As a co-founder of a Gender Equality Research Institute I rarely enter a discussion on gender equality in politics, business or science without being asked this one specific question: “So Nina, what do you think about the quotas?” It has happened to me while talking politics with friends over drinks in San Francisco, at the academic conference in Slovenia, in Delirium bar in Brussels, while sitting on a bus with colleagues in Beijing, I was asked this question times again over social media and various Facebook groups. The conversation is obviously globalised – it is happening all over the world and so many knowledgeable and well-informed people of all genders, races, religions and political views participate in it actively every-so-often.


The most current and sizzling issue is the so-called “boardroom” gender quotas – quotas for top executives in board positions in the private sector. One of the most compelling arguments that I picked up from an IT expert and have adopted as well (and in which I believe in) is: we regulate every sector that needs regulation. We regulate every sector in which the modifications need to be made for reaching a goal of establishing a society in which we will all be better off.


We are concerned about the environment – we have created a set of rules to which both public and private sector have to adhere to. Do you want a multinational polluting your city with its wastewater? You don’t. We wanted to protect the rights of the workers working for a dishonourable paycheck – we have created minimum wage requirements. Do you usually take side with the companies that do not treat their workers fairly? You don’t. We see that gender inequality in the executive positions is a persistent problem – we have done nothing. At least most of us – with the exception of some countries such as Belgium, France, Germany, Iceland, India, Israel, Italy, Norway and Spain, which currently have legislated quotas for women on corporate boards of publicly listed companies.


My first question to this argument was: “but, but, how do we make sure that people get their positions for their capabilities and not due to their gender?” The reality is that gender quotas discussion offend our sense of meritocracy. We feel that women or men installed in the position will not be seen as legitimate. Or worse, see themselves as legitimate. Recently I talked with two young lawyers and one of them said: “I don’t want to get to the position only due to the quota”. Trusting this rhetorical argument, some people – notably some very successful women! – refuse any quotas for women or men in leadership positions. But here is the thing: she would not get to the position only due to the quota. When you think about it properly and in-depth – do we live in a meritocratic society?


It is commonly believed that markets are efficient – the most talented workers would be naturally promoted to leadership positions. Unconscious bias should not exist. However, reality points out that the labour market is not so efficient and especially business owners should know this very well. Research has established that gender bias is among those biases built into many organizational systems and human decision-making processes. Psychological research decisively points out that we are susceptible to unconscious biases and stereotypes, based also on gender: see the following research conducted by researchers at Harvard, Wharton and MIT.


Then let’s think about how people are recruited, promoted and rewarded in organizations. See the following Yale research that showed how hiring is gender biased. The hiring academics across disciplines and ranks were asked to rate an applicant for a lab manager position. The academics ranked the “candidates” according to perceived competence, whether they could be mentored and their expected starting salary. They evaluated identical CV’s, only that one had a male and one female name on it. John got offered – with the same merit, I point out – 15% higher yearly salary on average than Jennifer. The reader – regardless of whether you are a John or a Jennifer – you should be offended and outraged by this fact.


I am employed at the University of Ljubljana and have myself conduct a repeated Harvard study on our students several times. I divide the students up to two groups, only in my own thoughts, without giving external clues on the matter, and provide them with them a random journalist piece on foreign policy (I am specialized in International Relations). The two groups each get an identical article and the same criteria for its evaluation, consisting of criteria such as “relevance of the topic”, “professionalism”, “argumentation”, “technical correctness” etc. The only thing that differs between these two groups is the name of the journalist on the article – group A is assessing Catherina’s journalist piece, while group B is looking at John’s journalist piece. Every single time, unfortunately, students grade Catherina for 0.5 to 2 grades lower on a scale 1-10 in most of the criteria points. Therefore, for everyone that deals with the question of meritocracy through real research, it is weird to listen to the arguments regarding merit, as we are – provenly so – tougher in assessing the performance of some groups, including women. Why? Our biases are a reflection of our society, and we are therefore all marked with historical circumstances, behavioural patterns, social upbringing and so on. Diversity and the contribution of gender equality to a more just society have to be learnt.


The very idea that we live in a meritocratic culture aggravates unequal outcomes. The very idea of meritocracy gives evaluators – including you, dear reader – moral credentials that convince you that you are unbiased, precluding you from being on the lookout for your own bias towards others. Thus, the paradox of meritocracy is in fact that a belief it actually exists can lead to even more inequality, rather than less. Let me provide you with some more data on that. Emilio Castilla and Stephen Bernard, scientists at MIT and Indiana University, conducted a study that assessed receiving pay bonuses on performance (merit-based) in organisations. They introduced to the participants a fake company, ServiceOne. In the experiment, the group that had to assess the employees based on “the principle of pay based on merit”, male employees received more than $50 higher bonuses on average. Such research uncovers that supposedly meritocratic systems are as susceptible biases as other systems. So again – do we live in a meritocratic society? We do not. Actually, the myth of meritocracy really holds back any possible dialogue on gender.


Returning to our original dilemma of considering meritocracy – and to the fear that gender quotas will put unqualified people on boards of companies – we can now probably agree that we should be even more careful in acknowledging scientific evidence regarding our own biases and we should try to create appropriate regulation that would guarantee fair(er) appointments. Rather, quotas simply get the top executives of all genders in a private company to apply more for the position on the board. This also encourages the company to take greater care of its pool of talent and provides better policies for work-private life balance of its employees – not implying that the latter is only women’s issue, it is an issue for both, but as gender inequality is only a reflection of the current society, women today still perform more informal work at home than men. Companies are already aware of that; all of them want diversity as it brings in the talent.


There are many pro-quotas points and arguments that this opinion piece did not address. There are also many questions that boardroom quotas in itself will not resolve. Most notably, gender quotas on boards do not have a beneficial effect on women at lower levels of the corporate hierarchy. If the company does not have enough women in middle-management, they’re less likely to end up in high management as well. Again, there are other ways to try to resolve this problem: making childcare the responsibility of both parents is proven, but a slow step in that direction.


But the point that you should take home from this opinion piece is – quotas will not resolve all the issues, but our aim should be to try to resolve some of them. Quotas are designed to change thinking and attitudes. They are a temporary solution as well – the real solution actually lies in acknowledging our own biases and in addressing our own attitudes towards women in every sphere of our life. In the future quotas might not be needed, but right now they are.


And we end up with a question of time. How much longer do we want to live in a society that is not just? Why are we fearing regulation in this specific field, if the regulation is clearly needed? Until real equality is reached, it must be officially promoted – in every field, not just gender. Without quotas, the change will come too slow. We have to take a step forward: waiting is not a progressive or sensible option.


About the author: Nina Pejič

Nina Pejič is an Assistant and Junior Researcher at the Centre of International Relations, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Ljubljana. Nina, a doctoral candidate, has a Master Degree in International Relations (2017, University of Ljubljana) on the topic of post-conflict reconciliation through educational policies of the country. Before joining the Centre, Nina was a Researcher at the Centre for Defence Studies, where she focused on conflict prevention, normativity and peacekeeping operations. She is currently involved in several research projects and has a solid publication record, which includes a book, two forthcoming book chapters and several published academic papers in internationally recognized scientific journals. She believes that gender equality is a cross-cutting issue, surrounding every topic of research, which is why she co-founded Gender Equality Research Institute (Inštitut za proučevanje enakosti spolov) in 2017.


Prispevek je del projekta “Let’s Head Private: Gender Equality Mainstreaming of Slovenia’s Private Sector”, ki ga podpirata U.S. Embassy Ljubljana in Združenje Manager.