During Wednesday’s Democratic presidential primary debate, Sen. Amy Klobuchar lamented the fact that Americans haven’t yet elected a female president. She claimed that one of the possible reasons why is that women are “held to a higher standard” than men.
It’s a shame no one asked her what she thinks about a law passed in California last year that will fine public companies $100,000 initially (and $300,000 for subsequent violations) if they don’t have at least one woman on their boards of directors by the end of 2019.
The law, a blatant attempt to impose quotas on corporations, apparently assumes that, far from being held to a higher standard, women can’t meet the requirements for corporate board membership without state mandates. This despite the fact that women already hold about 20 percent of board positions for the Standard & Poor index of 500 American companies.
Far from sending a message about supporting women, the Democrat-backed bill was pursued in a spirit of rank partisanship. California governor Jerry Brown signed it into law amid the vitriolic Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Judge Brett Kavanaugh and made a point of copying the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on his statement about corporate board quotas. “I don’t minimize the potential flaws that indeed may prove fatal to [the law’s] implementation,” Brown wrote. “Nevertheless, recent events in Washington, D.C.—and beyond—make it crystal clear the many are not getting the message.”
Proponents of the California bill and their academic supporters claim that it would do far more than increase the number of women on boards. They promoted it as a panacea for a host of ills, such as the persistence of a wage gap between men and women and the lack of women in management positions. One of the bill’s co-sponsors, state Sen. Hannah-Beth Jackson, told USA Today it was “a giant step forward not just for women but also for our businesses and our economy. It’s a win-win-win.”
But as the use of such quotas in other countries has shown, there is little evidence that they accomplish their goals. At the same time, they create numerous unintended consequences that ultimately undermine women’s position in the workplace.
In Norway, where an aggressive 40 percent quota for women board members in all public companies has been in effect since 2008, the gains for women have not been as dramatic as proponents of the quotas promised. As Anastasia Boden of the Pacific Legal Foundation noted in the Los Angeles Times, “more than 10 years later, the mandate has not significantly increased the number of women in senior management positions, nor has it reduced the pay gap between men and women.” Similar trends are in evidence in other countries with quotas, including France, the Netherlands, and Germany. (As well, several public companies in Norway went private to avoid the quota).
And there is apparently little trickle-down effect for women in management positions either. One academic study of the effect of board quotas in Norway concluded, “We fail to find evidence of any gains for female employees in these less rarefied executive layers.” In fact, “the reform had very little discernible impact on women in business beyond its direct effect on the newly appointed female board members.” Although not averse to the goal of increasing the number of women on boards or in management, they concluded that “governments should be wary of placing too much faith in this specific affirmative action policy as a broad solution to the persistent under-representation of women in the top layers of the business sector.”
There are other less quantifiable impacts of quotas as well, such as their effect on perceptions of women (and on women’s perceptions of themselves). One study found that when women were told that they were selected for jobs based on sex, not merit, “women devalued their leadership performance, took less credit for successful outcomes, and reported less interest in persisting as leaders; they also characterized themselves as more deficient in general leadership skills.”
As the Pacific Legal Foundation’s Boden, who last week filed a lawsuit challenging the quota law, argued, “Sex-based classifications of any kind can serve to perpetuate gender bias. Even those laws aimed at ‘helping’ a woman can reinforce antiquated stereotypes about them because they’re often based on perceptions about the way that ‘women are,’ or what they are capable of.”
If you believe Sen. Klobuchar, it doesn’t matter how much women achieve because they’re always assumed to be less than men. California’s quota policy enshrines that misguided view in law.