Big question: What role should quotas play in promoting diversity in the workplace?

Dan Robertson 


“Who wants to feel they have been given a job due to their gender or ethnicity?”

I’ve never been a fan of diversity quotas in hiring. Who wants to feel they have been given a job due to their gender, ethnicity, or any other factor other than talent and merit? Certainly not me. However, the issue of bias still remains. 

Hiring managers suffer from affinity bias – the tendency to hire people with a similar culture, background or personality to them. Another bias is what Daniel Kahneman calls the ‘halo effect’ – where we find one attribute really attractive in a job candidate, colouring our view of the candidate’s total skills and competencies.

Many organisations are banning all-male or all-white shortlists. The question remains, though – how do we address the social and structural biases within hiring? Drawing on behavioural science principles, here are three things organisations can do: 

Job design: Use tools such as Textio to naturalise biased language within job descriptions and person specifications

Candidate attraction: Set clear expectations and use a ‘comply or explain’ model when engaging recruitment agencies

Interviewing: Use a scoring system and aggregating scores before debriefing. This helps to mitigate biases by focusing on evidenced-based information.

Dr Meir Shemla 

Associate professor of organisational behaviour, Rotterdam School of Management

“Gender quotas perpetuate negative stereotypes of women”

Quotas are not the key to creating organisations that utilise diverse views, beliefs and perspectives. 

Gender quotas in boards have no significant impact on diversifying organisations in the long run. The expected trickle-down effect received no empirical support. In fact, gender quotas perpetuate negative stereotypes against women and reduce support for them in cases of real discrimination. In addition, gender quotas push away high-talent men and women. In a series of experiments, we found that publicising diversity quotas deters high-performing female and minority candidates from applying. 

There are two cases where quotas may play a role. First, when persistent systematic discrimination does not allow some groups to realise their potential. Organisations should not use quotas for the sake of promoting equal representation, but rather for the elimination of discrimination. 

Second, quotas should be promoted if increasing the representation of a certain group will contribute to organisational core purpose. For instance, since the underrepresentation of male teachers in schools has an impact on boys’ inability to realise their potential at school, so quotas may prove effective there. 


Sarah Kaplan 

Distinguished professor and director, Institute for Gender and the Economy (GATE), Rotman School of Management, University of Toronto

“Quotas have been shown to increase quality”

Progress towards equality has been slow. Far too many companies still have no women on their boards. The gender wage gap in most developed economies is stuck at about 88 cents. Women still pay a ‘motherhood penalty’ at work.

We need stronger tools, and quotas should be one of those tools – but people are afraid to implement them. Everywhere quotas have been studied, they have been shown to increase average quality, not decrease it. Their net effect is that talented and qualified women who are overlooked in current systems get the opportunity to participate. This comes at the cost of the lower quality men who have been getting chances they should not have had, thanks to their male privilege. 

We cling to the notion that our current systems are meritocratic. The evidence indicates that this supposed meritocracy has gender biases built into it (for example, our notions of what a ‘leader’ looks like devalue women). Concerns about quality are misplaced and reinforce inequalities – ironically producing lower quality outcomes. Quotas can promote true meritocracy by ensuring everyone gets the right amount of scrutiny when being evaluated. They are an effective corrective to systemic biases and can increase overall quality. 

Image credit | iStock
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