Women “knocking on doors” aren’t just selling Avon.

On Monday night’s Q&A program (watch here http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/txt/s3946770.htm)  the topic of introducing mandatory quotas to boost women in Federal Parliament was raised. The panel, comprising, among others Lisa Wilkinson (from the Today Show), George Brandis (Attorney General) and Chris Bowen (Shadow Treasurer), were quite divided in their support of quotas with Brandis being the only outspoken panel member against them. Quotas for the representation of ‘minority’ sectors of the population have always caused much debate as at the crux of such a debate is the idea that quotas are in opposition to merit, i.e. we are not selecting on merit, we are selecting on the need to fill a quota. This in itself is inherently wrong. Quotas and merit can exist harmoniously. What quotas do is create the opportunity for those minority members of the population to be considered alongside the majority members of a population.

Chris Bowen summarised it perfectly. In declaring his support for a gender quota in Parliament and indeed in the representation of women in senior levels of an organisation, he said that the argument that quotas oppose merit is a false one as this implies that there is only one woman in the Liberal Party who has the competence to hold a ministerial portfolio when indeed there are many just as capable female backbenchers. And then he said what I believe to be the perfect argument for quotas: “There are quotas in the Liberal Party as we speak. Tony Abbott would have weighed up: I’ve got to have enough members from the House representatives and enough members from the Senate in the Cabinet. I have got to have each State represented. I’ve got to have small L liberals and conservatives represented. The National Party has got to be represented. They’re all quotas.”

So why the resistance and reluctance when we throw the word gender before quota?

It is short-sighted of the government to have 1 woman and 19 men on the front bench of government. While our esteemed Minster for Women can say he has women “knocking on his door” to hold these prestigious positions, we see only one woman represented. And as Lisa Wilkinson so aptly put it, “Tony Abbott needs to understand they’re not there to sell Avon”.

In her outgoing speech as Australian of the Year Ita Buttrose, a former disbeliever in quotas, declared her support as the world is not changing. Without quotas or a real and quantifiable change to the existing ‘merit’ system, women (in particular) will continue to be underrepresented in government and in senior levels of an organisation. Why? Because we hire people who are “like me”. If you are hiring a new team member, unconsciously you tend to favour those candidates who are more like you, be that in gender, education, looks, interests, values and beliefs. We all do it. We can’t help it and it’s called unconscious bias. Unconscious bias does not subscribe to a pure system based on meritocracy. Unconscious bias leads us to pick up information about a person that supports our opinion of them and then our gut says, “he’s the right man for the job”. There is no merit in the ‘boys club’ and yet that has existed as a source of recruitment for generations.

Quotas do not mean you need to hire or elect women who are not competent, quotas mean you need to give more opportunity for women to apply for a role, to be considered for a Ministerial Portfolio, before they are then assessed on merit. It is short sighted to say merit and quotas can not operate together. Quotas are simply a way for us to try to overcome our unconscious bias so that we can truly assess on merit.

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