Desperately seeking women

28 February 2014
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Gender quotas were first discussed over thirty years ago; where they have been introduced, they have successfully offset structural discrimination against women. Evidence shows that nothing changes without gender quotas -- so why do many countries still not operate them? Concentrating on the German situation, political scientist Beate Rössler re-states the case.

Gender and cultural journals

Eurozine partner journals are not unique in being dominated by male editors and contributors. But what’s the bigger picture regarding gender and cultural journals? Do journals have the resources to deal with it? And what role does gender play, if any, where commissioning patterns and content are concerned?

Eurozine asked selected partner journals to respond to a European survey on gender and cultural journals that examines these issues in greater depth.

Dialogi, Slovenia

Soundings, UK

Syn og Segn, Norway

Esprit, France

Merkur, Germany

Gernero, Serbia

ResPublica Nova, Poland

Spilne, Ukraine

L’Homme, Austria

In the 1980s, it no longer seemed naïve to think that women’s situation in the workplace would improve radically in next ten to twenty years. The first commissioners for women’s affairs were appointed, the first laws against gender discrimination were passed, the first programmes were launched to promote women, and the Green Party introduced a gender quota in all party posts. There was still vigorous debate about what form quotas should take – whether “rigid quotas”, “soft quotas”, declarations of intent, guidelines, subsidy schemes – and a consensus within wider society was nowhere near; however the unequal distribution of jobs and positions was so blatant that many people, and not just feminist students, could optimistically assume that the situation had to change in the foreseeable future.

Photo: baranq. Source: Shutterstock

Thirty years on, those expectations have turned out to be illusions. Nothing has changed – or far too little. Women are still massively under-represented in business and finance, in the public sector and in academia. Of course there have been improvements here and there, some of them important; Germany now has a generation of “young fathers” pushing prams, we have Ursula von der Leyen and Angela Merkel, and there are more and more women journalists and politicians, not just in the Green Party. All this was very different thirty years ago. Back then, there could have been no such thing as the “Berlin Declaration”, the 2011 manifesto which declared that: “For more than sixty years, men and women have supposedly enjoyed equal rights, as set out in the Constitution. In reality, however, equality is still a long way off […] We call for a just society that allows women and men the same chance to develop and to participate […] The time has come for legislation making it compulsory for business and finance to ensure equal gender representation in top-level decision-making bodies.”1

The Berlin Declaration has the support of a broad alliance: prominent women from all parties in the federal parliament have signed it and its initiators and supporters come from all sections of society. This is all very welcome. However, what is outrageous is that the Berlin Declaration is even necessary.

When it comes to the position of women in the workplace, not just in the upper salary classes, almost everything has stayed exactly as it was. The idea that progress could be made with subsidy schemes, declarations of intent, and guidelines, along with commissioners appointed to defend these, has failed. Almost everybody realises this, which is why the Berlin Declaration has had such widespread support, even extending to the CDU. Clearly nothing will change without binding quotas. So what are we waiting for?

The issue of quotas comes with problems, some simple, some less so. One of the simpler problems is whether quotas are truly necessary given the prevailing gender imbalance in the world of work; also simple are the questions of whether quotas are ethically defensible and whether they comply with the constitution. A less simple question is why quotas are still necessary. Why has so little changed? Don’t men want change; don’t women want change? Where and to what extent does discrimination exist today? Here the situation is less clear, and the analysis more complicated.

Reminder 1: Why legally binding quotas are necessary

Men and women are still not paid equally for the same work, the labour market is still strongly segregated according to gender, women are still massively under-represented. The figures are well-known: women occupy 20 per cent of managerial positions in the German economy; in the boardrooms of the 200 largest companies, the share of women is only 3.2 per cent, and a mere 2.2 per cent taking only the 30 companies listed on the Frankfurt Dax and the 100 largest companies.2 Of the editors-in-chiefs of Germany’s approximately 360 daily and weekly newspapers, only two per cent are women, while somewhere between 12 and 20 per cent of professors in German universities are women, depending on the subject. Despite the introduction in 2001 of “voluntary agreements” in business to reach a 30 per cent quota for women and to “permanently” improve “chances for women”, hardly anything has changed.

