Against: Are gender quotas in higher education neccessary?

Credit: Megan Holly Burns

Credit: Megan Holly Burns

Sam Bingham

The idea of gender diversity quotas in higher education stems from the same misplaced progressive ideals that allowed the rise of “no platforming” on campuses across the UK. As reported in this publication, last year the University of Glasgow pledged to ensure that 40% of the positions in its governing bodies would be held by women. Whether deliberately manipulating the gender ratio in higher education is positive or not, introducing quotas would be a paternalistic and patronising move that would turn perceived discrimination into an actual one.

The tone and oppressive nature of such an employment policy makes an unpleasant combination. A gender diversity quota makes the leap from promotion to coercion of a social cause. If oppression is taken as cruel or unjust treatment by an authority, then this policy would be a tangibly oppressive act from educational authorities. Perceived female discrimination would become a realised male one. The objective of greater female representation in higher education is an honourable one, but a quota is unashamedly offensive to those it attempts to promote. It is the snide tone of wise authorities, granting a chance to female educators. What a morally upright decision to install a quota for women, rather than allowing the gaining of employment as a matter of meritocracy. Do women require special help? This is troublingly seen as progressive, through the defence of those who cannot defend themselves.

Such a policy is naturally linked with “no platforming” on university campuses. Both are born out of goodwill, yet quash liberty and freedom in their pursuits, as they treat humans as objects not actors in the creation of their destinies. No platforming achieves this by deciding for you what opinions will or will not offend you. Gender diversity quotas matches and trumps this, by forthrightly saying your actions cannot affect future successes: working hard, being intelligent or diligent is not enough. You require the assurance of employment through the accidental formation of your genes.

The introduction of gender diversity quotas has had success in UK politics in increasing female participation in politics. The introduction of All Women Short Lists dictates that only women are allowed to stand in certain constituencies. In 1997 and 2005, fifty% of women MPs elected were selected from all-women shortlists. However, there is a fundamental difference between jobs within government and others in the job market. Government is grounded in the constitutional principle of representative democracy. If fifty percent of the populace identify as female, then having fifty percent of the government as female would be representative, and thus greater. There is no inherent reason that any other type of job should have an equal proportion of females and males. Professors do not represent the public; they are fulfilling a position for financial gain. Gender is as irrelevant as any other genetic variant.

It is evident that males dominate in higher education roles, only 24% of professors are female in the UK. The lack of females could arise from a plethora of issues, perhaps societal or personal. It would be simplistic to pin it on one potential cause. As reported in the BBC, Dame Athene Donald, professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, points at a “subtle blend of cultural expectations”. Including, as reported, “women not aiming high enough.” If this is the situation, it would be better to confront the underlying societal issues, to apply a quota would be a quick fix solution that would deal with outcomes not root causes.

Standing in opposition does not mean complacency to the current situation. It is false to assume a dichotomy of support for this policy or being opposed to social change. Discussing gender issues in a logical and honest way is difficult without being charged with sexism or, worse, conservatism. Viable alternatives to gender diversity quotas must be examined prior to the introduction of such a short-sighted measure.


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