Dr Jackie Blue: Ensuring gender equality through quotas

Dr Jackie Blue: Ensuring gender equality through quotas

October 23, 2018

Why are we New Zealanders so terrified of special measures or positive discrimination when we so often turn a blind eye to negative discrimination?

The Ministers for Women and State Services want the public service to lead in gender equality in the hope it will inspire the private sector to lift its game. And the Minister for Women warns that if the pace of change in the sector does not rise, she may consider intervention.

The fact is ministers will not have to intervene to reach 50 per cent women on state boards and in senior management. It is happening through natural attrition and retirements without major tweaking.

That does not hold true for the private sector, where progress is abysmal. The number of women in senior leadership there is declining and stands at 18 per cent. Women account for only 19 per cent of board directors of NZX-listed companies. It will be 20 years before we reach gender equality on boards.

The United Nations has urged the Government to use temporary special measures to address the inequities of women in the labour market and on boards. That may include quotas.

The target versus quota argument is polarising, and as such, it is important to look at the terminology used.

Targets are aspirational goals, not requirements. Quotas are mandated outcomes. Special measures, affirmative action, and positive discrimination are taken to ensure a discriminated-against or under-represented group attains equality. Temporary special measures (TSMs) can be lifted once equality is reached and has been sustained for a period.

TSMs can include legislation or regulation, outreach or support programmes, reallocation of resources, preferential treatment, targeted recruitment, numerical goals connected with timeframes, and quota systems.

Governments frequently use TSMs to ensure marginalised groups are supported. We have had reserved Pasifika and Māori seats in our medical schools for decades. Measures to get more women into the police or Māori women to sign up to BreastScreen Aotearoa could be considered special measures.

So special measures should not be seen as discrimination but as a way of realising equality for everyone.

For many, just using the word "quotas" is emotive and a step too far. But they must be part of the armoury, even if only the last resort. We can be reassured that in Nordic and European countries which have legislated for quotas, life has continued without society unravelling.

Comments that a quota will "bring in inferior women" and "positions need to be merit-based" raise the question of whose definition of merit is being used? These criticisms also ignore the biases women face climbing the ladder to senior decision-making positions. The women who say it would be demeaning for them to be appointed through a quota are missing an important point.

Quotas aren't introducing unfairness into the system. The system is already unfair. It's not a level playing field for most women and this is particularly true for Māori, Pacific, ethnic minority, disabled people, trans and non-binary women.

The issue is about structural change and tackling bias. Women drop out of leadership roles when they have children. They pay a high price in pay and careers.

To avoid regulation, the private sector should be analysing employment metrics to work out where the roadblocks are and act. Areas to focus on include unconscious bias, career breaks, family-friendly work policies and pay transparency.

To achieve equality, it will be necessary to treat discriminated people differently otherwise existing behaviours and inequities are perpetuated.

This was originally published in the NZ Herald.