We live in a society that contains severe gender injustice. One way in which to combat this injustice is via the use of quota policies. A quota policy is a policy that requires that members of certain specified groups to make up some stipulated minimum complement of an organisation or group of organisations. For example, we may require women to constitute at least 40% of non-executive board directorships. The use of quotas can be a highly effective tool for changing or maintaining the make-up of an organisation or group of organisations, especially when accompanied by harsh penalties for non-compliance with the quota policy.
Despite these credentials, the use of quota policies remains hotly contested and highly controversial. Indeed, the use of quota policies has been much more politically and constitutionally controversial than the use of other affirmative action policies, such as those that involve giving greater weight to applications from members of certain specified groups. I take it that part of the reason for this is that quota policies run the risk that worse candidates will be hired at the expense of better candidates. In other words, quota policies risk being genuinely discriminatory. The same risk does not arise with respect to policies that give greater weight to applications from members of certain specified groups. This is because the purpose of this greater weight can plausibly be seen simply as counterbalancing the effects of certain discriminatory norms, such as gendered social norms.
Even though quota policies risk being genuinely discriminatory, I believe that we should be prepared to defend their use. To this end, I shall make two points. First, as I have suggested, quotas can be highly effective, much more so than other affirmative action policies. As an illustrative example, let’s consider ‘reaction qualifications’ – that is, qualifications that a candidate possesses by virtue of others’ reactions to them. One stubborn way in which sexist discrimination occurs is when an employer rejects a female candidate’s application on the basis of how it is expected other people (other staff, customers, etc.) would interact with her. A quota policy provides a way in which effectively to challenge the effect of reaction qualification. Here, I agree with L. W. Sumner, who writes:
An employer who needs to hire women in order to meet a stipulated quota will be less likely to worry whether this particular woman is too pushy, or will not be a good team player, or is likely to get pregnant, or whatever. Although numerical quotas will come as an acute shock to many employers, I know of no other way to concentrate their minds as wonderfully on the genuine qualifications of female job candidates (214).
Second, the defence of the use of quota policies is strengthened if we can offer a reply to those who resist their use on the grounds that they run the risk that worse candidates will be hired at the expense of better candidates. This objection is typically put in terms of an appeal to rights and, in particular, the rights of the best qualified candidates. One fundamental problem with this objection is that it is insufficiently sensitive to costs that are imposed by the absence of a quota policy. At least in the short run, the alternative to the introduction of a quota policy is the survival of unjust discrimination, which leads to widespread rights violations. In short, if my first point in defence of the use of quota policies is correct, then we should conclude that there is no way to avoid imposing morally objectionable costs, at least in the short run. This is important as I think we should prefer imposing costs, as quota policies do, with the aim of minimising these costs in the long run, by moving towards a more just society.
To be sure, I do not claim that the use of quota policies is sufficient to end gender injustice. No doubt that, in addition to quota policies, we must pursue other goals to combat the causes and effects of gender injustice, such as challenging certain gender stereotypes and restructuring socio-economic institutions to protect greater and more equal opportunities. Nor do I claim that the use of quota policies is always necessary. In some cases, a quota policy may be futile and, if this is the case, it may risk being harmful. I support the more modest claim that we should in principle be prepared to use quota policies to combat gender injustice; that is, I believe that the quota policy is a legitimate weapon in our arsenal.