Quotas harm the cause

The left should not succumb to neoliberalism’s phoney version of equality, argues Yassamine Mather

Communists recognise the double burden of oppression, relating to production and reproduction, suffered by women in class society - and we struggle to end it. For us the fight for women’s emancipation is an integral part of the struggle for socialism. It is indeed one the many reasons why we fight for a classless society.

Having said that, it would be utterly wrong to suggest that we might as well forget about women’s struggles under capitalism and wait for socialism. We fight in the here and now for demands that will improve the lot of working class women and for genuine social, political and economic equality.

Yet the majority of the left (both in advanced capitalist and developing countries) have been duped by formal, often ineffective forms of gender equality. They are quick to praise the adoption of such superficial ‘equality’ measures that appear to favour women’s participation in social and political life, but in reality are nothing more than an integral part of “cultural capitalism.”1 In other words ‘global capitalism with a human face’.

Over the last two-three decades capitalism has succeeded in convincing many that formal equality, mainly benefiting upper-middle class and upper class women, is the same as genuine equality for all. Most rational human beings oppose obvious injustice, and modern capitalism has been able to use such emotional responses to its benefit, concealing the class character of inequality (especially when it comes to gender inequality) through superficial measures and short cuts. Slavoj Žižek has argued that cultural capitalism “short-circuits” the emotional process by championing the ‘charitable act’. I would say the entire quota system is part of this form of ‘charitable act’.

Far from helping those affected by discrimination, cultural capitalism is actually harmful to the people it claims to benefit, mainly because it fails to mention the causes of inequality, never mind addressing those causes. It relies on cheap sentiment and plays on guilt.

In the words of Peter Suechting of the blog, AC Voice,

Our involvement in cultural capitalism is, in fact, the most maddening of all its injustices: it involves every one of us in its immorality, making every one of us guilty, without our knowledge or explicit approval, just through naive participation.2


Let me start then with identity politics and intersectionality, in order to explain what they are and how they have influenced the issues of quotas, and positive and negative discrimination.

I think it is fair to say that if you live in the academic world or if you have spent time with students or staff in some faculties, you might come to the conclusion that the whole issue of identity politics has become the ‘hegemonic theory of our time’. Of course, this is not true of the rest of society, even though we hear a lot about identity politics and to a certain extent the issues arising from them influence policy-making in the public sector.

To understand the politics of identity we have to look at capitalism, and how contemporary modes of production and social relations, as well as reproduction, have changed since the 1970s; we have to understand that these changes have been as influential as women’s liberation, the events of 1968, black movements, gay liberation and so on.

It is true that identity politics and intersectionality came as a response to second-wave feminism. Second-wave feminism looked at production in terms of labour relations, but also at reproduction and women’s rights. By reproduction, I do not mean just childbirth, but housework and women’s tasks regarding the family’s physical and mental health. Both of these relations have dramatically changed in advanced capitalist countries. Despite gains made by women during World War II, in the post-war decades capitalism continued to rely on a gendered division of labour. If the woman went to work, she remained solely responsible for housework, while the main breadwinner was still the man. That division created a very clear demarcation between productive and reproductive roles.

This gender separation was manifested in the whole of society, not just in the family. For example, during the daytime you would not see many men on the streets: it was the women who were out doing the shopping and so on. It is true that the ‘nuclear family’ was confronted by many changes in the 1970s - I do not underestimate the influence of the women’s movement, the other liberation movements, 1968 and so on. But what was happening beneath all this was western capitalism’s financialisation - moving away from domestic production and the transfer of industries to where there was cheaper labour and an absence of workers’ rights: fewer obstacles to the maximum extraction of surplus value. At the same time, we were seeing the advance of women’s liberation, the advent of the pill, the sexual freedoms of the late 60s and so on. The combination of these two created a particular situation - in some ways a very important phase in the change of the structure of the family. As casualisation and contracted, short-term labour increased, women gained employment and became part of the workforce, while at the same time what were regarded as male jobs were being lost and unemployment amongst men grew. So we had, on the one hand, a change in social relations and, on the other, political change resulting from the demands of the liberation movements, at the same time as the economy was being transformed in most advanced capitalist countries.

In this situation capitalism was able to use the ideas of the liberation movements to its benefit - overseeing superficial changes in terms of gender without addressing the fundamental causes of inequality. There is no reason why surplus value should only be extracted from one gender and its extraction from women had a specific rationale: by focusing on inequality in terms of the individual woman, class oppression was obscured. For identity politics society became a collection of individuals, or social groups with natural characteristics; these were not based on their economic or class position, but on their gender, race or sexual orientation. In this way identity politics took over what were the remnants of the left within the women’s liberation movement, which separated itself from class struggles and became engulfed in an individualistic, or ‘personalised’, version of struggle.


