“A rocket up the patriarchy's arse”: why female-only quotas are vital if we want to achieve gender equality

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett
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Ask A Feminist is Stylist.co.uk's weekly column tackling issues on feminism, sexism and womanhood in a real-life, 21st Century context. This week, journalist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett tackles one of the most divisive topics of the moment - the question of female-only quotas - and explains why they are needed in order to progress to a completely equal society.

This week's question:

'“With the launch of the new political movement, the Women's Equality party, there has been a lot of talk around the subject of female-only quotas. But what does this actually mean? It sounds a lot like positive discrimination - do we need these quotas, or are there alternatives?”

Feminist Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett says:

My boyfriend and I argue about it all the time, so I’m pleased to have been asked this. Next time the topic of female quotas comes up I can simply wave this article in front of his face instead of shouting quite so much in the kitchen.

Female-only quotas are exactly what they sound like – the insistence, usually as a matter of legal policy, on a fixed number of women being there, in charge, at the top of their professional industries. These quotas are most frequently called-for in politics, business, law, the media and STEM jobs – male-dominated industries, in other words, where women are as rare as hairy-nosed wombats.

The problem, of course, with women being as rare as hairy-nosed wombats in certain industries is that, far from being a teeny-tiny specialist minority, we are more than half of the population.

Anyone with any sense – some very angry blokes on the internet obviously excluded– will agree that women are just as competent, intelligent and talented as men, yet this is very rarely reflected in professional life, particularly not beyond the glass ceiling in the gold-plated, soft-carpeted executive penthouses in which the capitalist overlords of my imagination hang out.

As ever, men run the show. Women, meanwhile, are always being told that eventually the culture will change and things will even out, but if you’re aware of feminist history you’ll no doubt know that women have been waiting a very long time, hundreds if not thousands of years, in fact, for this change to happen. And it hasn’t.

Of course, I’m not saying that all men in the workplace are engaged in some chauvinistic conspiracy to keep women from the top, but there are unconscious biases at play which maintain the status quo just as much as institutional sexism does.

People who often hire in their own image, for instance, will underestimate women’s skills, or stick to their own small networks. When pioneering, go-getting women do make it to the top, they can be left isolated, or, in the belief that their success proves that there is no inequality or prejudice in operation, will pull the ladder up after them. Thus the sausage-fest continues.

So one of the arguments for quotas is that they help jig things along a bit (then, when things have fully evened out, you can then get rid of them). Quotas are a rocket up the patriarchy’s arse, if you will. Without that rocket, I suspect we all might be waiting a very long time for equal representation in certain industries. So long, it seems, that we will have rotted in our graves by the time it comes about. But no matter; if things pick up a bit progress-wise, our future great-granddaughters might just be in with a shout.

Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption caused consternation along these lines recently when he said that there was no need for female-quotas in the judiciary, despite the fact that only one in 12 supreme court justices is a woman, and Sumption estimates it would take 50 years for women to achieve equality with men on a senior level. Female lawyers, he said, would just have to be “patient” because otherwise male candidates might feel that “the odds were stacked against them.”

Your heart just bleeds, doesn’t it? How difficult that would be for these men, even after years of the odds being stacked in their favour. Much better to make the current crop of female barristers wait half a century.

One of the main arguments about quotas – and indeed, one my boyfriend deploys with maddening regularity – is that they are unfair. Surely, people ask, the best and most skilled candidate for the job should be given that job, regardless of gender? That, of course, would be what happened if we inhabited a meritocracy.

But we don’t live in a meritocracy, as evidenced by the fact that you look at any sphere of influence and there are men everywhere, usually dining on grouse and using poor people as footstools, and not that many women at all, apart from in the strip clubs that the men are visiting after their grouse feasts.

Indeed, if you can look at these spheres of influence, say, parliament (29.4% women) and respond by nodding your head and concluding that, yes, “that looks like a meritocracy to me”, then I’m going to have to break it to you: you’re a sexist.

Opponents of female-only quotas are worried that if you instigate them you’ll end up with rubbish, useless people (probably women) who are in no way qualified to do the jobs they have been given. These people ignore the fact that many positions of power are already occupied by rubbish, useless people who are in no way qualified to do their jobs.

Furthermore, quotas have been shown to work in other countries, such as France. In 2011, a law was passed that forced big companies to make sure they had 20% female directors in 2014, rising to 40% in 2017. According to the FT, in 2014, the boards of the 40 largest companies in France were 30.3% women. None of these companies collapsed or went under due to the sudden influx of oestrogen, either.

As you can probably tell, I am fully in favour of quotas, because I believe that, without radical action, nothing will change. But here’s an interesting and slightly different way of thinking about them: instead of asking “why are there so few women at the top?” why not ask: “why are there so many men?” This was a point raised by a recent LSE study into gender quotas, which said: “the burden of the argument should now shift from the under-representation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men.” In other words, perhaps it’s actually the men who need the quotas.

Send your feminist dilemmas to stories@stylist.co.uk and we'll get one of our brilliant panel of feminists to cast a discerning eye on the issue at hand.  

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Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett