It sounds like this: “I think regardless of someone’s gender we should stick with selecting the best person for the job.”
Selecting people solely based on their talents, education, and abilities seems like common sense because we want to know that our leaders have earned their spot. But this understanding of merit — and the belief that our current system works on an unbiased merit-based selection — is one of the biggest barriers women face in the fight for equality.
Selecting our country’s Cabinet is an example of this in practice. Our prime minister chooses Cabinet members based on their merit i.e. who they think will do the best job. But just 30 percent of New Zealand’s Cabinet is currently made up of women, and this number has roughly been the same since 1999. Before then, there were barely any women. So why are women less likely to reach these roles of power and leadership? Are men simply more deserving of the roles than women? More dedicated? More qualified? More intelligent? More capable? No. Men simply face fewer barriers.
Some examples of these barriers include:
SHOULDN’T WE BE GENDER-NEUTRAL?
You might argue that gender isn’t relevant at all. Whether you’re a woman, a man, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum, it doesn’t matter — all that matters is that you’re fit to do the job. While you likely mean no harm in thinking that, it’s similar to saying “I don’t see colour” to claim that you have no prejudice toward people of a different race. It’s harmful. If we don’t “see” that someone is a woman we’re erasing their oppression and their reality of living in a patriarchal society, we’re ignoring their unique experiences and challenges; we simply aren’t seeing them as who they truly are. If we claim to be “gender-neutral” we’re absolving ourselves of any responsibility to reflect on our gender biases (that we all have). We can’t deconstruct a system of privilege and power and be truly inclusive until we see, acknowledge, and understand the diverse identities that make us who we are — and then work to ensure that all identities are fully represented in decision-making and leadership.
WHAT IF IT RESULTS IN LESS QUALIFIED PEOPLE GETTING THE JOB?
People who disagree with a gender quota often assume that it’s at odds with selecting people who show true merit and that a quota will result in selecting less qualified people. This framing sets ‘merit’ up against ‘diversity’. But the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s actually offensive to suggest that the reason why white men dominate leadership is because they deserve it more. What you’re saying is that the absence of under-represented groups, including women, is because they simply haven’t earned it, which reinforces harmful stereotypes about a woman’s capabilities and skills.
In fact, research has shown that because women come up against more barriers and discrimination in politics, the ones who manage to overcome and reach public office are often more qualified than their male colleagues. Quotas can actually improve the quality of leadership because we’re forced to consider everyone thoroughly rather than over-selecting from just half the population, which we often do through our unconscious bias which favours male leaders. When we take affirmative action to draw from all of society’s talent pool, we get the best of the best. The truth is merit and diversity are not at odds; we can achieve quality without sacrificing gender equal representation.
IS GENDER A FORM OF MERIT?
There’s also no clear, objective definition of merit. What’s the criteria? What is meritable and what is not? Perspectives on this vary from person to person, but historically merit means male, educated, higher income, middle class, white, prior political experience, able-bodied. These credentials all come from having social privilege of course.
The dominant view is that the best experience you can have to prepare you for a role as — let’s say New Zealand’s Minister of Housing as an example — would be having a masters degree in housing inequalities and affordable housing solutions. Yet what about someone who has spent years living in New Zealand’s government housing and has connections within the community of precariously-housed families? I would argue that would be just as relevant to the work of Cabinet. Merit is defined by our social constructs and we can change our understanding of what merit should be when it comes to who we want as our country’s leaders.
Democratic political leadership is about representation, being able to represent the thoughts and needs of others, and we can do this better if we have direct knowledge and experience. A woman is simply better-placed than a man at representing women’s needs and voices, especially in an environment where women are consistently under-represented. It is a form of merit. We can and should reframe the meaning of merit to include our diverse identities, including our gender, and it would undoubtedly result in the creation of better policies that are informed by our complex lives and our unique experiences.
So when people argue against gender quotas because they think our current system chooses people on “merit”, what they are actually defending is a status quo that privileges men and ignores opportunities to lift diverse, experienced, talented people into leadership. The status quo undermines true merit. And a gender quota is essential to the path toward an equal system of politics and leadership where women and other under-represented groups will no longer be overlooked.