By Katharina Schmitz.
In 2018, a ‘whistle-blower’ from the German Federal Foreign Ministry revealed how promotions were manipulated so that only men could climb up the career ladder. Consequently, since 1949 there were more men called Hans that became state secretaries than women (only 3%). In 2015, a study showed that there were more men called Thomas or Andreas in the management boards of all 130 companies listed in the German stock indices than women. Without intending to judge any of those individuals’ professionalism, I would argue that Hans, Thomas and Andreas are not naturally more skilled and qualified than a woman (or a person named Mohammed).
Also, looking at the German parliament, which is supposed to be representative, the average German seems to be a white, cisgender, heterosexual, male lawyer above 50. Firstly, this description is not a realistic representation of the average German, and secondly the privilege attached to this random yet powerful identity becomes obvious. Quotas are designed to advance representation and balance out structural inequalities that lead to misrepresentation and discrimination in the first place. Critics argue that these quotas firstly, introduce a new system of inequality and secondly, they do not address the root causes of unequal representation. Proponents, however, emphasise that currently there is an implicit quota of white, middle/upper-class cis-men which is first of all very simply unjust.
Representation truly matters. The presence of Barack Obama, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar increases visibility and opens ways from the margins. Little girls think naturally of becoming head of states now because of Angela Merkel, Sanna Marin and Jacinda Ardern. Being ‘the first ones’ of their communities, like German local parliamentary president Muhterem Araş or Austrian Defence Minister Alma Zadić, has been crucial for the communities. ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’, hence why we need diverse role models like Black Panther and Wonder Women, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Arundhati Roy and Leïla Slimani.
But one person is not enough. Without top-down counter-quotas and initiatives the structural inequality will not be battled either. It is sufficiently proven that the skills and qualifications ‘we need’ are not only defined by a homogeneous elite, but are also unequally accessible. In a scene in the series ‘The Bold Type’, a white woman gets told by an insider that she did not get a job because of ‘diversity initiatives’. She angrily reacts by telling one of her best friends that it was unfair that she did not receive the job because she was a white middle-class woman. Her best friend, a black middle-class woman, responded that that was what people of colour and other minorities have always had to face on a daily basis.
Privilege is not having to be self-conscious about one’s identity. Rather, privilege is the luxury of ignorance that it is only now, when such quotas are discussed, that the painful and frustrating reality of the other 70% that constitute the enriching, diverse reality of our societies became faintly imaginable. The privileged few lose their sense of security. And then they wonder, ‘oh, is it not only about skills and qualifications after all?’ Well, welcome to reality. Besides, what woman, what disabled person, what person of colour wants to be the ‘quota person’?
I do not like quotas. My friends who grew up in poverty are constantly discriminated against because of their disability, ethnicity, religion or migration background, and they have to invest so much more energy than I do. We were born on different levels. So in order to reach a certain level, they had to work harder and overcome obstacles that our system put there on purpose to protect someone else’s (undeserved) privilege. It is not just fate. Of course quotas do not fix everything and yes, there can never be full equality. But ‘even just white Western women’ would have to wait about another 100 years until equal representation will be achieved. So no, sorry lads, I shall not wait for that long to contribute in our societies. We will build a new table, count me in – quote me in!
The co-founder of the Centre for Feminist Foreign Policy Kristina Lunz once said, ‘the more diverse the minds, the better the policies’. Of how much diversity – and hence quality – do we deprive ourselves of by reproducing inequality and denying talented people the opportunity to actually compete and cooperate with each other? Do our societies as a whole not deserve the best?