. Some women think quotas label them as victims, and no one wants to be a victim. Ignoring gender inequality, however, won’t abolish it. It’s also doubly hard to argue in favor of quotas when women are told from day one, that despite all available evidence, gender inequality doesn’t exist anymore. Thanks to writers such as Hanna Rosin and Liza Mundy, hyperbolic phrases such as “The End of Men” and “The Richer Sex” are thrown out into the public debate over gender equality, clouding what should have been a very clear picture. It is true that more women attend college and are doing well in school. The new economy, Rosin has said, will require a feminine brand of talent, as opposed to brawn and hours of toil.
Women may earn more college degrees but we still earn less than men. Census sample numbers show 4,894 female householders with no husband present lived below poverty in contrast to 950 male householders with no wife present in 2011. The median wages of female managers are 73 percent of what male managers earn. It is not a fact, either, that women are better poised to take the jobs of the future. Men are increasingly taking “pink collar” jobs, which could force women out of those sectors.
If you compare our female representation on corporate boards to Norway, you will find our numbers are quite pitiful. In Norway, 40 percent of corporate boards are filled with women. That’s because the government made a conscious decision to support the social mobility of female Norwegians by passing a quota law in 2003. In 2010, Iceland passed a law on gender quotas, requiring corporate boards to be 40 percent female by September 2013. The European Union has also pushed for the requirement that 40 percent of a company’s directors be women.
In political representation, Norway leads again. The Norwegian Labour Party’s quota system emphasized electing women, not simply recruiting female candidates. Women make up 50 percent of the party’s political representation in parliament today. When the party is in power, women make up 50 percent of its ministers. Quota systems are desperately needed in politics, where the party leaders see women as risks. If the Democratic Party were to truly call itself the party of women’s rights, its leaders would enact a quota system. Further highlighting the stark difference in diversity between the two parties could be only advantageous to Democrats.
There are scholars and feminists who argue quotas should be instituted because women civilize mostly male groups. This is insulting to women. Women do not exist to civilize the world or babysit tyrannical men. COO of Facebook, Sheryl Sandberg, was essentially referred to as Mark Zuckerberg’s babysitter. Zuckerburg may be a perennial child, but that does not make Sandberg his caretaker. Women exist on our own terms. We should be allowed to play the part of greedy megalomaniac as well as purveyor of logic during times of insanity.
To argue that women should be added to corporate boards because they are different is to go against hundreds of years of feminist progress. The message we should take to the debate over gender discrimination is the same message civil rights leaders used to institute affirmative action: Everyone should be allowed the same opportunity to advance regardless of what they look like. A society less progressive than ours accepted that argument more than a few decades ago. Why shouldn’t we?