Suppose a time-traveller from today could go back to the 1960s. His status as ‘the man who knows the future’ quickly earns him enormous political influence, which, being a right-on bien pensant, he uses to persuade the then government to introduce mandatory female quotas in boardrooms. How would that have changed social history? Would female emancipation in the economic sphere have happened more quickly? Would it have sped up the entry of women into higher education, politics, the media, and higher-paid professions?
We cannot know, but my guess is no. More likely, it would have produced an economy with gender equality at the very top, but with all other walks of life left unaffected. Boardroom members are scarcely a representative cross-section of society at large, and cases of elite groups inhabiting a different social universe than the majority of the population are hardly unheard of. (Just speak to a member of the Brussels bubble.) What is so special about boardrooms, anyway?
The reason why feminists and classical liberals disagree on this issue (to put it politely) is that they have different ideas about how social change works. Classical liberals think of it as analogous to disruptive market innovations: An innovator launches a new product (e.g. mobile phones in the 1990s). The public is suspicious (‘Mobile phones are for show-offs’). But since we do not decide on this matter collectively, those who deviate from the consensus are free to do things differently. The rest of us can observe the minority’s use of the product, and if it brings genuine advantages, we gradually drop our opposition. After a while, it is as if the product had always been around, and we forget that we were ever opposed to it.
It is not unlike that with social changes. In the 1960s, it was not the norm for women to pursue careers and be economically independent. But those who disagreed with the social consensus of the time were free to deviate from it. Many did, others followed, and those who clung to the old role models could not avoid being exposed to alternatives. Gradually, these alternatives became the new normal. Such a process of persuasion does not have to be articulated; it does not require verbal reasoning. We don’t need a ‘national debate’ first, we just need the freedom not to adhere to a social consensus.
Just as importantly, a competitive market economy provides us with strong incentives to keep our personal prejudices out of our business decisions. Even the most sexist/homophobic/racist employer can realise that by hiring only heterosexual men of Saxon descent, they limit the talent pool accessible to them, which is not smart business. Especially when talented applicants can go on and work for a competitor.
Does this mean that economic equality can be reached without social engineering? No. As long as population subgroups differ (on average) in preferences, attitudes, values etc., and as long as these differences are economically relevant, differences in economic outcomes (on average) can persist.
So much for the classical liberal interpretation. In the feminist interpretation, men, or allegedly ‘dominant’ groups in general, are seen as a gigantic cartel. (This is expressed in phrases like ‘a system built by men and run for the benefit of men’.) Through concerted action, these cartels can exclude newcomers and perpetuate their dominance forever. Moreover, this cartel also controls the media and the education sector, giving them enormous propagandistic power which they use to further cement their dominant position. This is why feminists can appear so shrill and angry: in this worldview, seemingly random phenomena all become part of a big plan. You thought ‘lads mags’ were just harmless entertainment, a bit tacky at worst? Think again. Once you connect the dots in the feminist way, they become part of a propagandistic effort to condition us into accepting sexist role models. It’s all about power, it’s always about power.
The short summary is that while in the classical liberal perspective, social change can happen by itself, in the feminist perspective, this idea is naïve at best and cynical at worst. If a powerful cartel is incontestable, breaking it up requires the force of the law. Female quotas in boardrooms are one part of that breaking-up process. Once there are more women in positions of ‘economic power’, they will make ‘the system’ a bit more women-friendly, from top to bottom. Trickle-down economics, so to speak.
In this sense, the feminist position on boardrooms is only one expression of a broader mindset which sees social change as something that must be manufactured from above. A worldview which puts so much emphasis on (imagined) ‘power relationships’ naturally focuses on grabbing those levers of power, and putting the right people in charge. See why feminists and classical liberals tend not to get on too well?
Click here for details of tonight’s (14th August) panel discussion on ‘Women on Top: Should the EU be imposing gender quotas in the UK?’