• People are often opposed to quotas, favouring a meritoracy - but which "merit" has the best merits?
People often shun arguments for affirmative action in favour of a meritocracy - but which merits have the best merits, asks Yassmin Abdel-Magied.
By
Yassmin Abdel-Magied

25 Sep 2013 - 8:07 AM  UPDATED 25 Sep 2013 - 9:42 AM

Since the announcement of Prime Minister Tony Abbott's one-woman cabinet, the discussion around quotas and representation of women in levels of influence has been rekindled with passion.  Both sides of the debate have defended their position with vehement enthusiasm.

"Oh, I am all for equal and fair representation of women - but quotas? No, I want women based on merit", is the most common argument.

Women themselves - even those who would be in a position to benefit - seem particularly sensitised to this argument. They'll shy away from being given an 'unfair advantage' or reject it outright, presumably in the belief that to do otherwise would be to affect their perceived legitimacy. 

Liberal MP Bronwyn Bishop is a strong opponent of quotas. ''I never want to see affirmative action - that is, you got the job because you were a woman - because that makes you a permanent second-class citizen,'' she says. Her fellow Member of Parliament, Julie Bishop, shares this sentiment.  

The discussion around targets, quotas or affirmative action is extremely polarising, yet the underlying question seems to be unclear. What exactly is it that we are trying to achieve - and why? If quotas are not the answer, what is?

If "more women in leadership positions" is the overall aim, then the data from around the world proves that the concept of affirmative action appears to be working.

Norway is touted as the classic global example, having introduced a mandatory quota for women on boards in 2002 and passed by the Norwegian parliament in 2003. In this Scandinavian nation, the percentage of women on boards did in fact increase from 9% in 2003 to 39% in 2009. The first study on the effects of the quota was undertaken by the Norwegian Institute for Social Research and the results reinforced the benefit of affirmative action on the 'bigger picture'.  It was reported that the majority of directors surveyed indicated that more women on the board led to new perspectives and more issues being added to the board agenda.  A seeming win-win situation, right?

But if the aim is about promoting those with this intangible and extremely subjective criteria of 'merit' - well, perhaps our society's entire process of promotion needs an overhaul! For example, it would be inconceivable for a regional representative or a youth representative to refuse a position solely because they were selected on the basis of location or age.  

In pure numbers, the Australian Bureau of Statistics reported that women have the edge on their male counterparts in Bachelor degrees and higher qualifications.  27 per cent of women compared to 24 per cent of men hold these type of tertiary degrees.  If we are looking at entry requirements for merit, wouldn't these numbers reflect an even - or even female oriented - outcome?  Understandably, leadership positions aren't just based on degrees. Industry and management experience and networks play a significant role, as well as the fact that often women take time off work to raise families.  But if we are talking about 'merit', qualifications are surely an indicator.  

If society functions by promoting, hiring and being led by the best, why do all our 'best' look so similar at the top - but things work so differently at the bottom? The difference between entry points is striking.

The Australian Financial Review's 100 Women of Influence, for example, is a list of some of the most inspiring ladies around the country. Yet the significant contribution and capacity of women doesn't seem to leave the  impression that it should. Whether this is because we, as females are predisposed to more nurturing roles, or whether this is because people hire and promote those who are like them is up for debate - but it remains a thorn in our sides.

Jane Caro asks some of these questions in a timely piece, where she also highlights that the idea of quotas and targets are not new and they continue to be utilised for a variety of representations.  It would be inconceivable for a regional representative or a youth representative for example, to refuse a position solely because they were selected on the basis of location or age.

Why is gender different? What makes us all so uncomfortable with forced structural change around gender?  I struggle to understand the deep seated resentment against the idea.  Is there a sense of illegitimacy if a woman feels like she is only there to 'fill in a quota' and if so, where does that sense of illegitimacy come from?  

I am not a social engineer and don't have the answer.  I am simply a 22-year-old who wonders: is inducing change to have women around the cabinet table and in the boardroom the best way to achieve our collective desired outcome?  Quite possibly yes - if the aim is for our leadership and the pipelines to these positions to be fair, equitable and representative. 

By equity and fairness, I mean that the characteristic of gender is not an obstacle to being considered, and that a woman's capacity is readily identifable. Of course, removing unconscious bias is easier said than done.  By representative, I mean that our leadership reflects the makeup of those being led.  Given a majority of our population is women, a largely male dominated leadership is not really representative at all.    

One thing is for sure : affirmative action makes the talents of women more visible.  It is a mechanism to force people to look outside the usual traps for talent, and that is what gives the concept potential.

Philosophically, we might not feel comfortable with it - but if the aim is to have our leadership as diverse as our population, perhaps the end justifies the means.

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is the Founder of Youth Without Borders.   A blogger and essayist, she currently works on oil and gas rigs around the country.

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