Liberating women or muzzling men?

A new EU gender quota system for big business is less about raising up women than assaulting ambition.

Matthias Heitmann

Topics World

In November 2012, the EU Commission decided that from 2020 onwards, the largest 5,000 businesses in Europe must employ a quota of 40 per cent women in leadership positions. The EU Parliament and Council must still approve the law, and 11 EU member states, including Germany, have yet to agree. In Germany, there is no disagreement with the principle of setting a quota, only on whether the system should be rigid or flexible – regardless of what a ‘voluntary quota’ will look like.

In spite of the fundamental unity among the main German political parties that a quota system in one form or another is necessary, there has also been some criticism. In January, the news magazine Focus featured opposition from numerous prominent and professionally successful women. It was rightly pointed out that a quota of women on supervisory boards will have no effect on the low percentage of women in science education. Furthermore, the continued lack of measures to allow women to reconcile work and family has been criticised. The lack of childcare, not corporate prejudice or the sexist behaviour of men, is the biggest barrier to women’s participation in the workplace. The lack of applicability of quotas for women in traditionally male occupations and related industries has been discussed, as well as the fact that quotas restrict the freedom of companies in personnel matters.

All of these (good) arguments are an insufficient basis for a strong opposition to the quota proposal as they only tackle the issue on the level of 30-year-old arguments for or against these measures. What underpins this proposal, and what remains almost unquestioned, is the view that men and women are fundamentally different, that they have ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ values and outlooks that must both be represented in politics and big business. A closer look into the issue reveals, however, that the equality policy is not really about giving men and women equal access to the reins of power. It focuses instead on different sets of values that men and women supposedly bring to the workplace and into politics.

As the widespread cynicism and mistrust in politicians as well as in economic leaders shows, most women and men are in fact not interested in leadership positions. The very notion of having a career is very often regarded as ‘male’. Instead, there is much discussion about ‘work/life balance’ and the fear of ‘burnout’. Political and economic careerism is rather seen as a personal shortcoming, a mental disorder. In addition, the majority of people in Germany seem to believe that humanity has gone too far in the ruthless quest for more power, control and growth. This aspirational outlook not only caused the economic crisis, it is suggested, but also climate change and the destruction of the environment.

Many of these problems and crises are now described as ‘classically male’. Male attributes – in addition to the pursuit of growth, power and money – include the propensity for brutality and ruthless violence, cool rationality, an obsession with technology, overconfidence and fanaticism. The flipside of this is a perceived lack of sensuality, emotionality, social conscience and human empathy, a lack of personal depth and family-oriented balance. ‘Feminine’ qualities are generally the opposite of these things, and include being stable, reliable and creative – these are truly ‘human’ qualities that must be promoted. Representatives of the old masculinity are ‘out’, while femininity is ‘in’.

This underlying conflict of values fuels the current debate about the quota. Beneath the apparently caring appearance, this promotion of femininity fits in with an elitist reordering of society. So instead of greater freedom, understood as an act of social and political progress in terms of a real emancipation – in other words, self-liberation – the policy calls on the state to intervene more in private or commercial matters to enforce rules and regulations determined from above. This explains why not only the left, but also conservative politicians and EU bureaucrats are so keen on presenting themselves as equal-rights defenders these days.

This elitist attempt to rebuild society is not just confined to the workplace but is reflected in every aspect of life, including policies on energy, the economy, the financial system, the labour market, the family and the environment. The appropriate behaviour is prescribed from on high on the basis that if we were left to our own devices then we would act in an ‘unenlightened’ manner.

Inequality and equal rights are perfect issues for the implementation of regulatory policies for two main reasons. First, in the guise of resolving complaints about inequality and equal rights, the authorities promote the advancement of women through the controlled unequal treatment of men. This is the basic idea of ‘gender mainstreaming’, which has been official EU policy since 1999. Persistent ‘negative’ social structures are deemed to be a manifestation of male dominance and masculine values. The solution is not traditional politics, however, but regulation and ‘treatment’ of these backward attitudes and behaviours.

The second reason for the popularity of the issue amongst the elites is that fact that by explaining ‘backward behavior’ as gender-related and therefore more or less ‘natural’, the democratic sovereign – the electorate – can easily be redefined as being in need of care and, if you want, of ‘medical’ surveillance. Citizens are turned into patients and victims, regardless of their gender. Thus the apparently egalitarian desire to promote women actually becomes a cover for therapeutic authoritarianism.

The popularity of supposedly feminine values is not surprising: they fit better in the world today. The desire to make your mark on society, politics or economy – to achieve great things – is seen as too masculine and as misleading, even causing problems. The ambition to change the world, or just improve your own life, is unacceptable; instead, values like humility and a willingness to make do with less are lionised.

Unfortunately, the critics of gender-based quotas usually accept these stereotypes about behaviour. Even amongst critics of the quota system, it is widely assumed that people are greatly affected by their gender characteristics in their behavior and thinking and that they need some form of professional help to escape these gender roles. This leads to a situation in which people will be increasingly denied the ability to treat each other as equals. The differences between us are emphasised over what we have in common. Or, to put it more bluntly: women and men are equally victimised.

These notions of gender difference are barriers to progressive change – and that’s bad news for men and women. What we need instead are more women and men with balls.

Matthias Heitmann is a freelance journalist and an editor at Novo. Visit his website here.

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Topics World


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