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Defending Quotas

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.  


Tom Parr

Tom is a Lecturer in Political Theory at the University of Essex. He is interested in all areas of value theory, as well as playing darts and drinking Carling.



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  1. Tom, do you think it matters whether the filed for which one considers the introduction of quotas is one where pure meritocracy is:
    (a) already existent or
    (b) at least feasible or
    (c) desirable
    I assume different fields score differently with respect to all of the above.
    If (a) is not the case, then one can argue that quotas will not worsen the status quo meritocracy-wise, and will improve it with respect to gender justice. If not even (b) is the case, one will have to admit that criteria other than merit are needed to allocate positions, and then gender seems to be a good candidate. But I suspect that the most persuasive defence of quotas would proceed by arguing against (c).

  2. Hi Tom, thanks for this interesting post. I am very sympathetic to your defense of quotas, so much so that I am not sure I even see the potential force of the objection you raise at the beginning, and would be interested to hear a bit more about the view you have in mind. If I understand you correctly, you suggest that quotas, compared to giving greater weight to applications from members of certain groups, may be thought to entail a greater likelihood that well qualified candidates will lose out at the expense of less qualified candidates. Whether this is true, it seems to me, depends on *how much* extra weight is given to applications from members of the disadvantaged group. The weight may be set at such a level, for example, that the number of resulting hires from the group in question is equal to the number of hires that would occur given a specified quota of, say, 40%. If the weight is weaker, its “distorting” effect on the selection of candidates may be smaller than in the case of a 40% quota, but would the appropriate way to compare the two systems not be the former instance? (Are there any reasons why, once we have identified the extent of the disadvantage we are dealing with – difficult as this may be – the appropriate weight and the appropriate quota, depending on the approach adopted, should not lead to the same number of hires from the group in question?) If the weight-based and the quota-based approach are on a par in terms of the resulting number of hires from the disadvantaged group, are there any reasons left for thinking that a quota is more likely to lead to less qualified hires, especially in light of the points you mention regarding the incentives for employers to focus on actual skills?

  3. Hi Anca, not sure I completely share your last intuition. This may well hold for some fields. But there are also fields where meritocracy seems desirable, and yet quotas might be defensible – for example if the (meritocratically relevant) qualities of members of minority groups tend to be under-valued by members of the majority. Another possibility is that the meritocracy in question deserved to be readjusted towards the qualities that really matter for the job (in contradistinction to those one has traditionally taken to matter, which may be biased against certain groups – for example, presence in an office for long hours is not necessarily a relevant quality). Yet another possibility is that meritocratic considerations might be relevant, but might yet be outweighed by considerations of fairness or diversity. So my question to Tom would be, following up on Anca's question: which of these scenarios do you have in mind, and do you see a relevant difference between them?

  4. Thanks for these thoughts and questions, Anca and Lisa. Let me begin with a general point, which may or may not be relevant. I think that it can be misleading to ask about what is desirable or undesirable in these kinds of cases. I think we make more progress if we focus on duties and liabilities of particular agents. For instance, it might be desirable for a vacancy to be filled on the basis of meritocracy, but this doesn't tell us if the employer is duty-bound to select the best qualified candidate. Nor, does it tell us who would have a good complaint against the employer's actions (would it be the best qualified candidate, those who receive an inferior service, or both?).

    Now on to specifics: Yes, I think you're right to say that we should treat differently different fields. In some cases, such as some jobs, the merit of a candidate seems to provide the employer with a reason to favour her application. In other cases, such as childhood education, the merit of a candidate does not.

    Anca, you may be right that the most persuasive defence of a quota policy may be available when merit does not provide such a reason. However, like Lisa, I'm inclined to say that such a policy remains legitimate even when it does. As Lisa suggests, we can maintain that the reason to allow an employer to select on the basis of merit is defeated by the reason to promote fairness, diversity, gender justice. What are your thoughts about this reply, Anca?

  5. Excellent question, Florian. I had in mind as policy of weighting designed specifically to counterbalance the effects of certain discriminatory norms. But, as you say, the effects of a policy of weighting must depend upon how much extra weight is to be added and, in principle, we could identify a weight that ideally would produce the same effects as a quota policy. The problem with this kind of policy, in comparison with a quota policy, is that it is much more difficult to enforce (especially in cases that involve reaction qualifications). That is, it is much more difficult to show (in court, say) that an employer has failed to adhere to a weighting policy than it is to show that an employer fails to adhere to a quota policy. Does this sound right to you?

  6. Tom, thanks for the post. Before asking anything more substantive, could I ask what precise injustice(s) you have in mind to address via quotas? Gender injustice covers a wide range of issues and interpretations. Quotas presumably speak to some sub-set of these. For instance, some might think that achieving equal representation in positions of advantage is important, whereas others think that achieving more equal representation is a means of working towards equal of opportunity (e.g., via role model effects). I suspect that the defensibility of quotas will depend a little on what exactly you believe them to be addressing. So, I wonder if you could say something more specific here?

  7. Thanks both!

    Lisa, I don't see any contradiction between what you say and what I say. That the non-desirability of pure meritocracy makes it easier to defend quotas does not imply that the desirability of pure meritocracy makes it impossible to defend quotas. So it seems to me that we agree.

