Gender quotas

It’s not perfect, but most arguments against it are deeply flawed.

Ariel Pontes
Dec 11, 2017 · 10 min read
Students protest against racial quotas in the U.S. using typical anti-affirmative-action arguments.

There’s a strong backlash against the idea of quotas and affirmative action in general. The anti-quota arguments are typically the same: that this type of approach is “anti-democratic”, “unjust”, “discriminatory”, “unequal”, etc. Although I agree that this is not an ideal solution, these arguments hardly sustain themselves. It may even be that there are legitimate reasons for us to be skeptical about quotas and affirmative action, but the aforementioned ones are certainly not in this category, and I’ll explain why.

In 2015, laws establishing a 30% quota for women in the legislative were proposed both in Brazil ¹ and Romania ².

In a newsletter from the Brazilian website VoteNaWeb, I was invited to share my views and see the comments of others on the country’s bill. As I expected, the popular opinion wasn’t very favorable.

Red voted against, green voted in favor. 65% of users classified the bill as “crazy”

This is discrimination! We’re all the same before the law!

This idea that “justice” is the blindly egalitarian treatment of all individuals regardless of anything may seem attractive at a first glance, but it’s a simplistic way of seeing things and doesn’t resist any moderately rigorous inspection. All human beings are treated differently both legally and socially according to a series of relevant conditions. Children, elderly, disabled, etc. all receive special treatment and no sane person questions it.

Let’s suppose the government decides to implement free distribution of hearing aid for the hearing impaired. Well, this is an unfair approach as noble as the objective may be. After all, why don’t citizens with good hearing receive the device as well? Would you be against it? Or wait, you’d say you don’t need hearing aid? Aha, that’s what I thought. That’s my point. You don’t need it (or if you do, think of another example, you get my point). In Brazil it’s actually possible to get hearing aid for free by the way ³. Never heard any complaints.

Note that this wasn’t even an argument in favor of gender quotas (or any other type), although I tend to sympathize with the idea. It was only an argument against the discourse of “injustice” used ad nauseam to attack the concept of quotas. What’s important is to understand that things are not so black and white. You can disagree with this specific bill, but quotas are not fundamentally illegitimate in principle.

“In its majestic equality, the law forbids rich and poor alike to sleep under bridges, beg in the streets and steal loaves of bread.” — Anatole France

Justice is treating the equals equally, but the unequal unequally, to the extent that their differences require.

Thought experiments aside, people are treated differently all the time according to their needs and nobody questions it. The Brazilian government provides hearing aid for the hearing impaired, glasses for people with imperfect vision, institutions offer scholarships for low-income students and few react negatively (a search for “free” or “disabled” in the Votenaweb platform illustrates the popularity of these proposals very well). “Justice” and “equality” per se, therefore, are clearly not the problem.

If still you feel an inconsolable unrest when you hear “quotas for women”, think about this: it’s not for women. It’s a minimum of 30% seats for both genders, male or female. This is explicitly the case in the Romanian bill, in the Brazilian I’m not sure but let’s be serious, we all know who’s representation is going to be improved in case such a measure is implemented.

Only an incompetent country like ours could come up with such a measure!

Both Brazil and Romania suffer from the developing country complex (or, as we say in Brazil, the “stray dog complex”). Brazil’s motto “esse país não tem jeito” (“there’s no solution for this country”) could be easily translated to “Numai la noi așa ceva” (“something like this could only happen in our country”) in Romanian. In Brazil many people genuinely think gender quotas are a new idea. Romania has more progressive countries in its vicinity and therefore tend to be a bit more familiar with the ideas, but that doesn’t mean supporting them. Romanians, ironically, are happy to migrate to richer countries and applaud their roads, infrastructure, cleanness, etc. while at the same time bashing their socially progressive policies and acting like they’re the last bastion of hope in their home country’s fight against the western tragedy of “political correctness” (a term that has started to be abused and is now used to accuse any social measure you disagree with). Of course, luckily these don’t represent the whole spectrum of political ideology in Romania, but these views are not uncommon.

