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18 September 2015updated 12 Oct 2023 9:47am

Diversity quotas are meritocracy in action

For centuries, there was a quota for the representation of men in politics. It was 100 per cent.

By Laurie Penny

What we measure reveals what we value. Right now, in business and politics, there’s a movement to measure and promote women’s participation – and an equally energetic movement against it. Much has been made of the new Labour shadow cabinet, which, for the first time in history, is over 50 per cent women. Celebration has been met with outrage: all of these diversity hires must surely be diluting the quality of the work being done. Why not just appoint the best people for the job?

The British Parliament is overwhelmingly male, and it always has been – but every time an argument is made for actively promoting women’s representation, much less instituting any sort of quota system, the backlash is instant and vicious. The same thing happens wherever women and people of colour begin to take power and achieve recognition in larger numbers – from the boards of major companies to the winners of prestigious literary prizes. From fiction to finance, people with a vested interest in the status quo are fighting against diversity. 

Here’s what people say whenever you make a case for gender quotas: it should always be about getting “the best person for the job”. Aren’t you worried about people being promoted just because of who they are, not what they can do? Isn’t it that discrimination? Isn’t it unfair? The answer to that is: of course it’s unfair. It’s extremely unfair. I’m categorically against people being parachuted into positions of power and influence just because of their gender or the colour of their skin. It’s a social disease. It stops us making full use of our collective capabilities. And that’s precisely why we need “diversity hires”. That’s precisely why we need quotas.

In this society, plenty of people are promoted just because of their gender and race. Almost all of those people are white men. What, you think all those Bullingdon boys in government got there by their wits alone? You think the men who make up 81 per cent of the US House of Representatives did not benefit from centuries of racism and sexism, from the promotion of men and white people at the expense of absolutely everyone else? 

And yet, across the board, it is women and people of colour who are accused of using their race and gender to get ahead. Let me break it down for you: David Cameron has used his race and gender to get ahead. Donald Trump has used his race and gender to get ahead. So, now we come to it, has Jeremy Corbyn. All of these men may be great at their jobs – but it doesn’t hurt that every time they take the stage, they personify the image of power that still dominates the political imagination in the west and beyond. We would do well to recall that for centuries, there was a quota for representation of men in politics and the press, sometimes legally enforced, sometimes so universally accepted that it didn’t have to be codified in law. The quota was 100 per cent. 

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We’re doing better these days, but change isn’t coming fast enough. It should not have taken Britain eight decades to appoint the first shadow cabinet that is not majority male. It should not have taken four generations since the first British women gained the vote in 1918 to achieve 30 per cent representation for women in parliament. Hannah Jewell at Buzzfeed estimates that at this rate, getting to equality would take another 22 elections – or 110 years. 

Many explanations have been put forward for why women aren’t achieving equality in practice when we have it on paper. But the reason that makes most logical sense is the one nobody wants to talk about. It’s simple prejudice. Simple sexism. Sometimes overt, sometimes backhanded – women of childbearing age are still seen as a “maternity risk” by recruiters, as opposed to men, who it is assumed will be able to have a family without damaging their performance at work. Women make up over 50 per cent of graduates, and tend to match or outperform men in any test where intellect and aptitude are the only measures of success – school examinations, for example. But whenever large numbers of men are involved in the hiring or selection process, women fall behind. Sexism is standing in the way of social change – and quotas are the only proven way to speed the progress of equality. 

Time and again, however, we are told that quotas themselves are the worst form of prejudice – that they might prevent “the best people for the job” from being hired. Let’s stop right there. Let’s unpack that assumption. What are you saying when you tell me that a political outfit, for example, that made a point of hiring 50 per cent women, would not be getting “the best people for the job”?

You’re saying that the best people for the job aren’t women. 

I repeat: if you think that a truly meritocratic society would not be one in which men and women were equally represented, from politics to pop culture, what you’re saying is that men are fundamentally better than women. That might be hard to hear, but we can only confront a thing by naming it honestly. And the fact is that if you truly believe in meritocracy, you must also believe in diversity – any other position is prejudice of the most insidious sort.

