26 March, 2014

Gender Quotas: Important Opportunity for Women, or Discrimination Against Men?

I heard something on the radio a few days ago that caught my attention: it was a short news report about the soon-to-be-mandated gender quota (or Frauenquote, literal translation "woman quota") for superadvisory board positions in major German companies. This quota has been a topic of major discussion within the government since the elections last year, and has been a source of controversy for even longer.

A gender quota for elected government positions already exists in Germany and has existed since the 1990s. A gender quota for elected politicians is possible in Germany because votes are not cast for a person but for a party. The quota exists at the party level, so the quota is dependent on the party, not the voters, for enforcement. The United States, by contrast, has no gender quota for political positions at any level, and you can see the difference this makes: In Germany, women make up 27.5% of Senate seats and 36.5% of House seats, and in the United States women make up 20% of Senate seats and just 18.3% of House seats (source: http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/classif.htm).

The new gender quota being discussed these days, however, is not for government; it is for private businesses. The proposed law, which will come into effect in 2016, requires companies that are publicly traded in Germany (meaning if they sell publicly available stock) to reserve 30% of open positions on supervisory boards for women. If the company does not meet the quota and cannot find a qualified woman to take the open position, then the position must remain open. This does NOT require an overall 30% quota for the entire company, nor even a 30% quota for all management positions. It simply effects supervisory boards. (Since I'm not a business person I have only a vague idea of what that means, but the important thing to keep in mind is that this is not a very far-reaching or invasive quota. More info here: www.spiegel.de)

Critics are of course howling that this is a horrible invasion into private business, that it prevents the most qualified people from getting promoted, and that it discriminates against men. They argue that a business has a right to appoint and/or promote whoever it chooses, and that requiring a quota will mean that unqualified women will be promoted to positions they shouldn't have. But the fact is, big business, like much else in the world, is still a boys' club, and if men have no incentive (or requirement) to hire and promote women, the evidence has shown that they won't. How else do you explain the fact that women are more educated than ever before and are graduating from college at higher rates than men (at least in the United States at the undergraduate level), but still make up a dismally poor percentage of most high-level corporate and government bodies? There are plenty of qualified women who are capable of doing high-level jobs, and they routinely get passed up in favor of similarly qualified men. This law doesn't mean that men will never get promoted again. It just opens the door for qualified women who might otherwise be overlooked.

There are in fact already some companies in Germany that currently meet this quota. However, there are many that do not, and many that do not have a single woman on their supervisory boards:
On the left are companies that don't meet the quota and have the farthest to go to reach it. On the right are companies that already do. Blue is the number of men, pink is current number of women, and red is how many women are required to meet the quota.

This new law is just one example of how Germany has made great strides to promote gender equality in all aspects of society. Germany has outstanding maternity/paternity leave laws which allow mothers and fathers to have paid time off after the birth of a child. Even after the period of required paid leave is over (14 weeks at 100% pay for the mother, 6 of which can be taken before birth, and another year at partial pay for both parents), either parent can take more time off and has a guarantee to return to their previous position until the child turns three (source: Wikipedia). Parents are also eligible to receive money from the government, known as Kindergeld ("child money"), regardless of their current income (I believe this money can be received until the child is 18). These incentives for parents significantly reduce the strain of having a child and allow both parents to balance work and family. In the United States, where these programs don't exist, having a child can be huge strain, especially on mothers, who often have to leave their jobs/are fired when they want to take maternity leave or have to return to work just a few days or weeks after giving birth.

In general, Germany is a much better place to be a woman than many other places in the world, including the United States. Instead of simply having vague non-discrimination legislation, Germany implements specific programs and laws that promote women's access to government, business, and a reasonable work-family balance. While many will argue that quotas are not the best way to achieve full equality, implementing a quota is far better than sitting by and doing nothing. Inaction creates an atmosphere of indifference and acceptance of the status quo, and something like a quota that shakes that up can only have good results. A 30% quota in one sector of business will certainly not solve the problem of gender discrimination overnight, but it's a step in the right direction. It will allow more women into higher positions, which will then make their presence in those positions more normal and expected. When people become accustomed to women at all levels of business and government and truly begin to recognize their contributions, then the quotas won't be needed anymore.


  1. I agree that maternity leave in the US is not up to standards. I won't go into that topic because you've heard me rant about it before.

    About the quotas--I agree that its useful for getting women into high positions, and that once people get used to seeing them there the quotas will no longer b necessary. My only worry is that, at least for a time, there will be unqualified women hired just to meet the quota. It may be a necessary evil, though--perhaps some women will be hired that don't really deserve it, but in the end if it makes the site of women in high positions commonplace, then perhaps it's worth it. On the other hand, if incompetent women get hired just to fill the quota, then instead of male colleges seeing it as an individual weakness they will make it based on sex, and then overall the image of women in the workplace will be degraded, not strengthened.

    1. Holy COW this comment has so many errors. "Site," really?! You would never know I majored in English.

      Does the fact that I woke up at 5:30 this morning excuse it? Maybe not.

    2. I think the fear that you expressed of not finding qualified women to fill open positions could possibly be very real. However, there ARE qualified women for every position somewhere, and I think if the company is having trouble finding candidates it means they need to broaden their search and step up their recruiting practices. These women exist, companies just need to seek them out.

      Also, I didn't even notice the mistakes. I distinguished the fact that you used the word "site" but I thought you must be using the word on purpose, albeit in a slightly creative way ;)

  2. Everyone receives Kindergeld until the child turns 25 ;) my brother is currently lamenting that loss at his birthday :D great article! Though the quota is not ideal, it does give me more hope for my career ;D (go women yaay) greetings Steffi Ring

    1. Thanks for reading and commenting! :) I agree, it's not an ideal solution but it gives me hope for me and for other women out there.