THE BLOG

Quotas Can't Guarantee Gender Equality

03/12/2013 10:27 GMT | Updated 01/02/2014 10:59 GMT

The European Parliament has recently supported a 40% quota for women in the boardroom by 2020. As Nigel Farage despairs over further European Union encroachments on his sovereign right to hate women, immigrants and workplace safety standards, it may seem unsurprising to the rest of us that such a move would come from the EU level. With so many European countries continuing to fall short of equal labour force participation, it seems that a supranational body like the European Union is the best placed institution to try to combat the male breadwinner model inscribed in so many welfare states.

The normative ideal of a male breadwinner family is deeply ingrained in the welfare systems of countries like the UK, with housewifery often being incentivised above female labour force participation. This tendency has been further entrenched by the spiralling cost of childcare, which has often deemed it necessary for women to sacrifice a career for a life of Peppa Pig, burning resentment and unfulfilled aspirations. With a set of ovaries apparently disqualifying you from equal participation in the labour force, maybe it's about time for some quotas around here.

Thankfully, European Union 'policy learning' has opened our eyes to the land of milk and honey that is the Nordic model of gender equality in workforce participation. States such as Sweden base their welfare provisions around a dual-earner model, prioritising full-employment and providing high quality, easily accessible public childcare. For this reason, Nordic states have much higher female employment rates. It seems that once we remove any construct of gender difference, we can start to encourage women in the rest of Europe to take their place among the big boys of the boardroom (preferably in an eighties-style montage sound tracked by the Eurythmics).

The European Parliament's decision regarding quotas for women in the boardroom is undoubtedly a milestone for female participation and gender equality. It acknowledges the need to speed up the pace of change, and calls bullshit on the argument that such advances would occur naturally without interference. This argument is, of course, inherently flawed, as the natural pace of change has proved to be painstakingly slow. This leaves us with two options; either a sister needs to throw herself in front of the king's horse to get things moving again or, it's time for some positive discrimination.

However, I can't help but question whether this new quota is something to be celebrated, as it ultimately displays how little incentive there is amongst employers to reach these standards of equality of their own volition. Greater female representation in the boardroom as a result of quotas isn't indicative of a society eager to fill important positions with individuals who are truly representative. Instead, the necessity of quotas reflects society's unwillingness to place women in these positions of power when there is no compulsion to do so. Nevertheless, the argument that 'positive discrimination is demeaning to women' is all too often hijacked by conservatives keen to preserve the current social order, and positive discrimination certainly can provide a means of levelling the playing field before allowing everyone to compete on an equal footing.

Whilst quotas signify a step in the right direction, it is important to acknowledge that their necessity highlights society's unwillingness to achieve such a rebalancing of power on its own. A quota for female presence in Europe's boardrooms is not a bad thing, but I fear that it fails to effectively address in-built constructs of gender difference. Beyond the boardroom, there are no quotas to protect women from treatment as walking reproductive systems with a professional use-by date that reads 'best before motherhood'. You can place a woman in a position of power, but does that really change the conditions that necessitate such measures? Perhaps the presence of women in Europe's boardrooms will drastically shift the power balance that currently exists, but I for one am sceptical about their capacity to root out the deep-seated constructs of gender difference that still plague efforts for equality.