It was in this situation that intersectionality came to address the shortcomings of identity politics, by talking of the autonomous struggles of gendered, radicalised sections of labour. In addition we saw the development of radical movements that took into consideration the black power, LGBT and women’s movements. By the mid-late 1970s, they were also functioning as critiques of the ‘western labour aristocracy’, which had, under Keynesianism, become part of the establishment, according to these views.

I do not think this was simply a reflection of ‘Maoist spontaneity’. The left in Europe and North America was paying attention to the third world, and was concerned about issues of racial and sexual inequality, while the labour aristocracy, a beneficiary of Keynesian economics, was no longer interested in radical forms of struggle. It is, of course, essential for the left to champion the struggles of the most oppressed. In the US racial segregation applied to jobs, while in Northern Ireland skilled jobs were only for Protestant workers. So there was some justification in terms of intersectionality when the left argued that in specific circumstances it was fighting for black workers rather than just ‘workers’. The problem arose when this became the dominant discourse.

Sections of the left were primarily concerned with women’s, black and gay rights, at a time when the workers’ movement was being successfully attacked in terms of anti-union legislation, the removal of services and welfare and in terms of the strengthening of free market ideology and impact of neoliberalism. However, the state could respond to these demands for gender/race equality, dilute their class content and divert the movement into individualism. Capitalism’s dual oppression of women remained in place. Obviously it was not going to divert resources to free childcare, cooperative kitchens or care of the elderly.

Women were told that they were free to work, that they were liberated from the shackles of the nuclear family - there was some truth in that - but at the same time they had no additional support as they took up full-time or part-time work: the double burden of oppression - production and reproduction - remained. Capitalism was able to benefit in a number of ways: sections of the labour force had to accept lower wages for part-time, contract employment at a time when blue-collar, skilled employment for men was being undercut.

The arguments about intersectionality, which developed quite considerably in the United States, emphasised the politics of difference: gender, race, sexuality. Within this developed the idea that the most oppressed would make the most militant and therefore the best leaders.

This in my view is a completely mistaken idea. First of all, the most oppressed will not necessarily become the most class-conscious. There is no direct correlation between the two. When I was active in Kurdistan, the woman whose husband had joined the guerrilla movement and was regularly beaten by him would have been amongst the most oppressed - but it probably would not have been a good idea to make her a member of the central committee.

By the late 1980s and 1990s, as the attack on labour continued, as we approached the era of the ‘end of history’, the era of ‘there is no alternative’, capitalism had absorbed and incorporated some of the demands of the women’s movement and to a certain extent those of the black, anti-racist movement too.

Capitalism appeared victorious, it seemed to have won the ideological argument. It is precisely during this period that a significant part of the women’s liberation movement became part of the status quo, part of the system. The absence of major class battles aided this process. This is not to say that the demands put forward by the women’s movement were secondary - any principled working class organisation would have to embrace them. And it is not true that we are all just workers, so we are all the same. If you were a black female cleaner at that time then quite clearly you were different from a white skilled worker. Different forms of oppression demand specific slogans, specific programmatic demands. But the idea that in the absence of fundamental systemic change such oppression can be removed through intersectionality is foolish indeed.

There is no doubt that capitalism has no problem with the extraction of surplus value from women - it can benefit from the employment of a cheap female workforce, which in times of high male unemployment accepts casual, low-paid work. However, this has nothing whatsoever to do with gender equality. Yet capitalism has convinced large sections of the female population that they have achieved such equality, because the most obvious forms of gender discrimination have gone, because they are free to go out to work. What is forgotten is that often this formal equality has been achieved at the expense of increased poverty, of greater exploitation.

But such superficiality has its attractions. It fuels support for the idea that ‘if only we could get equal representation then everything would be fine’. This, together with individualism, has played a significant part in the acceptance of the quota system as a means of promoting women alongside men.


Most of my arguments so far have been about the use of a corporate ideology to fool the many. This has had its effect in both the public and private sector.

Positive discrimination is more prominent in the public sector, but in the private sector too anti-discrimination measures are overseen by ‘equality officers’ who are supposed to monitor and ensure the implementation of equality legislation. In the public sector job applicants are asked to supply information about their gender, sexuality and race. Of course, you can opt out of answering particular questions, but the system has advanced beyond the formal approach. In any case, are you, for example, going to admit you are gay if you are applying for a post where staff are likely to be predominantly male and possibly homophobic? When it comes to the interview panel, it should whenever possible include a woman and a person of colour - although the token woman may often be tougher on members of her own sex than her male counterparts. The main purpose of such procedures is to protect the public sector from legal challenge, and in reality prejudices remain and selection processes have not changed that much.

