Gender Quotas Can Work But it Depends on How Employees Feel About Them
Edwin Ip, 10 Aug 17

Healthcare workers tend to think that women are better than men at the job and that there is a bias in favour of women. Julian Smith/AAP

If you think your boss is in her position only because of a gender quota and not because of merit, it could affect the work you do for her.

Gender quotas may be effective in fixing an imbalance of men and women in the workplace but whether they are good or bad for organisations depends on how people feel about them, our study shows.

Gender quotas are controversial. Opponents of gender quotas have long argued that they are unfair because it often means the best candidates do not get the positions they deserve.

Proponents of gender quotas often argue that, among other reasons, women have to go the extra mile in order to get the same recognition because of various disadvantages such as discrimination and societal pressure. As a result, gender quotas are required to correct for such unfair disadvantages.

Both of these arguments revolve around the idea of whether the best person gets the job. However, whether gender quotas reward those who are talented actually depends on the perception of the labour market environment, which depends on the profession.

We surveyed 1,011 respondents in the US and asked them whether they agreed with the use of gender quotas to reserve leadership positions for women. Without providing any context, opinions were divided - roughly the same number of people agreed and disagreed with the use of quotas.

However, when we provided some context about the labour market environments, there was a lot more consensus. When told that there was a gender skill gap (where women are on average worse than men at a certain job), only around 20% of the respondents agreed with the use of quotas.

When told that there was no skill gap, close to 30% of the respondents agreed with the use of quotas. However, when told that there was a bias against women in the selection process, more than 70% of the respondents agreed with the use of quotas.

We found that whether gender quotas are good or bad for an organisation’s performance is reflected in these attitudes towards gender quotas. If gender quotas are applied in industries where women are thought to be discriminated against, they can enhance the productivity of managers and workers. However, if they are applied in industries where discrimination against women is thought not to be a problem, then the organisation’s performance can deteriorate significantly.

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