Many countries guarantee the participation of women in politics by means of legally imposed quotas, including Argentina, Portugal, Spain, France and Belgium. In some highly developed countries, such as Canada, Australia, Germany and the Scandinavian nations, famous for their gender equality, quotas are not imposed by the state itself, but voluntarily by political parties.

This bill is sexist! Women are not less capable than men!

Intrinsically, they’re not, but statistically, they actually are.

“when an individual (or a group of individuals) is kept in a situation of inferiority, the fact is that he is inferior. But the significance of the verb to be must be rightly understood here; it is in bad faith to give it a static value when it really has the dynamic Hegelian sense of ‘to have become’. Yes, women on the whole are today inferior to men; that is, their situation affords them fewer possibilities. The question is: should that state of affairs continue?” — Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

To deny that there is inequality and simply pretend that everything is ok and that women and men are raised, educated and socialized in the same manner only contributes to the perpetuation of the status quo. We must first accept that a problem exists so that we can start trying to solve it.

Well, if, as you say, women are actually less prepared statistically, then that’s even more reason not to artificially grant them seats in the parliament!

This argument is not illogical, but although it may justify the demand for corrective measures, I don’t find it sufficient to reject quotas altogether. Indeed, it is probable that there are less women who’re prepared for politics than men at this point of history for many countries. But that’s not the only factor that keeps them away from it. Besides not being encouraged by society to persevere in the career or even attempting it, the electorate in many places is still conservative and is used to men in politics. Yes, a woman was elected and reelected as the president of Brazil, and although Romanian hasn’t seen a female head of state, the percentage of females in the parliament is higher than in Brazil, so it could be much worse. But the figures are still shocking:

“At the moment, we have 51 women as federal deputies and 462 men. In the senate, women occupy only 13 from the 81 seats.” — Votenaweb notes about Brazilian bill

This is 10% and 16%, respectively. In Romania only 13.7% of the seats in parliament were occupied by women in 2012. It is legitimate to worry about forcing women into politics when they’re not yet as prepared as men statistically in principle, but is it really so dangerous in this case? Both the Brazilian and Romanian bills propose a 30% quota. That’s far from the ideal goal of having the genders represented equally. There is no doubt that there are enough competent women to fulfill these roles in both countries.

It doesn’t matter, the only just way of competing for a seat in parliament is by merit!

Any discussion about quotas is ultimately a discussion about meritocracy. This is the only argument that really cannot be trivially refuted. Indeed, meritocracy vs. social justice is a complex debate that divides philosophers in the whole world and that I cannot cover extensively in this text. But in order to engage in an honest debate about public policy, it is important to recognize the complexity of the problem and the legitimacy of different opinions.

Of course, the day there is equality of opportunity, meritocracy will be perfectly justified. But until then, it only contributes to the maintenance of the status quo. If you think it’s fair for a democracy to systematically under-represent half the population, then I’m not sure you understand the principles behind representative democracies. Besides, legislature is not a liberal profession. Its function is not merely to apply technical knowledge. The legislator’s responsibility is to legislate as a representative of the people. That’s why they’re elected. No office that is disputed by elections is purely meritocratic. Of course, technical competence is certainly one of the factors that the voters can (and should) take into account, but in a country like Brazil, where the population elects Tiririca and Clodovil, honestly, I don’t know what meritocracy is being challenged.

Tiririca: clown/comediant/singer. Clodovil: Fashion designer and TV presenter. Both were elected with no background in politics whatsoever.

In Romania, politics doesn’t reach the level of crazy that it does in Brazil, but it doesn’t mean its people don’t elect many candidates of highly questionable competence.

Gigi Becali to the left, sports businessman, has served two years in prison for corruption. Dan Diaconescu to the right, brings populism to a whole new level with his TV channel and political party named after himself.