So this formal, legalistic approach creates the illusion of dealing with equality, but often it results in new means of protecting discrimination. Women face sexism on a daily basis at work, be it in the form of cheap, prejudiced comments or in the form of an unwillingness to employ pregnant women or those with young children, who are classified as unreliable. So, although we have the appearance of equality, in reality it is mainly formal.

Having said that, when we are arguing against quotas there is a danger in saying that it is because we want the ‘best’ person for the post. The reason I am saying this is that ‘best’ is an ambiguous word - best for whom? On what level? It brings with it elements of the liberal meritocracy. When it comes to leftwing politics, we should judge comrades in terms of their class-consciousness, their radicalism in defending the working class irrespective of gender, sexuality or race. But that is different from arguing against quotas in terms of personal characteristics - we should put politics in command.

The whole quota system presents a danger when you specify the number of women or members of national minorities you want on this or that committee. You are accepting, perhaps unconsciously, that the politics of the gay black man/woman do not matter - she/he is the most oppressed, and the most oppressed is the ‘best militant’.

In terms of race, the quota system has been introduced into many institutions, particularly in the United States. Of course, we have had the first black president, and earlier Colin Powell was the top military figure. But recently I came across a book explaining how the US military in Vietnam had used racial quotas for its officers in order to reduce tensions amongst soldiers. The first thing that came into my mind when I read this was, what would I think if I was being carpet-bombed? ‘Isn’t it great that the officer giving the orders is an African-American’?

You could make similar points about gender quotas. Lloyds Bank recently announced that it is changing its approach, since some of its strategies had been “too aggressive” in the past. The new policy is for more women executives on the board, because they will create the framework for less aggressive banking.3 You can really see this working when someone who cannot pay their mortgage goes to their branch to ask for an extension or relaxation of the terms. The bank will obviously show more understanding (and be less concerned about the effect on its profits) now that it has become feminised!

In fact the opposite is likely to occur. When capitalism places women in positions of power, it ‘masculinises’ them - whatever their personal characteristics, such positions will impose ruthlessness and callousness upon them - we live, after all, in a capitalist, misogynistic society. Its essence remains the same; only the superficial appearance has changed. And because such ‘equality’ is based on individualism, because there is no class content to it, there is little which unites this layer of privileged figures - the female Lloyds board member or the black US military commander - with the ordinary people of their sex or race. In fact the gap is much bigger than that between a working class man and woman or a black man and woman. For instance, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report in March under the headline, “Elitist feminism failed working class women”. It stated that the pay differential amongst women is much more substantial than between men and women.

Glass ceiling

In contrast to this superficial equality, the writings of Kollontai, Zetkin and so on are concerned with fundamental change. Sometimes we can see a glimmer of such a society in, say, a mining village during a militant strike or a liberated zone in an occupied country, where the norms of class rule have temporarily broken down and the expectations of women have changed for the better.

The difference with the current reality is that there is, on the one hand, formal equality, but, on the other, the continuation of dual oppression, made worse by low-paid jobs and all the rest, and this can be quite difficult to cope with - many women cannot cope with it. Single working class mothers in particular are often impoverished despite being in work - and they have all the reproductive, domestic and childcare work as well.

And then there are those who say, ‘We’ve given you equality, but you’re still not doing very well, are you?’ Women have access to higher education and to the top jobs, but very few of them actually make it. So there must be something wrong with them, or maybe they just aren’t as ambitious as men. That is the logical corollary of the quota-based individualistic approach. The misogynists have drawn their own conclusions from this constant obsession with the gender ‘glass ceiling’.

The argument is, of course, that, since women make up 50% of the population, 50% quotas for all responsible positions will make the relevant organisation more representative. It was this thinking that lay behind New Labour’s all-women short lists for the selection of MPs.

But things are never that simple. The majority of women will be unable to ‘accept the opportunity’ provided by quotas because of their personal circumstances - the double burden has not, after all, been abolished, so can they accept an additional workload when they are already struggling to juggle paid employment with housework and childcare? Some of those who agree to apply for a particular post just to make up the quota may do so reluctantly. Many of ‘Blair’s babes’ - those who benefited from women-only short lists and were able to become MPs - confess that once in parliament they did not like to focus too much on women’s issues (which, remember, they were meant to be there to champion), suspecting that this would not be the best way to advance their political careers.

Academic studies analysing the impact of quota systems may measure their ‘success’ in terms of the number of women now taking up the positions that have been opened up. Yet their findings are often discouraging for supporters of the new arrangements. For example, in a book called The impact of gender quotas Franceschet Susan, Mona Lena Krook and Jennifer M Piscopo came to the conclusions that women’s symbolic presence does little to increase overall political interest and participation. That is in line with other findings, which have concluded that women’s quotas had no ‘trickle-down’ effect when it came to political activity and did little in terms of attracting others to follow the example of the ‘role models’.

