TOPIC GUIDE: Gender Quotas

"Gender quotas in the workplace are good for equality"

PUBLISHED: 29 Jan 2016

AUTHOR: David Bowden

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In March 2015 the German parliament voted to implement a new law requiring over 100 listed companies to allot 30 per cent of seats on non-executive boards to women [Ref: Reuters]. Noting that other European countries have introduced similar legislation in recent years – and with the European Commission considering a directive for a mandatory 40% gender quota - campaigners have argued that the UK should follow suit - with less than a third of seats on FTSE 100 boards and parliamentary seats currently held by women and to help close the infamous ‘gender pay gap’ [Ref:].  Supporters of such measures argue that, while the Equality Act 2010 ended much official discrimination in the workplace, quotas are ‘an unfortunate, but necessary’ [Ref: The Week] instrument to tackle discrimination at elite levels of society, and that better representation of women at a political level will enhance the goals of social equality [Ref: LSE]. Some suggest such moves may even have a beneficial effect on how such institutions are run beyond affirming a commitment to equality [Ref: Telegraph]. Yet critics of quotas argue that such enforced measures can have a detrimental effect, leading to an over-promotion of unsuitable candidates due to a need to meet targets, and a cynicism towards women who have earned elite jobs on merit [Ref: New York Times] which could potentially undermine social trends towards gender equality. Do gender quotas undermine important values of meritocracy and equality, or are they a necessary intervention to correct structural unfairness?

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This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.

Just a numbers game?
In 2011 the UK government’s Davies Report highlighted that the rate of increase of women on FTSE 100 boards – 12.5% in 2010 – was too slow, and argued that there was a ‘clear business case’ for improving diversity in corporate governance by challenging the ‘group-think’ associated with all-male boards drawn from similar backgrounds [Ref: BBC News]. The report concluded however, that it was better for companies to act voluntarily rather than face governmental sanction through actively challenging the barriers to women accessing executive positions. In 2015, an annual report declared a success in increasing the figure to 25%, and set a new target of 30% by 2020. Some argue that this change has only come about due to the threat of legislation and that therefore, official measures would only accelerate this trend further to the benefit of contemporary women [Ref: IB Times]. Yet others argue that the experience of Norway and elsewhere suggests the link between economic success and gender balance is not straightforward, even if they support its general aims [Ref: Economist]. Both supporters and critics of quotas agree that the question is not fundamentally one of pragmatism but principle: should companies be compelled by law to improve gender diversity or should this be left to the forces of social pressure and cultural change [Ref: Financial Times]?

From the boardroom to beyond?
Critics argue that gender quotas simply do not provide a wider social benefit, creating a so-called ‘golden skirt’ effect where a small number of female executives benefit from well-paid positions, creating resentment from male and female co-workers [Ref: The Times] and undermining the principle of meritocracy in the workplace. In addition, they observe that the gender pay gap is driven by complicated social factors, and that elevating the pay of a few women at the top will do little to change this in the long-term, because ultimately “replacing privileged men with privileged women doesn’t seem to pay any diversity benefits” [Ref: Guardian]. Yet supporters of quotas argue that it is more important to effect a cultural change at senior level in order to alter self-perpetuating practices which deter women from applying, and aspiring, to roles traditionally occupied by men [Ref: Guardian]. Moreover, they also see quotas as a necessary tool to break through the ‘glass ceiling’ which holds women back from senior roles, and therefore acts as a corrective to structural inequalities which largely benefit the male-dominated status quo [Ref: The Parliament Magazine]. On this point, one writer notes that whilst “In an ideal world, quotas would not be necessary”, after generations of structural and societal unfairness in favour of men, “quotas may be the only way of achieving, eventually, a world where quotas are obsolete.” [Ref: New Statesman]

A 50:50 parliament?
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau won international attention last year for insisting on a gender balanced cabinet on the grounds that “its 2015” [Ref: Global News]. While the proportion of women in the UK parliament rose to a third in 2015, it is argued that a representative democracy should have a full gender balance [Ref: 50:50 Parliament]. The Labour Party used all-female shortlists for safe seats to increase the number of female MPs in 1997 and 2005, but its use has been controversial both internally and in other parties [Ref: Guardian]. Feminist campaigners argue that countries where political gender quotas are common tend to offer more robust support to women on sex-specific issues such as reproductive rights, discrimination in the workplace and childcare, and therefore balanced parliaments are more democratic [Ref: New Statesman]. Yet some question whether the use of enforced quotas to advance political ends is itself illiberal, and whether imposing tokenistic targets distracts from challenging gender inequalities across the rest of society. As critic Sabine Beppler-Spahl argues, they “have nothing to do with democracy or equality… (because) The number of women on boards is not the root of any problem” [Ref: spiked]. Do quotas undermine genuine equality, giving women “special privileges granted to them from above” [Ref: spiked]? Or should we accept that they are an important way of ensuring fairness in the workplace? Are gender quotas good for equality?


It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Why we need gender quotas for women on boards

Vicky Pryce Guardian 23 November 2015

Diversity quotas are meritocracy in action

Laurie Penny New Statesman 18 September 2015

Business could do with the feminine touch

Martin Vander Weyer Telegraph 27 March 2015

EU gender equality legislation key to breaking the glass ceiling

Věra Jourová The Parliament Magazine 15 December 2014


Germany’s gender quota: illiberal and divisive

Sabine Bepplar-Spahl spiked 20 August 2015

Boardroom quotas won’t help women

Carrie Lukas New York Times 7 December 2014

Women make different choices. That’s not bias

Ruth Lea The Times 7 January 2013


Do more women on the board mean better results?

Renuka Rayasam New Yorker 19 November 2015

Are gender quotas needed?

Financial Times 14 June 2015

Should there be all-women shortlists?

Guardian 22 August 2014


Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.


Useful websites and materials that provide a good starting point for research.

Equal Pay Day: analysis reveals the ‘pay gap’ is not really a gap at all

Kate Andrews International Business Times 9 November 2015

Lord Davies report: can gender quotas get more women on boards?

Lydia Smith International Business Times 29 October 2015

Women on boards: 5 year summary (Davies review)

Department of Business, Innovation and Skills 29 October 2015

Quotas: the key to gender equality?

Gemma Williams Institute for Government 26 October 2015

Mind the pay gap: will Cameron’s proposals achieve workplace equality?

Oyvind Skorge LSE Politics & Policy 27 July 2015

Closing the Gender Pay Gap: government consultation

Government Equalities Office 14 July 2015

Gender diversity on boards: do quota systems work?

Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development June 2015

Promoting gender equality is business critical

Hannah Lynn Lexis Nexis 26 March 2015

Diversity quotas in the law – the issues

Monidipa Fouzder Law Gazette 6 November 2014

Gender quotas in hiring drive away both women and men

Meir Shemla & Anja Kreienberg Forbes 16 October 2014

Across the board opposition to all-women shortlists

Will Jordan YouGov 28 August 2014

Gender quotas feel coercive but appear to work

Claer Barrett Financial Times 15 May 2014

The biggest myth about the gender pay gap

Derek Thompson Atlantic 30 May 2013


Links to organisations, campaign groups and official bodies who are referenced within the Topic Guide or which will be of use in providing additional research information.


Launch: Gender, Inequality and Power Commission

LSE Gender Institute 20 October 2015

The case against gendered hiring quotas

Mary Callahan Forbes 2014

Should there be quotas for women on boards?

BBC Radio 4 23 October 2012

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