The opposition to full equality runs deep. Patriarchy can cope with the notion of a few women in top positions – but not 50 per cent, or anything approaching it. That would mean that women would no longer be a special interest in politics and finance – we would have real power, and men would be obliged to share it with us. When culture reserves only a few places for women in a world of men, women are forced to compete against each other for that smaller space. I vividly remember being told that there was no more room for another young woman at one media organisation that I won’t name – after all, they already had one. 

The more women there are in the room, the less we’ll fighting each other for crumbs, but competing with everyone in the room for a fair share of the whole cake. There’ll still be enough cake to go around – but try telling that to an angry toddler on his birthday, drunk on sugar and attention.

The backlash to the mere suggestion of a quota system is strong even when mutual interests are at stake. The notion, for example, that corporations pay financial penalties for hiring too few women was rejected by British businesses – but that notion is almost redundant, because they already do per a penalty. Study after study has shown that firms with more diverse management perform better and deliver bigger profits for their shareholders. In four centuries of exploitation, corporations have been prepared to do anything to protect their bottom line- anything except break up the boys’ club.

The truth is that equality is really scary. The truth is that promoting more women in parliament, on prestigious panels, in the pages of print magazines – anywhere in culture where the number of positions is finite – ultimately means promoting fewer men. There’s no getting around it. This is the part of feminism that actively requires men to give up the special privileges they have enjoyed for centuries in the name of equality and of excellence. It means that men and boys will have to work harder and be better – at least as good as the women going for the same roles. I can understand why that’s a challenging idea. Building a career in politics or the media already feels like the Hunger Games – and who wants to suddenly be competing against a whole new phalanx of contenders who have been honing their skills in adversity, who are hungrier and more determined than you because they’ve had to be.

When accusations of prejudice fall flat, small-c conservatives start in on the concern-trolling. Of course we all want better representation for women, they say, but might that not hurt women’s self-esteem? Might it not be, as Peggy Drexler writes at the Daily Beast, that “women whose hard work earns them professional success [find their] achievements are downplayed in the shadow of enforced quotas”?

It’s funny that the only time conservatives concern themselves with women’s self esteem is when they’re trying to take hamper our progress, rather than, say, give us more power, money and influence, all of which, I hear, can be great confidence boosters. Shall we ask all those Olivers and Marcuses who got their City internships through friends of their father how their self-esteem is doing? I imagine they’re doing just fine.

Women are always asked to consider what men will think of us before we take any step towards freedom and justice – but that’s no way to get ahead. Even with greater diversity at work and in politics, society will find a way to undermine women in the workplace; but the more women there are the harder they’ll have to work at it – as well as everything else.

Ultimately, I suspect that it’s not women who need to be worried that their mediocrity might be exposed. It’s not women, after all, who have been over-promoted for centuries. We have been comfortable for generations with mediocre people drifting into positions of influence and power, as long as those mediocre people happen to be white, wealthy and male. Don’t get me wrong: I’ve met a great many white men in media and politics who are stunningly good at their jobs. But they don’t always have to be in order to make rent. And that’s the difference.

In an ideal world, quotas would not be necessary. In an ideal world, a true meritocracy, the most talented people would be put forward, and that would automatically mean diversity. But quotas may be the only way of achieving, eventually, a world where quotas are obsolete. 

We need diversity, and we need it now. We need the best brains and the best hearts in positions of influence to steer us through what may be the most challenging chapter in the long story of the human race. And the fact is that for thousands of years, the potential of at least half of the humanity, at every level of society has been battered by bigotry, squandered on obligatory pregnancy and domestic labour, ground down by violence. We have lost so much, as a society and as a species, by not putting women forward. It’s time to make up for what we’ve lost. It’s time for equality – by any means necessary. It’s not just about fairness. It’s about survival.

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This article appears in the 16 Sep 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War