    For the same reason, I don't think that I don't disagree with what you say above, Tom. But I believe that to determine whether an employer is duty-bound to select the best candidate one needs to know lots of things about the type of job we're considering. Are we talking about employing surgeons in the NHS? Or about managers in a large family business? Plus, of course, one needs to endorse a particular view of rights and duties, which you (wisely) don't do in this post. When I wrote my paper on the token woman I became very aware of how many variables one has to figure out before making an argument for quotas – and my task was easy because that discussion was about positions to which no one has a right and which no one has duties to distribute on the basis of mere merit. Even so, not everyone was persuaded…

    One more thing, which I think is relevant: gender justice, as it could be promoted by quotas may clash with (various understandings of) equality of opportunity. I'm not too concerned to equality of opportunity, but many are.

  8. Thanks Tom. I agree, this seems to be an important consideration. I suppose even for employers with a good faith intention to comply with a weighting policy, it would often be quite challenging indeed to get the outcome right, especially in cases in which the qualifications of candidates are not straightforwardly quantifiable. Even more reason to favour a quota-based approach!

  9. I think that's correct, Anca. It is also important to consider the reasons that an employer may be duty-bound to select the best qualified candidate. Presumably, in the NHS case, it is because the employers owes it to the patients. That is, the employer wrongs the patients by picking a less qualified application, because the employer imposes additional risks on the patient. This is very different from saying that the employer wrongs the best qualified applicant. This clearly has implications for employment law.

    The issue about equality of opportunity is important, I think. But, we need to ask, equality of opportunity for what? Being denied a job in a particular firm or industry doesn't obviously violate equality of opportunity, since one may have other opportunities to do equally well elsewhere. The problems arise when this is not the case, but here I think what I say in the penultimate paragraph of the post is relevant.

  10. Thanks, Andrew. As you say, I don't think quota policies can solve, or even be part of a solution, for all gender injustices. But, I do think that they are necessary to solve a range of gender injustices, in particular distributive injustices, whereby members of one gender enjoy many more valuable occupational opportunities than members of another gender. To answer your question, I see quota policies as being useful for both of the types of case that you mention. That is, quotas are a useful tool for reaching equal representation in positions of advantage, which is in itself important, and they are useful, because of their role model effects, for working towards greater gender equality more generally. Do you see different objections arising is different cases?

  11. Thanks Tom for the post and for others for raising most of the points I wanted to mention. I'd like to push what I take to be Lisa's point a little further and question the notion of merit – A great deal of research shows clearly that the category of merit is highly gendered and discriminatory to women (great material at curt-rice.com). If this is the case, then he first argument doesn't hold as we quotas are not discriminatory or lead to hiring lesser candidates. Another complexity I want to introduce is that it seems that quotas also promote certain forms of essentialism – how can we adapt quotas to counter real injustice which is intersectional i.e. in terms of gender, race, age, sexuality, socio-economics?

  12. Hi all, I have tried to comment earlier, but the comment apparently did not make it. Sorry for that! Here is the original quote:

    Dear Tom, thanks for posting this very timely piece on quotas and making a solid case for introducing a quota. Also, thanks to the author of "Three Cheers for the Token Woman" aka Anca, for opening the discussion – surely fitting for this topic. I am also very sympathetic to your arguments on why quotas are quite effective in fighting gender injustice. Therefore they should be employed as a tool, maybe as a temporary one, until the situation is more balanced.
    My question pertains to a point you raise in comparing gender quotas with policies of affirmative action for other groups. You write: "The same risk does not arise with respect to policies that give greater weight to applications from members of certain specified groups."
    I wonder whether this is a theoretical argument or based on any kind of empirical findings (which I would find suprising). If it is the former, I would like to ask you why policies that give greater weight to more specified groups do not run the risk of being genuinely discrimintory. I do not see a principled difference in what is going on here: we select a specific attribute of a group that we view as being disadvantaged in gaining access to a certain class of jobs. We then counteract the discrimination by introducing the quota, which has the effects that you – or rather L.W. Summer – have described. I do not see why this should be any different in te case of gender as in the case of, say, race. Could you elaborate on that a little?

  13. Thanks for these thoughts, Anya. I'm particularly interested in the complexity that you mention, namely adapting quotas to counter real injustice that is intersectional. What kind of problem do you think this complexity raises? Is it an epistemic problem, about knowing how best to set multiple quotas? Or do you think that there is something else going on?

  14. Thanks for the helpful question, Rebecca.

    As you say, the argument is a theoretical one rather than an empirical one. The central idea is that policies that involve weighting in favour of certain groups seek the selection of the best candidate. They aim to do this by levelling the playing, so to speak. For instance, if it is known that candidates with property X are 10% less likely to get the job, then we can weight the applications of these candidate by, say, 10% in order to counteract this effect. By contrast, quotas do not have same effects: if 50% of your employees must be members of a certain group, you must employ members of this group irrespective of whether they are the best qualified candidates. In an important sense, therefore, quota policies do not aim to level the playing field in the same way that other affirmative action policies do. Is this clearer?

  15. Ah, thanks Tom, I see. It was probably a misunderstanding on my side, since I thought of cases, where the quote demanded is not 50%, but rather something along the lines of 20%. I get that the higher the percentage gets, the higher the risks that you have to choose somebody less qualified who has property X over somebody who does not but is more qualified. The pool of qualified people with this property seems to be getting smaller.
    However, I still wonder about the argument's underlying assumptions. Does it assume that there are fewer women out there, which are qualified? Because it sounds as though it is certain that there are always more qualified men there than women, so that say, if we picked the most qualified people, we would still end up with more men? If we, theoretically speaking, had as many or more qualified women in the world, would the objection still stand, i.e. if there were always enough qualified women to fulfill the quota?
    I hope this was clear enough, and you see what I am getting at. Something still bothers me about the argument and I tried to put it in words here.

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