Corporate men and women are divided: are gender quotas useful? The debate is becoming ever more profuse. In November 2012, the European Union (EU) enacted Viviane Reding’s proposal for a 40% female quota for all directors’ positions in EU Corporations. The biggest trading bloc, and 100 other countries, considers female quotas to be beneficial. Yes this contentious issue may have an overall negative effect of women in the work place.

Consistently all over the globe, women tend to have less progressive and gainful employment opportunities than their male peers. Despite their disparities falling, the past decade has only seen the gap between men and women’s employment opportunities contract from 16.6% to 11.6%. These disparities are especially seen in managerial and Director positions. The higher the hierarchy goes, the fewer women are found. Over 50% of high school graduates are female, yet only 21.7% manage to climb to positions of leadership. The causes of this issue are plentiful. Overt sexism, old boy’s networks, views about the capabilities of women from bygone eras…the list goes on.

Quota systems are implemented with the intention to break enduring discriminatory practises in business. It is claimed that they break down ‘old boy’s networks’ that usually favour wealthy, Ivy League educated males. Quotas are said to provide more opportunities for women, who may have previously been over looked. This is intended to have a trickle down effect, with the view that women will inherently hire more women. Finally, quotas are intended to breed a new generation of successful women who can act as role models. While difficult to argue against the quota system’s intentions, the system may produce consequences that is detrimental to female progress.

Quota systems do not dissipate discrimination, rather they simply perpetrate and displace preferential treatment. When gender is placed above merit, a woman might be hired over a man who is objectively more qualified for the job. Further, where is the line drawn? The Quota system could become an argument for other ‘minority’ and ‘oppressed’ groups, with Quotas arising to avoid discrimination against the disabled, and to help combat racism and Ageism. Quotas are meant to inspire female unity, but they could just as easily cause fragmentation, with women fighting each other for ‘women’s positions.’ Finally, should a woman be hired under the system, it may actually undermine her abilities. Was she hired purely on merit or was she hired to be the ‘token’ woman? Quota systems can hurt business, causing inefficiency, fragmentation and possibly even conflict.

Where quota systems succeed in getting women into higher leadership positions, and increase female representation, they ignore the sexism that it stems from. It is well documented that some male employers express hesitation when hiring a female, especially those under 35, out of fear that she will need maternity leave in the near future. There are reports of women being ignored in business meetings, and surveys finding that men trust other men more in business. Sexism and harassment is also prolific. In 2010. 9,725 reports of sexual harassment in the workplace where filed by women; 1,992 by men.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is widely met with responses akin to “well, what did you expect? They’re men.” These types of sexist persuasions are slowly decreasing. However, as more and more women enter the workforce, without education or incremental changes to attitude, this progress could hit a stalemate. Perhaps we are not thinking about the issue in the cleverest of ways. While women are still the primary caregivers of children and the elderly, the demographic has shifted, with more and more women becoming the primary breadwinner. The current model of work is still based in part on an outdated 1950s view, when middle-class families had a single breadwinner and women stayed at home to care for children. Thus the underrepresentation of women might just as importantly stem from structural deficiencies that do not favour working mothers. Perhaps a big part of the solution is making work hours more flexible so that both men and women’s ability to juggle work and home responsibilities is made easier.

We live in a world where we have laws to protect individuals from discrimination based on gender. Hiring, firing, and discriminatory treatment in the workplace because of sex is illegal. There is no denying that sexism in the workforce persists, from sexual harassment to wage gaps. However, while Quotas are implemented with the best of intentions, to mitigate gender inequality for women, they simple act as band-aid