“A women's quota is about correcting discrimination”

Three questions to Linda Senden, an expert of European equality of the sexes

This week, California became the first American state to adopt a law that makes it mandatory for stock-exchange listed companies to have at least one woman on their respective Boards of Directors by 2020. Failure to achieve this will, first of all, result in the company having to pay a 100,000-dollar fine. Women's quotas and other minority’s quotas are often controversial: where one person sees it as an essential part of striving for more equality, someone else thinks it is a discriminating law. What are women's quotas really about? Three questions to Linda Senden, a Professor of European Law, an expert in the field of European equality of the sexes and a member of the UU hub Gender and Diversity.

Arrangements for quotas often solicit many emotions: both positive and negative. One common argument is that they are discriminating to, in this case, men. Is this indeed the case?

Senden: “A quota arrangement is not discriminating in and of itself, but merely aims to prescribe a certain result. There are many forms of this in practice because such an arrangement can involve various measures in order to realise the quotas, but that nuance is quickly lost. That's why there are so many discussions about them. It doesn't have to be a strict arrangement at all, for instance because it only sets a target as well as procedural obligations that help to achieve said target, but have no sanctions if the target is not achieved. In the case of preferential treatment, which can be part of a quota, being equally qualified results in a preference for the minority group in question, which is the woman in this case. The tendency with equally qualified candidates is to choose the men.

Linda Senden, hoogleraar Europees Recht.
Linda Senden, a Professor of European law and an expert in the field of European equality of the sexes.

Setting a quota is about correcting past and present-day discriminations of women, and about offering equal opportunities to have a voice, just like men have. Women have difficulty accessing positions of power. Research has shown that diversity contributes to the quality of decision-making. Stock-exchange listed companies are often enormously powerful in the meaning that their decisions affect people's financial, economical and social positions, but it's still a very homogeneous group of often highly-educated men who call the shots over there.

This means the question is more like: is a quota with preferential treatment a justified differentiation? I think it is: as long as there is a clear underrepresentation of women, it's justified. Especially in companies that influence such a big and diverse group of people, it's important that the decision makers reflect this group of people.”

Is a quota with preferential treatment a justified differentiation? I think it is: as long as there is a clear underrepresentation of women.

In the Netherlands, there is a target figure for women. Is this reason for trust?

Senden: “In the Netherlands, there is a women's quota in the form of a target figure: on 1 January 2020, 30 % of the seats in big companies must be occupied by women. A good ambition, but as long as this isn't tied to strict sanctions, it's mostly a symbolic arrangement. This is a problem in the Netherlands: the law has set a final date for this target figure, but this final date is often moved (for instance, the date has already been moved from 2016 to 2020). The latest developments look like they're not going to make it now either. This is a social problem: increasingly more women than men are graduating, but we don't see these women take up positions that determine what society looks like. The government is supposed to set an example, but by only setting this target figure for the corporate world and always postponing the final date for making that figure, they don't show that having more women in leading positions is a priority.”

Within the UU hub Gender and Diversity, there is an ongoing survey into women's quotas in stock-exchange listed companies. Could you tell us more about it?

Senden: “The research we are conducting within this hub is primarily about the duty to report. This is a corporate obligation to list in their annual reports how many women they've appointed to their respective Boards of Directors and what they have carried out on their own to solve this problem in their respective companies. So we investigate whether or not companies have the target figure as an agenda item and whether or not they are carrying out their respective duties to report: do they feature the target figure in their annual reports, and if not, what is the reason for that? Have they made progress or not at all? So in this survey, we don't just look at the statistics, but also at their policies on this matter and at the language of their reports to see whether they take the problem seriously or not. This is the reason why so many different disciplines are involved in the survey: together with an economist, a humanities academic, a lawyer and a psychologist, we sift through the annual reports because the problem is rooted in so many different layers of corporate culture.

If it indeed turns out that preferential treatment only results in resistance, it's useless. In that sense, we also need to keep looking for alternatives: methods that we can deploy to realise a balanced representation of women in important positions in other ways.