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The case against quotas in Victoria

By Lorraine Finlay - posted Tuesday, 31 March 2015


When Dame Enid Lyons gave her maiden speech over seventy years ago as the first woman to be elected to the House of Representatives she famously said that any woman entering the public arena "… must justify herself not as a woman but as a citizen".

This is no longer the case in Victoria. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, recently announced a binding 50 per cent quota for all future appointments to the judiciary and paid government boards that would apply during the rest of his term in office. Under this policy being a woman itself becomes a significant qualification for appointment. The Premier emphasized that "It's not a target, it's not an aspiration. It's an assurance", and indicated that this was a commitment that he would be personally accountable for. The rationale behind the policy is that "[u]nder this Government, equity is not negotiable".

Unfortunately this decision actually entrenches inequality by expressly requiring that male and female candidates are treated differently. This is the fundamental problem with women-only quotas. While they are introduced with the admirable aspiration of addressing gender inequality, they actually entrench discrimination in the longer term by reinforcing the notion that gender is a legitimate factor to be considered over and above merit. Any woman who is appointed in Victoria will now be tainted by the notion that they were a 'quota appointment'. Indeed, studies have shown that women appointed under affirmative action policies in the USA "are seen as less qualified, less competent, and less legitimate in their role by both men and women, including the women who are themselves appointed under affirmative action".

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If it is wrong to discriminate against somebody because of their gender then it is wrong even when you claim to be doing so with the best of intentions. You can't hope to end discrimination by discriminating. This was acknowledged by Robert Menzies who stated in a 1943 radio broadcast that:

"No educated man today denies a place or a career to a woman because she is a woman. But there is a converse proposition which I state with all respect but with proper firmness. No woman can command a place or a career just because she is a woman. It is outmoded and absurd to treat a woman's sex as a disqualification; it seems to me equally absurd to claim it as a qualification in itself."

The quota experiment in Norway highlights the underlying deficiencies of this policy. Norway was the first country to introduce a quota for women on boards, making it a legal requirement in 2003 for companies to have at least 40% of their board members being women. The policy is frequently cited as the leading example of a successful quota system, and it has undoubtedly been successful if measured purely by the increased number of women appointed to boards since the introduction of the quota. Norway is a world leader in this respect, with women's share of board seats in publicly listed companies being 35.5% compared to, for example, 19.2% in both the United States and Australia and only 3.1% in Japan.

The evidence is, however, less striking in terms of any benefits to women beyond those individuals who are actually appointed under the quota, and to any broader implications for improvements in gender equality. For example, Christina Zander has observed that over a decade later it remains the case that none of Norway's 32 large-cap companies are led by a female CEO and that in 2013 only 5.8% of general managers at publicly listed companies were women. While Norwegian companies may have complied with the binding quota, this does not appear to have had any flow-on effect in terms of female participation in the broader management structures.

In a comprehensive research paper recently produced for the National Bureau of Economic Research academics from the University of Chicago, University of Texas, Norwegian School of Economics and UCLA acknowledged that the Norwegian quotas achieved their immediate aim of improving female representation on boards, but concluded that "there is no evidence that these gains at the very top trickled-down". To this end, it was observed that there was "no evidence of significant differential improvements for women in the post-reform cohort, either in terms of average earnings or likelihood of filling a top position in a Norwegian business" and that "the reform had very little discernible impact on women in business beyond its direct effect on the newly appointed female board members".

If these results are replicated in Victoria it will mean that the new quota policy will result in nothing more than a steady stream of tokenistic appointments. Quotas will not ultimately do anything to encourage the broader changes in culture and attitude that are needed to actually end gender discrimination. The Premier claims that 'equity is not negotiable' but his quota policy is fundamentally inequitable by reinforcing the notion that women cannot succeed on merit alone.

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About the Author

Lorraine Finlay is a Law Lecturer at Murdoch University, lecturing in constitutional law and international human rights. She is also a former President of the Liberal Women’s Council (WA).

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