A look at legislation across Europe shows two things: first, Germany lags significantly behind other European countries; second, in countries where quotas for women are legally stipulated, not only are they effective but they are increasingly accepted in wider society. A gender quota was first introduced in Norway in 2003, giving publicly listed companies five years to ensure that their boards included at least 40 per cent women. Not only did the number of women on boards increase from around 200 to over 1,000 between 2001 and 2011, but the quota laws influenced behaviour in other, smaller businesses, which by now have about 30 per cent women in their management. In France there has been a 20 per cent quota for boardrooms since 2014, which will rise to 40 per cent in 2017. In Spain, publicly listed companies must have a quota of at least 40 per cent women by 2015.

Quotas of this kind have several advantages: boards of management oversee business, influence policy, build networks and set an example for all companies to follow. For all these reasons, the Berlin Declaration recommends introducing gender quotas into private company boardrooms, this being the only way to “encourage new ways of thinking at the managerial level and thereby change how key decision-making roles are recruited and filled”.

Of course, a quota for boards of management is a modest beginning, but at least it is a first step. As the Norwegian example shows, it’s entirely possible to impose the quota first and wait for social acceptance to follow; in Norway, there was no need to wait long. It also makes sense to distinguish between contexts when setting quotas; for some positions it is simpler to do so directly and with immediate effect, for others it makes more sense to set a time frame, such as five years, within which quotas must be met. In principle, there’s no obvious reason why quotas should not also apply to the public sector, in academia, in the editorial departments of newspapers, indeed in the editor’s chair. If even the Bavarian CSU recognises that quotas are the only way to get women onto their electoral lists and into party positions, then it must be clear to everybody: without quotas, nothing works. With quotas, everything works very well.

Reminder 2: Morality and politics

In a liberal democracy in which formal equality of opportunity reigns, legal quotas for women are society’s response to a problem that isn’t supposed to exist: the problem of gender-based discrimination. Almost forty years ago, the philosopher Thomas Nagel defined discrimination as follows: if, in a society claiming formal equality of opportunity, there is a marked correlation between those holding well-paid positions and qualities irrelevant to these positions, such as gender, then the assumption must be that structures of society encourage and support discrimination against a particular social group. Formal equality of opportunity, meaning the absence of formal (e.g. legal) discrimination, is clearly not enough to protect all members of society against informal, structural discrimination and to guarantee them the same opportunity of obtaining, for instance, a job.3

One might think that quotas themselves cannot be the problem: there are quotas for the disabled, political parties have regional quotas, some countries, for example Switzerland, have quotas for language groups in government posts. Anybody who has climbed the ranks of a German political party knows about regional quota systems. And everyone accepts them, albeit grudgingly. Has anyone in the CDU ever stood up to criticise the regional quota system in assigning party posts?

Clearly, the idea of women’s quotas strikes a particular nerve. The classical objection, so often raised and so often refuted, is that legally binding quotas will infringe upon men’s rights as individuals. If a man is refused a job on the grounds of being a man, this supposedly contradicts the fundamental moral principles of equality and the liberal freedoms upon which our democracy is based.

Which rights of men are being infringed upon, however? Clearly, neither a male applicant nor his female competitor can have a right to that specific job. Nobody can seriously claim that people have a right to jobs that exactly suit their abilities, interests and education. The next objection is that the male applicant has a right to equal treatment. But what does this mean? The right to equal treatment should not be confused with the right to treatment as an equal. The latter is fundamental and means that all persons always enjoy the same right to consideration and respect – that everybody counts the same, for instance in the voting process. However, the right to equal treatment only obtains when all other things are also equal. If my daughter breaks her leg and needs a plaster-cast, that doesn’t mean her friend also needs one because of the principle of equal treatment. If children in a kindergarten or primary school don’t speak German well enough, they need special tuition – but their native-speaker classmates do not. They will be given more time, more attention, more money, because they belong to that group in particular.

A liberal democracy has the duty to create justice when a lack of justice is obvious. One doesn’t need much moral imagination to realize that conflicts of interest can arise between the dictates of justice, which also goes for gender justice, and the interests of men obliged to compete in a job market where quotas apply. However, a male applicant’s rights are not infringed and his dignity isn’t injured if he doesn’t receive the same treatment as a female rival, when this occurs for reasons of social justice. The right to treatment as an equal doesn’t always mean that all his interests must be weighed in the same way as the interests of society. Presumably, in a liberal democracy, all citizens – i.e. men as well – contribute equally to realising the ideal of a just society, which is the aim of legal quotas. Every man and woman can and must accept that, in principle, legal quotas are a reasonable tool for creating a more equitable society.

