Quotas. Even the mention of the word can lead to a heated exchange like a spark lighting a powder keg. It’s one of those marmite issues; you’re heavily principled either for or against. Here in the UK, there’s a lot of suspicion surrounding quotas; for many, they meddle in the affairs of businesses, have no obvious benefits, and sound the death knell for meritocracy. How could anyone sensibly agree with such a policy?
In fact, there are very practical reasons for agreeing with quotas. A substantial body of research indicates that diversity is good for productivity; companies with gender-diverse boards do better than those without, while a number of academic studies conclude that at least some forms of diversity can help team performance, creativity and morale. It’s not hard to see why; diversity in the workplace brings a more comprehensive, broader range of ideas to the table. The collective viewpoint of a diverse group is bigger in scope and more balanced in judgement than that of a homogenous group. For private firms, this means a richer understanding of target markets, brands able to reinvent themselves, and companies more willing to take risks. For government, it means organisations that represent their communities in more than just name, which might even come up with policies vaguely resembling something reasonable. So as to whether diversity and quotas have benefits to business, it’s fair to say the answer is clearly yes.
“But we need to promote meritocracy and fairness!” opponents of quotas say. Yes, meritocracy and fairness are vital. So would you say it reflects meritocracy that women comprise the majority of graduates, but only a fraction of the workforce at top levels? Or that research points to massive gender bias in the hiring process, with as much as a two-to-one gender preference for candidates with equal qualifications? The point is we do need meritocracy. No one is seriously suggesting meritocracy is a bad thing. However, the way to achieve meritocracy is not simply by keeping on doing what we’re doing. It’s by levelling the playing field, working against hiring bias for gender, ethnicity, sexuality, and any arbitrary attributes that should not affect an employer’s choice. That’s where quotas can be a powerful policy tool. Note that I say “policy tool”. People don’t argue for quotas for the sake of it. They’re a practical way to make things fairer, unleash potential, and achieve better representation. When, after over a century of campaigning for women’s rights, women make up less than 30% of the Commons and less than 10% of executive directors in FTSE 100 companies, I think it’s more plausible to say society needs to catch up than it is to say women just need to try harder.
In other words, opponents of quotas object to the idea of people getting ahead purely on the basis of, say, their gender and race. But actually this is a lived reality. Centuries of stereotypes and biases do not just go away overnight, which is why middle-aged, middle-class, middle-of-the-road white men are so disproportionately represented in government and elsewhere. The point of quotas is not to undermine meritocracy to pursue some progressive fantasy. It’s to acknowledge our system is not truly meritocratic yet, and that our progress towards that is too slow. Seems pretty sensible to me.
If we want a more equal society, which I assume most of us do, we have to take the most holistic, rational approach possible to issues of representation. Telling organisations, ‘YOU MUST SELECT THESE PEOPLE!’ is just not the way to do this. We must look at why certain groups appear excluded and progress with this knowledge.
Maybe there are more subtle reasons for the differences in representation than just… oppression? Maybe it’s naturally occurring, and a reflection of society itself? Or maybe it is oppression. But one thing’s for sure – when you slap a quota on something and force it to change unnaturally, the truth will remain unknown and a much larger issue will arise.
Whether separated by beliefs, abilities, interests, wealth, age, sex, race, class, sexual orientation or our favourite football team, all of us are different and unique – and that’s a wonderful thing. Everyone has different strengths, which work to complement one another, and the world works really well because of this. It’s very possible that these differences in representation, or ‘inequalities’, would stem directly from these natural differences in ability.
But even if they don’t… Equality in opportunity is what matters, not outcome. To deny someone an opportunity is to openly discriminate against them – and yet, through the introduction of quotas, that’s exactly what starts to happen – only, it’s in the interest of the minority so suddenly it’s a moral and glorified move? But nonetheless, it is directly opposing the idea of equal opportunity!
So concerned are we as a society with proving our righteousness that we’re willing to sacrifice democracy under the false flag of diversity.
I’d love there to be more women in power; I’d love there to be more female CEOs and female best-selling authors because it’d be nice to know that if I wanted to, I too could reach those dizzying heights.
But do I want to? God no. So why should it be assumed that that’s what women want but are failing to achieve? There is a wealth of evidence to suggest that men are more ambitious, competitive and motivated to achieve these top spots, and even that they’re better suited to them – so why prevent their achieving this? To give someone who wants it less and is less capable a better shot? It applies across the board – if someone isn’t capable of something, why intervene to ensure they are, when that directly infringes on another’s opportunities?
To artificially remove competition for certain (less capable) individuals is to weaken the pool from which candidates emerge and ensure the roles become occupied by those less able, worse suited to them.
Naturally occurring differences should be allowed to play out in real life, and merit alone should distinguish one from another. It is patronising and counter-intuitive to suggest otherwise by imposing arbitrary rules on such a complex issue.
We need to work from the ground up on this one and find and treat the cause of inequalities, not hope another ‘trickle-down’ power system is going to do the job.