So you think you were hired on merit? Gender quotas and the perception gap

‘So, I guess you support gender quotas too, then?’

I’m sure I’ll have to fend off heaps of pantsuit accusations for writing this post, but a colleague asked, and I’m not going to turn down the chance to explain why yes, indeed, I do support gender quotas.

I think the thing that makes gender quotas hard for some liberals to stomach is that, in contrast to issues like bodily autonomy and ending violence against women, they don’t seem quite as immediately right and fair. If equality is what we want, surely we should be treating everyone equally?

Cue that illustration that’s been doing the rounds lately, explaining how the word ‘equality’ can in and of itself be a tad problematic: if social justice is what we’re after, giving each and every one ‘equal’ treatment won’t get us very far, because we’re all born in very different and in fact unequal circumstances. Instead, we should be focusing on equal opportunity, and to provide that we’re going to have to rely on all kinds of different support systems – including breaking down a whole horde of barriers preventing us from building a truly just society.

Equality, equity, justice

I do find it funny how many people look around, shake their heads at the thought of gender quotas and say that, no, we can’t do that because nothing is fairer than merit. We have offices and boardrooms full to the brim of straight, white, middle or upper class men, and yet people talk about merit. Even in environments traditionally dominated by women, we see a load of men at the helm – and they keep talking about merit. What these people are really saying is this: men are simply better at all this stuff. They think all these men have got where they are just because they worked hard.

I hate to burst that bubble (OK, I don’t). Not the one about hard work, that is; I’m sure they all had top marks in school and studied very hard and are paying off a load of student loans and have taken their career oh so very seriously. It’s just a bit smug to think it’s that simple.

Let’s talk about objectivity and non-partisanship. Because of what the world looks like, and because of how women’s experiences are routinely silenced and invisibilised, we have developed a skewed perception of gender equality. As the Geena Davis Institute for Gender in Media found, crowd scenes on screen tend to be made up of about 17% women – and we’ve gotten used to it as the new (old?) normal. Men experiencing said crowd in a room tend to estimate that it consists of about 50/50 men and women. Increase the number of women to 33% and men will say that there are more women than men.

Sady Doyle writes in In These Times that:

“… men “consistently perceive more gender parity” in their workplaces than women do. For example, when asked whether their workplaces recruited the same number of men and women, 72 percent of male managers answered “yes.” Only 42 percent of female managers agreed. And, while there’s a persistent stereotype that women are the more talkative gender, women actually tend to talk less than men in classroom discussions, professional contexts and even romantic relationships; one study found that a mixed-gender group needed to be between 60 and 80 percent female before women and men occupied equal time in the conversation. However, the stereotype would seem to have its roots in that same perception gap: “[In] seminars and debates, when women and men are deliberately given an equal amount of the highly valued talking time, there is often a perception that [women] are getting more than their fair share.”

Our perception is so severely twisted we wouldn’t know merit if it slapped us in the face. Since we perceive women and men differently, we can’t hold them to the same standards, no matter how hard we try. The job description might be the same, but what does ‘forthright’ mean and how do we perceive it in a woman and a man respectively? If we expect of a candidate to demonstrate leadership qualities, can we be sure we won’t find one of them ‘bossy’? You think one candidate talks too much – but does she really? I’m not sure we even know what objectivity and non-partisanship look like anymore. TV3 sure doesn’t, and neither does Newstalk. Academia? Nope.

More explicitly HR-related research is unequivocal, too: so-called ‘resume whitening’ at least doubles job applicants’ chances of being called for an interview, while women are consistently ranked as weaker candidates than men with identical CVs. In addition to such ‘latent biases’ in regards to gender, there’s a cultural bias as people tend to employ candidates they can relate to and understand – future buddies, basically. At the extreme end, we tend to hire people who remind us of ourselves.

Too long; didn’t read: lads hire lads, and male-dominated boards won’t change because women get more qualified and ‘lean in’.

With gender quotas, at best, we get a few women into positions of hiring power, and we start to see change as they begin to hire people who are more or less like themselves and girls grow up to see people other than duplicates of their grandads in positions of power. At worst, these women too carry the biases so ingrained in society and media narratives, for instance in the form of internalised misogyny, that this simply isn’t enough.

A reactionary drop in the ocean? Sure. Gender quotas won’t smash the patriarchy, nor will they undo capitalism. Here’s what else they won’t do: address the injustice.

Back to the illustration. Gender quotas are in the middle, a far-from-perfect image number two, propping up a broken system by making its flaws less ugly, but surviving it – sometimes marginally, other times beautifully. And I don’t like it either. I don’t like hiring by numbers, I don’t like box ticking, and I don’t like focusing on those who have already done so well that they can even begin to think about what that glass ceiling looks like. But until we remove the systemic barrier that is all of the above, all the patriarchal indoctrination and the new normal, it is better than nothing, better than the status quo.

Nobody wants to need those supports – or, as the anti-quotas camp likes to put it, no one wants to be hired because they tick the quota box. But by the same token, I don’t think anyone wants to be hired based on a skewed perception of what they are, or what their competition is not.

What’s that, you’re sure you were hired on merit alone? Really?