Blog: Gender quotas vs the filter bubble


  • Digital
  • Social justice

I think we need gender quotas in politics, the arts, sciences, thought-leading organisations and on the boards of major companies to jump-start a culture of fair representation and opportunity for women. I’m also starting to think that our evolving digital culture, with its polarising filter bubbles, makes the implementation of these quotas more urgent than ever.

I’m not going to outline statistics about the lack of representation of women in this country, quote the recent LSE report calling for gender quotas, or dwell on the evidence that more gender diverse organisations are more successful – that’s what hyperlinks are for. Suffice to say, I find the under representation of women in leadership unacceptable, and think quotas are the right solution. But I also understand why this approach gets some people’s hackles up – I realise that positive discrimination just smells unfair to some.

Perhaps I’ve had a head start at coming to terms with the whole concept of positive discrimination. I started life as a South African. I was about 15, and attending a school that was around 65% white (myself included), when the new South African government started to implement the policy of Affirmative Action. I remember some of the white matrics (final year pupils) murmuring that they hadn’t got their preferred university place because of the quotas. But I don’t remember any of them saying: “This is a bad idea for South Africa, we shouldn’t be doing this” or anything to that effect. How could anyone say that under the circumstances? Affirmative Action was obviously critically necessary, it was happening, and that was that.

Yes, in positive discrimination some individuals do feel sore, but these are not the kind of losses that threaten quality of life (this isn’t land repatriation, for example), the long-term stakes for society are high, and those who lose out are privileged enough to recover. 

Maybe you think South Africa is a poor parallel because that was an oppressive criminal regime, whereas unequal representation of women in the UK is completely different. What’s happening here is just… just… what? A disproportionate number of women simply failing to pull their socks up? It seems ridiculous to me that anyone could claim that there aren’t unreasonable barriers to attainment in this country. The last (and only) time this country had a woman as Prime Minister, I was a child. I’m 36.

Gender quotas are a difficult sell at the best of times. Leaving straight-up sexists out of this for a moment, lots of perfectly reasonable, rational people don’t like the idea. Because it’s easy to focus on the “discrimination” aspect of “positive discrimination”, it’s not unreasonable for people who consider themselves to be pro-equality to also be ideologically anti-quota. Lots of people agree that quotas are fair and necessary, lots of people don’t. Regardless of the evidence, the ideological argument for this highly emotive subject is very finely balanced.

It's unfortunate then that this is not a good era for subtle arguments in the public arena. This is not a good era for the difficult sell.

Leaving aside the ferocious way in which opposing views (particularly feminist views) are attacked online, I believe it’s now increasingly difficult in our culture for people to change their minds.

Many people are now aware that we are living in a filter bubble where search engines and social media sites serve us selected content based on their interpretation of our interests and views, and those of our online contacts. Certainly, it’s in the interests of these monetized sites, and their clients (advertisers), to keep us in our little content bubbles. But knowing that our search results and social feeds have been filtered doesn’t necessarily help us to be sceptical because, as human beings, we seek social proof that our views are valid. We’re happy when the entire internet is agrees with us, it means we’re probably right. Only, it’s not the entire internet, it’s just the bit you’ve been served. Your neighbour is seeing something else.

These bubbles lead to a breakdown of intra-cultural dialogue as it’s harder to reach out to people with opposing views. At the same time, the high visibility of content created by, and aimed at, “people like us” gives a false impression of what many others are really thinking. To compound matters, complex proposals do not go viral – but morally superficial, attractively clickable headlines do, leading to high traction for reductive arguments. Traffic and noise can have more impact than substance.

Although women make up around half the population, requesting that half of our major decisions be made by women is – sadly – a challenge to the status quo. We live in a cultural environment where people’s existing views tend to be reinforced rather than challenged, and arguments are often made in the very simplest of terms. Whether we realise it or not, we are becoming more tribal.

The upshot of this is that challenging perceptions is getting more difficult, and is actually less tolerated culturally, while perception and visibility matter disproportionally. I think this means it’s now more important than ever that we accelerate the visible 50/50 representation of women in the real world. Ironically, an environment that makes gender quotas more difficult to discuss, also makes their implementation increasingly urgent.

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