In any case, one thing is for sure: a 100% meritocratic system is incompatible with democracy and a 0% meritocratic lottery is imprudent and impracticable. Selecting legislators with a national exam that evaluates their knowledge of law and political philosophy takes the “representative” out of the game while having a rigorous system of quotas for all conceivable minorities and social classes can lead to dangerously unqualified legislature. You can imagine how bad an idea it would be to have quotas for the illiterate in order for the interests of the group to be represented in parliament. The task at stake is finding the optimal balance between meritocracy and representativity. But it is a complex task. Discarding the idea of quotas as “absurd, shameless, feminazi, communist, an affront to meritocracy, etc.” is a hasty and naïve attitude that shows lack of thought and show how poorly justified the anti-quota movement generally is.


Are quotas the perfect solution? No. Ideally, society should change bottom-up and women should be as encouraged by family, friends, school, media, etc. to participate in politics as men are. But that requires a profound and long-term social change. Quotas are an artificial measure used to force a minimum level of equality in the short-term, in the hopes that this will provide an additional impulse to the social change that, in spite of having been taking place for decades now, is still far from being enough. Ideally, quotas should be temporary. When they cease to take effect, they should be dropped. The legislators in Brazil and Romania are trying to boost progress in society by enforcing quotas, but I’m convinced this is not the only means they defend for changing society.

Are there better alternatives? Maybe. But it is difficult to think how quotas could actually be an obstacle. This is one of the reasons why it’s so hard for me to understand the outrage with which some people attack proposals of this kind. I can’t imagine any alternative that can’t simply be implemented in parallel with quotas. Could it be that, in implementing a provisory and imperfect solution, we necessarily “relax” and stop working on deeper and more long-term solutions, as some suggest? Maybe, but that is only one of an infinite amount of possible outcomes of such laws and it’s highly speculative. Using it to attack any imperfect proposal of a solution is an example of the Nirvana fallacy (or “perfect solution fallacy”), in which any proposed solution that is not perfect is attacked for being worse than an idealized, perfect solution that is unattainable in practice.

What seems to be the case is that, deep down, many people really have an involuntary reaction when they hear about quotas: a feeling of uneasiness with no rational explanation. It makes sense. 86% of men in the Voteaweb platform voted against the bill, while 53% of women voted in favor or it. Change always upset those who’re privileged by the status quo. After the intuition though, comes the justification. That’s fair enough, after all we all have the right to our opinions and our ethics always boils down to basic moral intuitions that, when connected by reasoning, serve as a basis for more complex ethical systems. The problem is when this process of justification ceases to be an honest process of reflection and becomes a mere rationalization made in two seconds before posting an angry comment on an internet discussion, undermining any possibility of a mature and fruitful conversation. The internet can easily be used for flame wars, trolling, cyber-bullying, etc. But it can also be used for constructive debates. It all depends on our attitude.

  1. ^ Deputy Dorinha defends 30% quota for women in politics (Portuguese)
  2. ^ The National Liberal Party of Romania introduces two gender representation bills (Romanian)
  3. ^ SUS has offered over 600 thousand hearing aid devices in the last three years (Portuguese)
  4. ^ Free eyeglasses for SUS pacients (Portuguese)
  5. ^ Institute offers financial help to low-income university students (Portuguese)
  6. ^ Global Database of Quotas for Women
  7. ^ Women in national parliaments
  8. ^ Idem
  9. ^ Deputy Dorinha defends 30% quota for women in politics (Portuguese)
  10. ^ The National Liberal Party of Romania introduces two gender representation bills (Romanian)
  11. ^ SUS has offered over 600 thousand hearing aid devices in the last three years (Portuguese)
  12. ^ Free eyeglasses for SUS pacients (Portuguese)
  13. ^ Institute offers financial help to low-income university students (Portuguese)
  14. ^ Global Database of Quotas for Women
  15. ^ Women in national parliaments
  16. ^ Idem

Originally published in January 24, 2016, at

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