Can Quotas Solve the Gender Gap?

Today marks the 47th anniversary of the Equal Pay Act, which prohibits wage discrimination on the basis of gender. When John F. Kennnedy signed the law in 1963, women were only earning 53 cents for every dollar earned by men. Today, we are earning 77 cents on that dollar. For women of color, the wage gap is even wider. There are several factors that come into play when economists try to rationalize the existence of a gender gap in wages. But at the end of the day, there is only one explanation that matters; it is discrimination, plain and simple.

President Obama has this to say about the pay disparities:

This remains unacceptable, as it was when the Act was signed. All women – and their families – deserve equal pay. Women now make up nearly half of the nation’s workforce, most homes have two working parents, and 60 percent of all women work full-time. As we emerge from one of the worst recessions in American history, when families are struggling to pay their bills and save for the future, pay inequity only deepens that struggle and hampers our economy’s ability to fully recover.

One potential solution is to institute a quota system, similar to the ones that have been adopted in other countries, like Norway and Sweden. Norway requires 50% of the Cabinet positions to be filled by women, and they have also passed legislation requiring 40% of executive positions in private companies to be held by women. Sociologist Michael Kimmel explains that:

Norway’s policy acknowledges that the only ways to transform social institutions is to enact strong laws and then have the courage to enforce them. Such formal changes – okay, let’s call them quotas – acknowledge that what keeps gender inequality in place is not so much for formal institutional structure, which may have all sorts of claims about gender neutrality, but the informal organizational culture, the sense of tradition, and the long-established tradition that those who are changed with hiring the “best” most often hire those who most resemble those doing the hiring . . . Quotas have the desired effect of neutralizing the uneven playing field, so that the informal cultures of institutions cannot undo what the formal gender neutral rules attempt to accomplish.

We can see how such policies work in real life in the World Economic Forum’s rankings of the world’s countries on gender equality, an annual survey. Every year, the WEF ranks countries on a host of variables clustered around four general areas: (1) economic participation and opportunity; (2) educational attainment; (3) health and survival; and (4) political empowerment.

This year, Norway slipped from first to third place, though it has ranked in the top three for the past five years. The top four slots were held by Scandinavian countries: Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden – countries where gender equality is mandated by law, and government policies put large amounts of money to support it. (For the curious, the United States ranked 31st, a drop of four slots since 2008. Right between Lithuania at 30th and Namibia at 32nd. While first in the world in education, the U.S. ranks 40th in health and 61st in political empowerment.)

I bring up the issue of quotas, because if there are more women at the top, it seems more likely that wages will advance for women.  I don’t say this because I think that women are inherently more egalitarian than men.  I say this because one of the excuses that is often given for the wage gap between men and women is that men have more experience, or they are more likely to be in executive or managerial positions – therefore, they have higher wages.  OK – let’s put more women in those positions and see what happens to the wage gap.  If it persists, then we know that this argument is a lie.

Another excuse that is given when the wage gap is discussed is the issue of parenting.  Women take time out of their careers to have children, therefore, they are less likely to be promoted.  However, more men are starting to assume an equal responsibility for child care, and many are actually opting to be stay-at-home fathers.  The numbers are still far from equal – they’re not even in the double digits – but it’s still an improvement.

What do you think?  Could a quota system help eliminate the gender gap?  Or is there another solution to achieve pay equity?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

For more info on women and the wage gap, check out this article from Susan Feiner at On the Issues.


  1. Quotas are one of the options we have to try to reach some kind of gender equality in numbers. However, we cannot assure women in high positions are going to defend women’s rights. But I believe quotas are a good step.
    There have been “silent” male quotas throughout History, the ones which push men to high positions while women are more than the half of the population in the world. Let’s put things clear and let’s promote women by female quotas.

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