Quotas do not infringe upon rights; on the contrary, they are necessary in order to counteract structural discrimination. Freedom carries the same value for women and for men only when no longer restricted by disadvantages in the world of work. However let us look at two more arguments that are often invoked, especially in political debate: first, that the key factor in recruitment should be not be gender but quality, regardless of whether the applicant is male or female. This is sheer rhetoric of course: nobody is claiming that gender should replace quality as a criterion. Contemporary debates about quotas always take it for granted that women must be preferred only where applicants are equally qualified.

Yet there is another, more radical viewpoint: why shouldn’t gender be stipulated among the necessary qualifications, for instance in jobs where women’s exemplary function is particularly important, such as teaching? When the German Greens first drafted an anti-discrimination law, there were lengthy arguments about whether “equal qualifications” were to be the criteria, or “minimum qualifications”, which would favour women candidates. I believe that there is a moral argument for both, however since discussion and draft legislation now only focuses on equal qualifications the debate is superfluous.

The second objection concerns the “quota women” themselves. According to this argument, quotas are detrimental and humiliating to women since they make gender rather than qualifications the criterion for employment. This argument was frequently used in the first serious round of quotas twenty-five years ago, though it was never empirically tested – nor could it have been. The argument still crops up, though far less vociferously. For one thing, women who owe their jobs to the quota are openly unconcerned about the fact, since it has no bearing on their qualifications. Moreover, research in Norway has shown that so-called “quota women” are in fact better qualified, across the board, than men in the same positions.4 On the contrary, women feel lack of respect when there are no quotas; for a thirty year-old academic high-flyer, seeing the gender imbalance in all the best jobs can seriously damage her self-esteem. Frequently, women react with “adaptive preference formation”. Like the fox who called sour grapes, they adjust their wishes and preferences to suit the circumstances.

Reminder 3: The constitution

It follows that the quota does not infringe upon women’s dignity or self-esteem, and that we can dismiss any moral qualms we may have. The same goes for constitutional objections: article three of the German constitution states: “Men and women shall have equal rights. The state shall promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men and take steps to eliminate existing disadvantages.” This commits the state to taking action; since there is unanimous agreement that women are massively under-represented in positions of leadership, a legislative that introduces legal quotas isn’t just pursuing a legitimate aim for the common good, it is also fulfilling a duty placed upon it by the constitution. Where conflicts arise between equality of opportunity and the ban on gender discrimination (Article 3, Section 3), these are to be solved by deferring to the constitutional duty to ensure the former, given that nothing has changed in the under-representation of women in recent decades. On this basis, there is no reason to think that the Constitutional Court would rule against quotas.

Though noticeably less so than twenty or thirty years ago, the moral and the constitutional arguments for quotas are still controversial. Of course, one can find on the usual websites a resentful, sexist discourse that rages against quotas and against feminists in general. Despite the chance offered by the Internet to indulge in unrestrained sexist fantasies, biologistic arguments have long been absent from serious debate. If even the Christian Social Union, the most socially conservative party in Germany, now talks openly and approvingly of quotas, the question is no longer whether women should be granted extra support, but whether legally-binding quotas are the best way to attain this goal. In all parties and in all sectors of society there is a strong sense of disappointment that so little has changed in the last twenty years in the representation of women in many important fields.
Clearly, there are two distinct questions, both with the same answer. These are: Why are there still no quotas in Germany? And why will nothing change without quotas?

The desperate search for women

While researching this article, reading essays and statistics and looking for recent developments in European law on quotas, I happened to pick up the February 2012 edition of Merkur. All the contributors were men. That’s not particularly surprising, of course. Is it a coincidence that only male writers feature in journals with a broad thematic remit? (Merkur calls itself a “German Journal of European Thought”.) Is it coincidence when fifteen speakers are invited to talk at a conference on problems of justice, and only one is a woman? If there is a podium discussion about WikiLeaks in which only male journalists and politicians take part? If a panel on issues of atheism and religious faith is made up entirely of male believers and atheists? These examples are anecdotal, but the list could easily be extended and made more objective.

