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To quota or not to quota

5/05/2017
I have been asked about my stance on gender quotas many times. This week I was asked again on the back of comments made by former Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, during his regular spot on 2GB on Monday (1 May 2017).
 
Mr Abbott used an interview with Ray Hadley to declare that; gender quotas suggested by the Australian Human Rights Commission makes the organisation sound 'anti-men'; and that the sex discrimination commissioner, Kate Jenkins, should "pull her head in". He went on to label it 'politically correct rubbish' by the AHRC which he said should be disbanded as Australia did not need bodies like this “bullying, hectoring and persecuting”.

Needless to say, the rest of the nations shock-jocks waded into the fray, with 3AWs Tom Elliott rubbishing the position taken by Kate Jenkins and reverting to the tired 'merit mantra'. We had an interesting exchange in a live interview he did with me on 2 May.

Miranda Devine also commented on the issue in The Daily Telegraph saying; "Companies which refuse to hire token women and discriminate against men would risk losing lucrative government contracts, under the proposal from Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins, who obviously has too much time on her hands."

So what was all the fuss about?

Well it transpires that AHRI has recommended to a Senate Inquiry into "Gender segregation in the workplace and its impact on women's economic equality" that the Commonwealth Government should develop and commit to a strategy for becoming a model ‘industry’ in reducing gender segregation:
  • as an employer (roles and occupations, management levels, flexibility, parental leave arrangements/inducements for men etc)
  • in policy and program design/development, and
  • when contracting (impose contractual terms requiring demonstrated efforts to improve gender balance to 40-40-20 in organisations engaged by Government)
Fairly mild one would have thought and in line with how the Government's Workplace Gender Equality Agency suggests gender balanced workplaces need to look. It is also in line with the targets set in recent years by many listed and private companies in relation to gender composition in the workplace. It also does mention mandatory quotas at all, rather suggesting that when procuring services using taxpayer funds, the Government look to using its influence to improve culture and practices in the private sector when it comes to the employment of women.

Why then, do commentators immediately assume this is a gender quota, and why are they so hot under the collar about the matter?

It seems to touch a nerve that few other issues do - and not just with men. There remains in many women the "myth of merit" - ie that all appointments of people and organisations - is somehow made on this objective set of criteria that ensures that 'the most meritorius' will be succeessful. What this ignores is that merit is impacted by biases we all have and judged very much in 'the eyes of the beholder' or on the assumption that all parts of the process were equal at each step. In other words, if no women applied, then clearly none were suited to, or wanted, the position. Yes as we know from research and the evidence of many women, the lack of female applicants for roles it a far more nuanced and complex matter. 

To finish, I have always admired the pragmatism of the Norwegians in relation to the way in which they went about ensuring that 40 per cent of the under-represented gender was represented on the boards of all listed companies - the oft-mentioned 'quota-law.' Many do not realise does not specifically relate to women, but to men and women. Do I support this approach in Australia? As I told Tom Elliott, who just wanted me to say 'yes or no' to gender quotas, the issue is not black and white and cannot be determined as such. Quotas for people with specific attributes, including disability, Aboriginality and regionality, already exist for Australian Government boards and committees. The Federal Government, and all states except NSW and Tasmania, also have publically stated targets of 50% female members for boards and committees. So the introduction of quotas for Government boards and committees would reflect prevailing attitudes and commit future Governments to mainstreaming gender equality and increasing awareness that gender balance builds social, economic and political cohesion.

Would it work for the listed sector? Quotas for ASX200 boards could be introduced tomorrow with little difficulty given the small number of positions that would be required to be filled. Quotas for the entire ASX (some 2500+ companies) many be more difficult to mandate. Regulated sectors such as financial services could cope with quotas, but the Not-For-Profit sector would struggle. So as in many things, there is no one solution to fit all. 

To quota or not to quota remains an ongoing, and rather over-simplified debate. One that the former Prime Minister seems keen to exploit to the listeners of Ray Hadley's program, but sadly not to progress the issues of reducing gender inequity in Australia.
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