The problem with quotas


The issue of parliamentary ‘quotas’ for women resurfaced over the weekend at the Australian Labor Party’s national conference.

The ALP, in what is being described as an “historic step”, has pledged to ensure that women hold 50 per cent of positions at “all levels of the party organisation” by 2025.

This call for female quotas in parliament and on company boards has been pressed persistently for over 20 years. Added to these calls for parliamentary and boardroom quotas in more recent years has been the push to allow female soldiers to serve in the front line of Australia’s military.

Advocates for quotasJulia Gillard, former Prime Minister of Australia with Dilma Rousseff, President of Brazil. presume there is still deep seated sexism which prevents women from attaining high office. While this was true in the past, it no longer appears convincing. There are now women serving on the boards, and heading up some of Australia’s top companies. And only a couple of years ago Australia’s prime minister, governor general and attorney general were simultaneously women. The glass ceiling not only no longer exists, it has be smashed to smithereens.

Now, I regard myself as a fairly traditional male. And as a voter, I want the best political candidates to be available and to serve our nation, whether male or female. Likewise, in the companies in which I own shares, I want the best people running them. Of course, we all know that companies really only care about profits (I make this remark only partly in jest) – so to overlook women as candidates for top jobs would undermine the primary objective of the business and its self interest – not something that companies are generally in the business of doing.

And there’s the rub: Companies are in the business of making money for their shareholders.

Members of parliaments are in the business of representing their constituents.

The military is in the business of defending our nation.

It is appropriate and necessary to remove barriers to women (or any potential candidate for that matter) in serving in high office. To refuse to consider the best candidate is plain stupid, and is an exercise in futility.

But to enforce quotas risks changing the focus, and override the purpose of government, business and the military.

The purpose of the military, which ought to be to best defend our nation risks being usurped by someone’s ‘right’ to serve in a commando unit, or the need to provide gender balance, and I have heard people speak in such a way.

Likewise, the purposes of our parliamentary democracy and of  businesses risk being usurped by other objectives. Our parliaments and businesses need to keep their focus on their primary objectives. That is why women should not be held back from service and offering their talents.

But the danger of quotas is that it places the need for a quota above the main purpose of our institutions, and turns women’s participation into a token and a commodity.