Experts argue for and against gender quotas as ‘virtual’ event keeps global dialogue flowing amid coronavirus outbreak
Gender equality has been placed in the spotlight by Qatar Foundation’s Doha Debates, as experts argued for and against quotas in an event at Education City that showed how coronavirus precautions are no barrier to global dialogue.
With the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak leading to social gatherings being scaled back, the debate at Northwestern University in Qatar – held to coincide with International Women’s Day – was held without an in-person audience. Instead, students and other viewers from Brazil and Turkey to Japan used social media to contribute, comment, and question speakers.
Moderator Ghida Fakhry opened the show by explaining that experts estimate it will be another century before the gender gap is closed, and that this raises the question of whether gender quotas would accelerate change, or if they would be ineffective or even demeaning.
Randa Abdel-Fattah, a novelist, lawyer and human rights advocate from Australia, called for gender quotas that also accounted for intersectionality – arguing that both gender and racial inequalities must be disrupted, and a complex issue like gender inequality cannot be solved by looking through a limited lens.
Illustrating the need for intersectionality, Abdel-Fattah said that of the 19,000 university professors in the UK, around 4,000 are white women — and just 25 are black women. “Gender inequality clearly impacts on women, but some more than others,” she said, urging listeners to envision new and revolutionary forms of leadership and teaching.
“White women enjoy racial privilege even as they fight sexism, and by defining women as a single axis of oppression, we further entrench ourselves in racism. We need gender quotas to pursue a radical redistribution of this power dynamic.”
If we don’t like gender quotas, as many of us do not, we have to be active in building a world where they are unnecessary.
Ayishat Akanbi, a cultural commentator, artist and stylist, said quotas could be a strong short-term solution, but the real goal must be to create a society where they are not needed. “If we don’t like gender quotas, as many of us do not, we have to be active in building a world where they are unnecessary,” she said, adding that quotas are likely to cause tension if people think colleagues are “a tick on a diversity checklist.” Gender equality must not be relegated only to boardrooms and academia, Akanbi said, “because otherwise we care more about power than we do equality”. And she stressed her case that while quotas may sometimes work, a more holistic approach that includes a radical reorganization of society and a serious rethinking of traditional gender roles is needed.
American writer and scholar Christina Hoff Sommers strongly opposed gender quotas, claiming they are demeaning to women and gender equality must happen organically, and saying there is no evidence that they work.
In less prosperous non-democratic societies, she said, quotas “are doing actual harm” because they pull talented women “out of mainstream society, where they are desperately needed, into the government,” where she claimed they are forced to be silent, creating a veneer of equality. She cited the example of Rwanda, contending that the fact more than 60 percent of the parliament is made up of women actually works against them.
In everything we do, we must treat individuals as individuals, not as tokens.
“In everything we do, we must treat individuals as individuals, not as tokens,” she said. “Quotas are ineffective, harmful and send the wrong message to women, and although there is no fixed solution to gender inequality, progress will come out of free expression and discourse.”
Dr. Govinda Clayton, the debate’s connector, encouraged the speakers to find some agreement among their positions, explaining that one point of consensus was that nobody thought gender quotas are “a panacea that would resolve the deeper inequalities we have.”
This led to Akanbi saying that quotas might be beneficial in areas such as national governments, but there is a need to think about the reasons for social imbalances that might not be due to discrimination. However, Hoff Sommers, while agreeing that not all discrepancies in society are due to discrimination, said there are better ways to achieve diversity and equality than through quotas, and that change must happen organically for it to be effective.
But Abdel-Fattah claimed that although the beginnings of a quota system might be seen as tokenistic, the onus should shift to why there is overrepresentation rather than underrepresentation, saying: “This isn’t about evil men versus good women; it’s about structures that need to be challenged and overturned.”
After the opening statements, Akanbi’s middle-ground position received the most votes, with almost 41 percent of the total. By the end of the debate, the positions had shifted, with Hoff Sommers’ anti-quota position receiving 41 percent of the vote, Abdel-Fattah’s pro-quota position receiving 32 percent, and Akanbi’s stance receiving 27 percent.
In the post-show segment, Doha Debates correspondent Nelufar Hedayat spoke with Professor Zarqa Parvez, a lecturer in Middle Eastern Studies at Qatar Foundation member Hamad Bin Khalifa University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences, to gain her perspectives on the debate. Professor Parvez, whose research interests include women, identity and nationalism in the Gulf region, disagreed that “change will happen organically”, saying: “We do not have the privilege of waiting 100 years or more.”
This show ended with a global dialogue between Hedayat and students and other viewers who called in live or submitted video reactions via Instagram. Among them was Eden Kebede, a student from Northwestern University in Qatar, who argued for quotas by saying: “It’s not like I can’t get that job – it’s more about reparations for the oppression that my mothers and all generations went through.
“There are women everywhere with different cultural backgrounds, and you just need to have that in mind so that we can find a common ground and fight the patriarchy instead of each other.”