Stop Counting Women

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The absolute best way to ruin the gradual organic process of moving toward a society where men and women can both pursue the work they want — safely, with fair salaries and equal opportunities for promotion — is to freeze and polarize the conversation by imposing a bunch of rigid laws and policies. California passed a bill last fall that mandates the presence of at least one woman on the board of any publicly traded company headquartered there, with increases in that number under certain conditions.

“We are tired of being nice. We’re tired of being polite. We are going to require this because it’s going to benefit the economy,” said a co-author of the legislation, Hannah-Beth Jackson, a Democratic state senator from Santa Barbara, in a floor speech. This line of argumentation is typical, and baffling. Could it really be true that increasing female board representation is irrefutably good for business yet won’t happen unless companies are forced to do it right now?

In Norway, where a requirement for 40 percent female board membership became law in 2008, there’s some evidence that strict quotas may be counterproductive. Fewer companies chose to undertake initial public offerings in the period after the policy took effect and there was no measurable change in the affected companies’ performance or improvement in the prospects for women lower on the corporate hierarchy. In Kenya, lawmakers are debating a bill to enforce the so-called Two-Thirds Gender Rule, a constitutional clause prohibiting more than 66 percent of the legislature to be the same gender.

In the case of any kind of quota, there are obvious trade-offs between one category (gender) and others (race, sexual orientation, disability status among them) that arguably deserve more consideration. As usual, the law is a lagging indicator. Gender is easier (though not always easy!) to notice and tally in ways that other statuses aren’t. In a perfect world, there would never be a roomful of white men deciding whether to pick a woman instead of a person of color for a “diversity slot.” We do not live in a perfect world.

Underlying all of this is that there is something deeply off-putting about slotting people into categories by gender, about sussing out the precise nature of their genitals and their hearts before deciding if their presence on a masthead or a list of finalists is just.

Being a token woman or winning the women’s trophy is better than nothing. But it’s also reductive and demeaning. Our unease over this was reflected in the mockery Mitt Romney got for his “binders full of women.” Though the idea of a president carefully curating lists of women to hire for top-level positions (rather than, well, other activities) doesn’t seem so bad looking back, does it?

The courts grappled with the problems of quotas during the college admissions affirmative action wars of the 1990s. (Like most of America’s wars, this conflict is continuing, but many people have stopped paying attention.) They settled on a compromise that does a shockingly good job of mirroring the way people actually function when left to their own devices. Hard quotas aren’t permitted, but giving some consideration to balance and diversity is fine.

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