What the World Can Learn From Germany's Debate Over Gender Quotas

Even if requiring companies to hire a minimum proportion of women is a bad idea, just discussing it could address the real problems.

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German Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen, right, talks with Family Minister Kristina Schroeder after a news conference in Berlin about introducing women's quotas / Reuters

Gender quotas are a terrible idea: They respond to diffuse injustice with directed injustice, reinforce stereotypes they're meant to combat, and don't necessarily address the most insidious examples of sexism. But the fact that they're being proposed in Germany right now might be one of the better things for bourgeois gender inequality in quite some time.

Gender quotas have publicly debated in Germany for a few years at least. Last fall, there was serious talk of establishing quotas for the 30 companies of Germany's blue-chip DAX stock index. Labor Minister Ursula von der Leyen is a strong supporter of such measures. The latest news concerns a different industry: media. Sunday afternoon, roughly 250 German editors-in-chief and publishers received a letter signed by hundreds of Germany's female journalists demanding "that at least thirty percent of leadership positions in [Germany's daily and weekly papers] be occupied by women within the next five years." Currently, the letter noted, women hold only two percent of these jobs.

This is not pure rhetoric or pipe dream musings. Last year, German financial daily Handelsblatt actually did introduce a 30 percent quota. Deutsche Telekom adopted a quota in 2010.

I'm pretty wary of gender quotas for a number of reasons. The principle of equal protection under the law, enshrined in the U.S. in the Fourteenth Amendment, has a lot going for it, and quotas, even when set internally, are one hell of a mess where equal protection is concerned. Though the aim is to correct an injustice, and the assumption is that the highly qualified women who have previously been passed over will now get the jobs they, by merit, deserve, that's not necessarily the way it plays out.

Quotas demand that companies hire female workers whether they're the best hires or not; and, in cases where they're not the best hires, absolutely no one wins. Spare me the argument that it at least accustoms people to having women in charge: a woman in a position she didn't earn builds resentment and only reinforces the nasty assumptions that the hire was supposed to correct in the first place. The answer to unmerited male hires isn't to encourage unmerited female hires.

And let's consider the message that long-term quotas would send. Do we really want a younger generation to get the impression that women need protection from the free market? And even if you buy the current argument for quotas, what does it say that they're being set at 30 percent, rather than 50?

Journalism as a field is a good example of why quotas only address part of the problem. Media companies' overall hiring practices often don't look that bad: plenty of women are employed in journalism and media, just not necessarily in the editorial departments and, within the editorial departments, not necessarily in an even pattern. To see how this plays out, look at some numbers produced by the VIDA: Women in Literary Arts group. In 2010, and again in 2011, the group took a stab at quantifying gender disparity in top American (and some British) literary magazines by counting bylines, names on mastheads, and authors reviewed, also trying to break it down by section of the magazine. The results were startling: several of the magazines surveyed had around 75% of their articles written by men.

Even if editorial departments and leadership positions were split fifty-fifty between women and men, that might not fix a particularly insidious trend, wherein men wind up being responsible for the majority of politics and economics writing while women find their best shot of being published lies in a provocative take on marriage or child-rearing. It's not clear who or what should be blamed for this phenomenon, which could be a result of any number of factors. What is clear is that gender quotas, while they might offer an illusion of equality, wouldn't necessarily do much about gender stereotyping, which after all is the deeper issue.

So why cheer the German quota proposals at all? Simple: the German gender-quota hardliners bring that sense of mainstream outrage that you just don't find in the U.S. That outrage--not from fringe groups but from professionals and policymakers at the top of their fields--is what we need if we're ever to get the momentum necessary to address these issues. Sure, we Americans talk a good game, but our concern appears to be largely cosmetic. So what I'm hoping for is something akin to a public shaming: though quotas may be a terrible idea in practice, the seriousness with which they're being discussed in Germany sends a strong message to CEOs and editors-in-chief the world over that "well, we're trying" is a terrible answer, too.

Given that journalism does a pretty good job of covering issues pertinent to journalism, this latest crusade may also be more contagious than the DAX index quotas debate last fall. What encourages me is that I first read about the German journalists' "ProQuote" letter not in a German paper but in The Guardian. And The Guardian's writeup ended with a look at the issues with gender inequality in British journalism, kicked up this past December when one reporter found that 78% of British newspaper articles are written by men.

The sad truth is that the U.S. Constitution's Fourteenth Amendment can't do much about the subtle assumptions, contagious discouragement, or tacit preferences for women writing articles about "women's issues." Facebook's Sheryl Sandberg has suggested that women stop shooting themselves in the foot: push forward rather than shrinking back while approaching childbearing years, be more assertive, and so forth.

But as I pointed out back in the fall, Sandberg's advice doesn't really address the problem of employers shooting women in the foot. In the case of media, the usual flows of ad money may, indirectly, pressure employers to keep proven formulae for success in place: men with a proven track record on a given topic may be an easier sell both to readers and sponsors.

There needs to be some sort of countervailing pressure to balance out those bad habits and change the perceptions that are contributing to current inequalities. Journalists seem ready to cover gender issues in Germany. And if the international nature of modern media means Germany's quota debate produces self-policing elsewhere, perhaps even in America, I'm all for Germany's quota debate.