This isn’t to say that when the hosts of these events and the editors of these journals apologise for the “heavy gender imbalance”, they are insincere. When they swear that they have been desperately looking for women but were unable to find someone willing to discuss, to participate, to contribute. This desperate search for women is always mentioned, since regret about the absence of women goes hand-in-hand with an implicit accusation: we want to – it’s the women who don’t!

The most obvious answer to why men can’t find women for the job is that unless the topic is feminism (or gender quotas), men tend to think only of other men. This isn’t down to a male conspiracy as such, it’s simply because men know and read other men. Applicants for jobs, people who submit articles or abstracts, tend overwhelmingly to be men. Thus the chances of being able to find enough women are indeed slim. This is why, if they are serious, men should ask women who in turn know other women. In any case, there are networking sites for women on almost any topic you care to mention, which anybody who cares about women’s participation can consult. So perhaps the search isn’t quite as desperate as the men claim. After all, greater participation by women means less power for men – the power to write, to speak, to publish. Not everyone gives up power gladly.

Sometimes, however, women really don’t want to. For instance, because they already have plenty of work, twice, three times as much as much as they can cope with, and are besieged by men desperately asking them to join in and contribute. And what about the claim that the problem is of a much more fundamental, structural nature: that women don’t really want to work in well-paid, full-time jobs; that they don’t want to claim the prize positions in society or business, and prefer to work part-time; that they are glad to be able to withdraw into private life?

This is certainly true in two respects. First, women don’t want to sit in the director’s chair at any cost. They don’t want to be the only woman on a board made up entirely of men; they don’t want to be the only one who always has to excuse herself because of other commitments, who has to prove herself, they don’t want to accept any and all working conditions just to be able to sit in that chair. But that doesn’t mean that they would rather stay at home and play with the children – if they have them.

This is just one side of the question. The other side is that in Germany, unlike in the Scandinavian countries especially, women must still contend with the deep-seated cultural presumption that a woman who is a mother has no place in the world of full-time work, let alone in leading positions. This is not just what men say about women, but even how they describe themselves. Barbara Vinken, professor of French literature in Munich, describes this as follows: “Women in Germany have internalised the idea that they have to choose: either they are housewives and full-time mothers, or businesswomen who have to act in a manlike manner to make their way at work.”5 This culture finds concrete expression in the fact that there is still no comprehensive provision of day-care and pre-school places, and that not even kindergartens always offer full-day care. It’s also expressed in a tax model for married couples that’s coming to seem utterly anachronistic. When women come up against such massive disadvantages and entrenched cultural assumptions, it’s not surprising that they don’t come running as soon as someone waves the flexi-quota.

The flexi-quota

The flexi-quota is a voluntary system whereby companies promote and encourage female workers, suggested by the minister for family affairs in the former government, Kristina Schröder (herself a “quota woman”). Schröder’s proposal revealed another thing: that a certain degree of life experience is required in order to realise that structural discrimination against women exists, that equality of opportunity is only formal, and that only rigid, legally binding quotas can lead to substantial equality. Many young women – though by no means all – think like Schröder. They share the misjudgement of a generation of women who have grown up feeling that they have the same rights and freedoms as men, and that all doors are open to them. Discrimination no longer exists: if they want, they can get any job they like, the good women will make their way in the world. Too many female (and male) students – though not all – stare down at their hands, bored or embarrassed, when feminist texts and positions are discussed in lectures or seminars. They think feminism was something for their aging mothers (or professors), but not for them.

They have experienced success as diligent, hardworking pupils and students, but they haven’t yet realised that other abilities besides diligence and ambition are rewarded in the workplace. They are due for some surprises, such as being asked by interviewers whether they plan to have children, when young men are asked no such question. This explains why women who were high flyers at school and at university don’t find a smooth path into the boardroom, the upper echelons of management, or academic faculties. The ambition that sufficed to get good grades isn’t enough for women to present themselves confidently as potential managers. The fact that, in these jobs, power is also an issue – men must relinquish power, women want it – only becomes apparent after a woman has lost enough battles.

The picture that emerges when accounting for why nothing changes without quotas, and why there are still no quotas, is inconsistent and fragmented. Yet the reasons point clearly in the same direction: nothing will happen without quotas.

