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Debate: do the creative industries need gender quotas?

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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.

SupportBadgeTwo 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 Reviewwhich 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]

7 responses to “Debate: do the creative industries need gender quotas?

  1. A 40% gender quota would be an interesting experiment.

    Especially if say only 10% of applicants are female.

    I suggest we test the merit myth with orthopaedic surgeons and pilots for thesake oif scientific rigour.

  2. I would not like to see simplistic quotas, and engineering or maths are dangerous because there is a big male skew in maths and I sometimes think there is a bit of weird male brain in this. However, in more general aspects of science the difference is nowhere near as big. Watching children all the time in school, there are clear variations from the average. A lot of girls love maths, but not in the one sided way that some boys do for example.

  3. I used to manage contracts in the public service many moons ago. There were just as many female-dominated (or 100% female) businesses we used on a contract basis. Especially stuff like event management, PR, editing, annual report compilation, media monitoring, legal, child care and HR. Those are all massively female-dominated, so they would be hit just as hard as all those pesky male-dominated industries like engineering and IT.

    Allow me to make the observation that women make up only 46% of the workforce (according to the last census), so magical targets like 50/50 are always going to be unlikely. It only takes *one* woman to drop out of the workforce to raise a family in order to render women a minority in the workforce.

    “If you keep the quota system directed at the number of the majority, then that becomes the problem, not the minority.” And then you get Donald Trump.

  4. Having worked in hospitality many years ago, most of the companies were big boys clubs. I know that many of those old white guys would run their companies in such a way that as a female I remember applying for jobs further up the ladder & the men that were just above would make it almost impossible to be able to function in these environments. They would expect us to work twice as hard as the guys, & expect us to be lathered with make up, so that we would be more ‘attractive to the punters.’ Yet they were always looking at ways of trying to get away with not paying us, if they thought we didn’t notice. Being female in a lot of areas you would think has improved in this day & age, but it doesn’t look like this is so,. I would suggest the only way to stop this continuing old white male domination, with its outdated views of women & what they are capable of doing is to make it law that if they are running these types of organisations, they must retire by 70, & that there needs to be a proper democratic vote on who replaces them. Companies that work towards equality at all levels will be looked on more favourably within their industries.
    The crazy part about it is that I would suggest that these male dominated fields lose out on really talented people living with this very narrow view of who they will promote, & how difficult they make it for women, (aren’t our lives demanding enough). If we have to work twice as hard then why isn’t the remuneration there?, or are they too scared that these women who are better at their jobs than their immediate male superiors are, are going to threaten their job security??

  5. And then there are physical biases. At the very bottom are the mechanists, and while I have known very competent female mechs they are a tiny minority. This is largely because mech work is often very heavy physical labour, and promoters and producers are loath to hire more people than they absolutely must in order to cope with heavier scenery. This introduces a bias toward larger, stronger bodies.

  6. Perhaps the solution is to promote at random from within an organization. I recall a few years ago that some mathematicians were awarded the ‘Ignobel’ Prize for showing analytically that organizations would be better managed (I assume on average) if random promotion was implemented. They basically proved the Peter Principle that everyone rises to their level of incompetence. I’m guessing the rise velocity is greater when merit promotion reigns.

    No need to invoke identity politics with random promotion

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