The Case against Gender Quotas

Norway recently imposed a 40 percent quota for women on its corporate boards. One of the chief architects, a former Minister of Trade and Industry, gleefully told reporters that it was the social equivalent of a “nuclear bomb.” Sweden should resist the temptation to detonate a similar device in its own corporate boardrooms. In the United States, we have rejected gender quotas because we have found them to be demeaning to women, detrimental to companies, and an affront to common sense.

The Norwegian model will create a two-tier system of corporate leadership: men will be chosen because of their value to the company, women simply because they are women. If Sweden imposes a similar radical constraint on its board memberships, every female director--regardless of her talent--will inevitably bear the stigma of special treatment.

As matters now stand, Norway does not have enough qualified women to fill the quotas. A new women’s group called Female Future has sprung up to offer a one-semester crash course on corporate leadership. According to London’s Financial Times, more than 400 businesswomen have taken the course, and nearly one-fourth have received offers to sit on boards of major companies. At a gala dinner for new graduates, women sat at tables which, instead of numbers, had inspirational names such as “Intelligence,” “Creativity,” and “Strength.” “It’s been a fantastic ride for the average woman,” exclaimed a Female Future celebrant.

Norway is trying hard to shatter its glass ceilings and that is a worthy goal. But the solution is not to weaken and undermine thriving companies by removing experienced corporate directors. Such heavy-handed social policy does not promote gender fairness, let alone bring “Creativity,” “Intelligence,”or “Strength” to its corporations.

The best way for Norway and Sweden to encourage and support female entrepreneurs is to foster a healthy, dynamic business environment. A burdensome quota system is antithetical to this end. American women are advancing in the corporate world far more rapidly than European women--not because companies are forced to hire them but because, in our robust economy, companies cannot thrive without their talents and perspectives.

The judgments of the marketplace are relentless and utterly heedless of political considerations. Swedish firms must compete every day with companies from Japan, India, and China that are intent on commercial success and oblivious to gender politics. Highly expert and focused corporate leadership is critical to Sweden’s success in this environment. Of course, such leadership will include women.

A corporation that discriminates against women in senior management or in the boardroom will pay a heavy price, losing out to firms that do not. This powerful natural incentive is a much more effective device for women’s progress than anything the government might impose--and it replaces the stigma of quota-shadowed women directors with the high prestige of women who have succeeded in a demanding environment by dint of their own efforts and abilities.

Two years ago, I gave a lecture in Stockholm to a group of journalists and community leaders. In my talk, I noted that while equality of opportunity is a bedrock principle of all enlightened societies, numerical parity is not. “Madame,” said a retired gentleman in the audience, “You have been swearing in church.”

Sweden is a consensus society. There is much to admire about consensus a society. Harmony is preferable to rancor. But it is neither admirable nor constructive when a society forms a consensus around a fallacy. No one, not even a Norwegian Minister of Trade and Industry, can repeal the laws of economics. My sincere hope is that Sweden will heed the American experience and decline to join Norway on her fantastic ride.

Christina Hoff Sommers is a resident scholar at AEI.

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