Create the conditions for reducing gender inequality by forcing the system to encourage parity. This is essentially the rationale for promoting women’s access to positions of power, particularly in the political sphere, but also in the economic and social spheres. However, quotas are still the subject of much hostility. Why does this tool in the fight against inequality still create so much grumbling? Faced with inequalities that are still too great, it is necessary to question their effectiveness in the fight for greater parity.


A targeted instrument that is becoming more democratic

Quotas are a binding and targeted legislative tool that can be effective in terms of their specific objective: to facilitate the accession of women to key positions. In France, Article 1 of the Constitution, resulting from the 1999 constitutional revision, specifies that “the law promotes equal access of women and men to electoral mandates and elective functions, as well as to professional and social responsibilities”. This system was first introduced through the adoption of the 1999-2000 laws on parity in politics. It was then extended to other spheres, notably economic and administrative. The so-called “Copé-Zimmermann” law of 27 January 2011 marked a real turning point by encouraging the equal representation of women and men on boards of directors and supervisory boards, as well as professional equality on company boards. This was followed by the Sauvadet law in 2012 and the 2013 law on higher education and research, which supports appointments to senior management positions in the civil service and to selection committees and governing bodies in higher education.

A criticized tool

Although quotas are a quantitative tool that has positive effects on gender equality in a numerical sense, they are subject to many criticisms. Whenever the issue of “quotas” is raised, it immediately brings to mind the idea of “positive discrimination” and all the suspicions associated with it. Quotas are accused of trying to solve one discrimination with another. Yes, this is a far cry from the meritocratic ideal, and yes, this principle of instituting inequalities in order to promote equality may seem paradoxical. However, anyone who examines the fundamentals of this concept will be enriched by reflections on an instrument that profoundly questions our vision of equality.

Quotas, a necessary step to change society?

Artificially forcing equality is a drastic solution, but in the absence of firm legal constraints, the situation is not likely to change any time soon. A November 2015 report by the World Economic Forum estimates that at the current rate of change in gender equality, it will take another 118 years to close the gender pay gap, the gender opportunity gap, the gender representation gap, etc. The force of habit and the inertia of the system are such that strategies of co-optation between men are perpetuated, and the sharing of responsibilities stops at the gates of power. The philosophical and legal principle of equality must face up to the fact that it carries little weight in the face of the power of patriarchy. A policy of positive discrimination, as long as it is temporary and encourages a transition, can be a solution to correct an injustice that no longer has its source in the law, but in habits and mentalities. Quotas therefore accompany this transformation of society and contribute to changing mentalities. Their implementation would also encourage women to be more daring and to dare to aspire to the most prominent positions: an opportunity to put an end to self-censorship.

Breaking the “glass ceiling”

How would quotas help to break the famous “glass ceiling”, a metaphor for the invisible barrier that prevents women from gaining access to positions of responsibility? Quotas are a tool that must be thought of in the long term. With a more balanced representation of women in decision-making bodies, women are more likely to be listened to and their needs and concerns taken into account. In addition, having more women elected or appointed through the implementation of quotas often leads to a greater sensitivity of decision-makers to the problems and challenges that women face in their daily lives. To some extent, they may therefore be more inclined to advocate and promote policies and laws that will progressively improve the representation of women in different spheres of society, and address the inequalities that affect them. By allowing women to assume positions of power in the judiciary or politics, for example, this partly encourages the development of more inclusive policies, laws or programmes that can equalise opportunities in employment, pay, health care and other areas.

The Need for Global Action

More than ten years after the introduction of quotas, it can be said that there is a greater feminisation of the political life. But there is still a long way to go, as this instrument alone cannot create equality. For example, among political decision-makers, if the implementation of quotas were to be successful, it would have to be done by the end of the year. For example, among political decision-makers, although the implementation of binding legislative provisions, which do not yet concern executives, has led to a rate of female representation of 44% in the European Parliament and 48.5% in regional councils by 2022, The rate of representation of women is increasing more slowly in the French National Assembly (37.6%) and the Senate (34.8%) and is stagnating at a particularly low level (10%) in the general councils, which are the least feminised representative assemblies (Chiffres-clés – Vers l’égalité réelle entre les femmes et les hommes, 2022). Gender quota policies at the top of the hierarchy tend to overlook inequalities affecting women from less privileged social classes by targeting women from the social elite instead. It is important to stress that gender interacts with other systems of inequality, such as social class, ethnic or cultural origin, sexual orientation, etc. Therefore, equality policies need to be thought of in an intersectional way to take into account these different axes of oppression.

Quotas cannot be a single, isolated solution, but must work in conjunction with other policies and instruments. Only a comprehensive approach combining quotas, work-life balance policies and the fight against stereotypes will make gender equality a reality.

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