What’s the Difference Between a “Gender Quota” and “Gender Balance”?

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Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, writing for the Harvard Business Review Blog Network, describes it this way:

Most companies looking to balance genders in their workforces set a target for the number of women in the organization. Royal Dutch Shell, for example, has committed to having at least 20% women in top management in the long term.

Aside from the low number and all the arguments around merit, this approach is problematic for two reasons.

First of all, it completely ignores the huge variations in gender representation across the different functions of the organization. Companies proudly tout women’s successes in areas such as HR or communications, where women can sometimes account for 85% of positions, while keeping quiet about the fact that there are only 10-15% women employees in operations. They then average that 80% to argue that they may overall be balanced. Problem solved.

Well, no actually. Having too many women in PR is surely as bad as too few in manufacturing.

The second problem is that quotas are very excluding of men, who usually don’t react very positively to years of having to push the percentage of women.

Which is why I welcome the recent announcement by the medical equipment company Medtronic that instead of targeting a proportion of women in the workforce it is targeting a balance. Their target is not a set number. It is a range. Anything between 40/60 and 60/40 of either gender is acceptable. Anything outside of that range is not considered balanced.

Read the full post here.

There are several scholars, most notably Kim Krawiec (Duke), doing important work on gender and corporate boards (see, e.g., here and here).  But to be honest, I still don’t get it.  What exactly is the difference between labeling something a “quota” and setting a “floor” below which the work force is not considered “balanced”?  Is “balance” acceptable because it is gender-neutral?  And is there a constitutional difference between a policy that is gender-aware and gender-neutral?  Is gender balance a neutral goal?  I’d better go read up on my ConLaw.

-Bridget Crawford

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