Despite all this those within the women’s movement who have accepted the structures and the legal, political and economic existence of capital continue to champion quota-based ‘gender balance’ on company boards and in political parties. We were constantly told that things would change for the better as a result, that the system would become more humane. Nothing could be further from the truth. The economic infrastructure has not changed, and political and cultural prejudices persist. Under such circumstances the exercise was bound to fail.

A study in Norway, where companies are required to appoint female directors and board members, is interesting, as it shows the shallowness of such approaches. Sabina Tacheva and Morten Huse in a paper entitled Mediating and moderating effects of board working style summarise a conclusion shared by many other studies of the Norwegian experience: “Minority directors are less likely to be well connected in the managerial world and need to engage in an ingratiation behaviour in order to be appointed to corporate boards.”4 Women directors are often appointed not for their existing contacts and membership of business networks, but rather for their acquaintance with the CEO or other senior figure: “Hence, women directors are less likely to effectively perform their service task, and boards with female members are less linked to the firm’s external environment, have less access to critical external resources and are therefore less efficient in their service task than homogeneous boards composed of only male directors.”5

No solution

My next example of a system of positive discrimination comes from Iran’s Islamic Republic. In Iran the families of the ‘martyrs’ of the Iran- Iraq war (1980-88) that took the lives of half a million Iranians benefit from positive discrimination. They get special consideration when it comes to entering university, applying for medical insurance, buying a car … But, over the years, these measures have caused resentment, especially amongst youth. Students who have studied hard but cannot enter university are angry that their places taken by a relative of a janbaz, who has not even sat the entrance exam. However, the beneficiaries are not particularly happy either. They often complain of the way fellow students dismiss or play down their achievements, even when they do well during their university course.

In this there is a parallel with critiques of quota systems in academia. Women who work hard or who have a strong commitment, and are therefore able to advance, are judged alongside those who have been given privileged treatment and their work is downgraded as a result.

In Norway, the only country where there are regulations governing the number of women on company boards, those who have actually been appointed on merit are numbered among the ‘golden skirts’ - those who are there just to make up the quota. Similarly, Amy Wallace, a journalist who created a campaign called Women Eds We Love, is very clear on this point in her own area of work: “Women editors don’t want to be judged or rewarded for their gender.”6

And quotas in leftwing organisations may often have the effect of devaluing the actual achievement of women comrades who work as hard as, or harder than, their male counterparts. These women are striving to represent the interests of the working class, not looking for the prestige of a more senior position, but the quota system conflates these two outlooks.

There is the additional problem that very often women promoted as a result of quotas are quite subservient to the authority that has put them in that position. There is good empirical evidence to show that they are less questioning of authority, less questioning of the existing political structures. In terms of the left they are often less questioning of the leadership, even if they are part of the central committee - because they have been incorporated, they feel a sense of gratitude and loyalty - an obligation not rock the boat.

There is a well known example of this from the Iranian left, where the quota system employed meant that half the central committee had to be women. However, because many were regarded as being there just to make up the numbers, their views were not properly considered. That resulted in the effective establishment of two parallel bodies: the official central committee and the real central committee, which met, discussed and produced actual policy, completely divorced from its impotent twin.

All these examples demonstrate the dangers of a policy that merely addresses surface appearances rather than the actual reality. It may be adopted with good intentions, but cannot deliver if it continues to operate within a deeply unequal, misogynist framework, leaving its substance untouched. Neoliberal capitalism has incorporated demands for equality in respect of gender, race and sexuality and in the process robbed them of their radical content. The empirical data provided from within the system shows that this approach cannot work.

The same applies to the use of quotas within leftwing organisations. They will not just result in the kind of practical problems I have mentioned, but in the long-term their adoption can actually harm the cause of women’s liberation - the bad examples can be used to reinforce discriminatory practices, to ‘prove the validity’ of misogynistic ideas.

I am realistic enough to accept that we may be alone amongst many political organisation in arguing against quotas. But I do not think that succumbing to neoliberal ‘cultural capitalism’ is the solution.



1. The term ‘cultural capital’ was used by Pierre Bourdieu and Jean-Claude Passeron. Slavoj Žižek has used ‘cultural capitalism’ to refer to ethical consumption, as a solution to global problems. I would add ‘ethical campaigns for equality’ to the list.

2. http://acvoice.com/2012/12/02/global-capital­ism-with-a-human-face.

3. www.bbc.co.uk/news/business-26011447.

4. J Westphal, M Bednar, ‘Pluralistic ignorance in corporate boards and firms’ strategic persistence in response to low firm performance Administrative Science Quarterly 2005, 50, pp262-98.

5. www.boeckler.de/pdf/v_2006_03_30_huse2_ f5.pdf.

6. www.amy-wallace.com/news.