“We could bring in a quota tomorrow of 50%, but what does it say to those women who have been brought in?” “I never want to go anywhere in life and open myself up to people being able to say, “The only reason that you got there was because of a quota.”

Such comments from women often feature in the anti-quota debate. Women want to be seen to successfully win senior roles on the grounds of merit. Fair enough. My previous post focused on the challenges of defining and assessing merit and considered whether or not quotas erode merit. In this post, I explore the perception that women appointed through quotas or targets have won their role under false pretences and therefore feel stigmatized.

What’s the evidence for stigma?

Numerous studies led by Heilman and others between the mid-1980s and mid-2000s showed that women hired and explicitly identified as being hired under affirmative action programs were generally seen to be less competent and less deserving of their positions. This applied even where it could be demonstrated that they were as competent and qualified as male colleagues.  (It’s something of a conundrum that women as competent and qualified as male candidates had to be hired through an affirmative action program…)

Both men and women assessed the women described in this way as less capable. The women appointed through these processes themselves held these views, even in the face of contradictory evidence about their competence. They also went on to take less credit for successful outcomes and indicated less interest in continuing in their leadership roles.

More recent meta-analysis of this same databank as well as more recent research creates a more refined view that points to a fundamental problem with how we see affirmative action. Affirmative action is designed to ensure proactive investigation of whether or not equality of opportunity exists, and if it doesn’t, to take steps to eliminate barriers and establish real equality. Quotas and targets are amongst such measures, in recognition that women and men of equal talent and skill tend not to be appointed to roles with the same frequency.

The more refined view reinforces the importance of the language we use. Unzueta and his colleagues found that women’s self-image benefited generally from affirmative action policies, so long as they did not think they had personally benefited. Other studies have shown that those who benefit from affirmative action recognize the success of such policies, see them as providing them with opportunities, and enjoy working for employers with affirmative action policies. Where women are told their qualifications are high, they do not experience the same negative effects.

In summary then, stigma may well occur under certain conditions, and how women’s success is described is a critical factor. If women are told they have won their role solely because they are women, they are more likely to feel stigma. Where there is a general environment that opportunity is being re-balanced so that women are not impeded from moving into senior leadership roles, there seems to be no stigma. Where women are told they have won their roles because they are competent and capable, whatever the affirmative action landscape, there appears to be no stigma. (And this happens not just for women, but for any group in the minority, including male nurses working in a predominately female working environment.)

As it is so unlikely that women will be placed in roles solely because they are women, and as long as women are not described as winning roles solely on the basis of their gender, stigma is avoided. These women can say that a quota system enabled merit.

Photo credit: Hayden Beaumont ‘Balance’ Flickr CC