News & Commentary Debate: do the creative industries need gender quotas? By Ben Neutze | May 26, 2017 | Last month, Australia’s Sex Discrimination Commissioner Kate Jenkins came under fire for her suggestion that government contractors should aim to hire 40% women. Former Prime Minister Tony Abbott blasted the suggestion as “anti-men“, but Jenkins responded that she was not recommending mandatory gender quotas, rather that “the Government should require contracted organisations to demonstrate efforts to improve gender balance.” But gender quotas have been debated and applied in a number of industries across Australia for several decades, with the issue of gender imbalance of particular recent concern in the so-called creative industries. Two of Australia’s leaders in communications and advertising strategy, Adam Ferrier and Carolyn Miller, will debate the utility and appropriateness of gender quotas in creative industries as part of the Vivid Ideas program next month in Sydney. Those who aren’t part of the advertising industry may well recognise the pair from their appearances as panelists on ABC’s hit Gruen series. It’s Ferrier who will be part of the team arguing in favour of gender quotas as a tool of threat to companies and parts of the industry that fail to address their gender biases. He says that status quo bias is warping hiring practices in many companies, meaning that those in power are simply favouring people with whom they share certain attributes. That means efforts to simply hire on the basis of merit could easily fail to address subtly and overtly discriminatory workplace practices. “Merit is a total myth,” Ferrier says. “It’s not a merit-based system at the moment. It’s a system massively biased towards one gender. The only way to rectify that is to take deliberate action.” Ferrier says that organisations and individuals must acknowledge their unconscious biases — he says he discovered some uncomfortable truths about his own gender biases through an Implicit Association Test — and put active measures in place to ensure those biases don’t come into play when hiring or promoting. If a company continues to fail in taking those steps, Ferrier says a gender quota could then be applied. “You should precede all of this with lots of research and understanding why there’s an imbalance at the moment, and where that imbalance is happening. That quota could be directed at the entry level, it could be mid-tier, or it could be at the top. You’d only impose the threat of quotas after careful research and analysis has been done on where the systemic problems lie. You use the threat of a quota as a sledgehammer to smash that part of the system apart.” Miller agrees that there’s a clear gender imbalance that must be addressed — and that the notion of merit is largely a myth — but she thinks there are more effective ways of tackling the problem. “It’s a big challenge in the industry and there’s certainly a legacy of the old boys club,” Miller says. “Particularly on the creative side — you still see very few executive creative directors and very few CEOs who are women who have come up through the ranks.” The causes of gender imbalances are complex — in some parts of the creative industries, such as PR, Miller says women dominate — and require a complex, multifaceted response. Miller points to the same unconscious biases in her industry as Ferrier, but notes that they extend well beyond gender, to all kinds of individual factors including race and age. But other industries fare even worse. A report released last year showed that women make up just 16% of Australians qualified in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) fields. “There has to be some public recognition of companies that have promoted women and a much higher level of attention and shame towards companies that don’t promote women,” Miller says. “I think all people in senior management need to challenge themselves to ask: ‘If we’re only seeing men coming through the ranks, are we looking at women the right way?’” In addition to those biases, Miller says women often don’t sell themselves and their skills in the same way as men, and can often be overlooked because of that. She points to a survey in the Harvard Business Review, which showed that men are much more likely than women to apply for a job for which they don’t meet 100% of the selection criteria. But Miller doesn’t believe a gender quota is the best way to address these concerns. Instead, she thinks it’s important to change the attitudes which are preventing women from having a shot and work towards a genuine meritocracy. “You don’t want to devalue a role — you want to feel that you’ve earned it, and you don’t want anyone else in your business to look at you and think ‘well you only got that because you’re a woman’ or whatever minority you belong to.” Ferrier says that might be a legitimate concern, but that discussions about quota systems must be reframed. “The quota system shouldn’t be directed at letting more of a certain group in, but to keep the number of a certain group small. In the gender debate, the quota should be against men — ‘you can only have a certain number of men’, rather than ‘you must have a certain number of women’. “If you keep the quota system directed at the number of the majority, then that becomes the problem, not the minority.” [box]The Status Quota – Is there Merit in Merit? is at 8am on June 9 as part of Vivid Ideas.[/box] Facebook Twitter Pinterest LinkedIn Email About the Author: Ben Neutze Ben Neutze is Deputy Editor of Daily Review. He has previously written for Time Out Sydney, The Guardian Australia and Limelight Magazine.