Women in the labor force: A question of quotas and quality

Women go over a plan for a dam in Sri Lanka. How can the public and private sectors ensure that female inclusiveness in the workforce is successful? Photo by: Lakshman Nadaraja / World Bank / CC BY-NC-ND

When Azeema Adam, current governor of the Maldives central bank, used to make coffee for her boss when she started in a junior position, she never questioned why she was expected to perform the task instead of her male colleagues.

“I always said, ‘One day I'm going to be the governor,’” she shared at Wednesday’s panel on boosting female participation in the labor force during the World Bank’s annual meetings in Washington, D.C.

While Adam is one of many success stories, the question of how to elevate females to senior roles in both public and private sectors remains buried under barriers like limited child care services, discriminating legislation, lack of preparation by way of limited access to education, as well as limited child care services.

Female inclusiveness in the workforce is yet another example of an issue that will require a joint effort by all sectors — and both the public and private sectors have dabbled in quotas — or requiring a certain percentage of hires to be women — to bridge the male to female employment gap.

But for quotas to be truly effective, they must come in a package complete with capacity building and backed by data.

A quota can make a difference, according to Melanne Verveer, director of Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace and Security, but there are other examples of what may contribute to elevating the role of women in the workforce.

One way to address this is with data, to show the correlation between women in high-level decision-making positions and the profitability of a company — or the growth of a country for that matter. If you could narrow the gap between male and female employment ratios in Japan, for example, the country would see a 12 to 13 percent boost in its GDP, so “the prize lying at the end of that goal could be quite tremendous,” noted Kathy Matsui, chief Japan strategist for Goldman Sachs.

There is already a trove of data available about the value that women bring to business and government. India, for example, adopted a quota system in 1994 for the lowest level of governance, which Verveer recalled was considered foolish at the time. However, data shows that today millions of Indian women have had the opportunity to participate in their government and are in turn running for far more senior positions. They are also governing differently: investing public resources in sanitation, education, health and other areas that raise the standard of living for everyone.

A quota alone, though, might make for more inclusivity, but not necessarily increased effectiveness. One audience member raised the topic of Kenya’s recent strides to involve women in government. Just as quickly, citizens have begun questioning what quality and talent these women are bringing that wasn’t present before.

“A quota sounds good and you're going to reach those targets very quickly,” Matsui answered. “But you’re doing a disservice to the country by putting women in positions earlier than they are ready.”

Sarah Iqbal, who leads the World Bank's Women, Business and the Law Project, pointed to Norway’s 2003 institution of a gender quota law that mandated a minimum 40 percent representation of each gender in the boards of publicly traded companies. Women initially weren't as effective there either, she said, since they didn't have the training or experience of their male counterparts.

What could women bring right off the bat? Empathy, transparency, consensus building and excellent risk management.

The pressure is on for organizations or governments who do choose quota systems to complete them with capacity-building support. And for women, it’s not enough to get elected or win a position due to meeting quota. As in Kenya, the conversation instantly turns to effectiveness and quality of work.

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About the author

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    Kelli Rogers

    Kelli Rogers is an Associate Editor for Devex. Based on the U.S. West Coast, she works with Devex's team of correspondents and editors around the world, with a particular focus on gender. She previously worked as Devex’s Southeast Asia correspondent based in Bangkok, covering disaster and crisis response, resilience, women’s rights, and climate change throughout the region. Prior to that, she reported on social and environmental issues from Nairobi, Kenya. Kelli holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Missouri, and has since reported from more than 20 countries.

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