“Schemas” and “solos”: Another argument for quotas

Another perspective makes clear why quotas are needed to overcome sexism and (indirect) discrimination in the workplace: they change “schemas” and prevent “solos”. Both are described by Sally Haslanger, professor of philosophy at MIT, specializing in philosophy of language, metaphysics and feminist philosophy. Schemas, Haslanger proposes, are a set of psychological dispositions that prime our expectations, structure and organize our perceptions and interpret behaviours, so that these fit the scheme at hand rather than contradicting it. Schemas contain characteristics that are then applied to all members of a group. Analysing the absence of women in theoretical philosophy, Haslanger presents research showing that only when women make up around one-third of any given group can preconceptions, stereotypes and schemas about women be changed – including those held by women themselves. Only then is there a chance to dissolve and to dislodge preconceptions that are deeply rooted in our psychology.6

Things become difficult when two different schemas collide: the schema of the loving mother and wife who cares for her children, and the schema of the analytical, ambitious, rational member of a company board. Rather than being confused by the collision of these schemas, men prefer to leave women out of decision making bodies altogether. Yet schemas can only be corrected, questioned and undermined when enough women show that it’s possible to combine and overcome these stereotypes.

Haslanger provides another argument for binding quotas: only when women’s representation on boards and committees is at 30 per cent or more are women able to show what they can really do. “Solos” – individual women in groups of men – can’t achieve all that they could, because they permanently feel that they must defend their positions and prove themselves. One or two women in each boardroom, committee, department or faculty is not enough. Only when around one-third are women do perceptions change: it’s no longer gender that’s central but the matter at hand. Gender is especially palpable as a category of perception and self-presentation when a single woman joins a group of men: “Gender walks in.” Men, amongst themselves, are competitors or co-operators. When a woman joins them, she and all of the men are suddenly gendered creatures, and this subtext is present in all discussions. Not only does a lone woman in a group of men disturb comfortable (or less comfortable) competition within a group of equals, she is also unable to participate on an equal footing, preoccupied as she is with fending off perceptions and self-perceptions within the schema. She cannot demonstrate and develop her own strengths, since she constantly has to struggle with her own role, heteronomously, as an exception.

What kind of society do we want to live in?

Contextualizing the problem of women’s quotas within the more general question of what constitutes a just society reveals another question. Whether women want to work outside the home, and whether they are able to do so, is a question of the gender-specific division of labour. Thus, if we are to gain a proper perspective on quotas, we must also critique the classic male career. Some feminists reject the straightforward adoption of the male career path, which they consider to be a misconception of sexual equality supposedly expressed in the demand for quotas. Should women really want to live as men have always done, as well as doing the housework and looking after children, which has always been their domain anyway? No. This is why equal access to the workplace, at all levels, can only work when men understand that a redistribution of housework and childcare, and indeed care work in general (who looks after the parents?), is also their business.

Hence, when we argue about quotas we are also arguing about what kind of society we want to live in. Today it seems that a consensus prevails throughout society that women are unjustly under-represented in many positions. The next step must be that men whose female partners have an equal share in the workplace can, and should, take an equal share of the work in the home and with the children – and the pleasure too. That, however, requires that quota laws create real impacts that correspond with existing social needs and expectations. Of course, quotas won’t change social structures overnight. But they can nudge everybody in the direction that most people clearly want: towards a society that is more just for both women and men.

  2. The figures quoted can all be found on the Internet, though numbers vary slightly. Cf. the federal government's equality report on the website of the Ministry for Families (,did=88098.html); the webpage of the Economic Forum (; the Zeit newspaper of 5th March 2012; the Spiegel of 18th January 2012 (,1518,809794,00.html); the website of the Federal Statistical Office ( and the relevant website of the European Commission (
  3. Thomas Nagel, "Equal Treatment and Compensatory Discrimination". In: Philosophy & Public Affairs, Nr. 4, 1973.
  4. Cf. Mari Teigen, Aagoth Storvik, Women on Board: The Norwegian Experience. Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, June 2010.
  5. Der Spiegel, 31 January 2011.
  6. Sally Haslanger, "Changing the Culture and Ideology of Philosophy. Not by Reason (Alone)". In: Hypatia, Nr. 2, 2008.

Published 28 February 2014

Original in German
Translation by Samuel Willcocks
First published in Merkur 5/2012 (German version); Eurozine (English version)

Contributed by Merkur
© Beate Rössler / Merkur / Eurozine


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