Louise Davidson-Schmich: What Germany’s Gender Quotas for Candidates Can Teach Us about Its Gender Quotas for Corporate Boards

What Germany’s Gender Quotas for Candidates Can Teach Us about Its Gender Quotas for Corporate Boards


By Louise Davidson- Schmich, University of Miami

In December the New York Times International Edition published an op-ed piece, written by Carrie Lukas from the Independent Women’s Forum, entitled “Boardroom Quotas Won’t Help Women.” In her editorial, Lukas argues against the Merkel cabinet’s draft law regarding gender equality for leading economic positions in the Federal Republic. The law proposes three new regulations: 30% of large corporations’ board of director seats must be occupied by women starting in 2016, 30% of federally-appointed public sector board positions must be awarded to women by 2016 (increasing to 50% in 2018), and mid-sized firms must develop targets for women in top posts and routinely report their progress reaching their self-imposed goals.

While Lukas agrees with the Grand Coalition that women are indeed significantly underrepresented in German boardrooms, she claims quotas are an ineffective solution to this problem. First, Lukas expresses concern that qualified women cannot be found to serve on boards so that, second, a quota will lead to poorer performance by German firms — or even cause companies to leave the country rather than comply. Thirdly, she maintains quotas are not in women’s interest because females in business will be undermined and labeled as tokens. These arguments are not new and in fact have been made for the past four decades against quotas for women, especially candidate gender quotas, both in Germany and in other countries around the world.

While these concerns sound plausible on the surface, what empirical evidence is there to support them? Aside from mentioning one study about Norway published shortly after boardroom quotas were adopted there, Lukas offers only speculation to make her case against the German quota law. While quotas for women on corporate boards are a new phenomenon worldwide, quotas for female candidates are not. They have been employed in Germany and elsewhere since the mid-1980s, providing thirty years’ worth of evidence about affirmative action’s impact. My research and that of others suggests that all three of Lukas’ concerns are misplaced.

First, candidate gender quotas have not decreased the qualifications of elected officials. To the contrary, quotas have led “mediocre men” to be replaced by more qualified women, increasing the qualifications of elected officials not decreasing them. Women selected as candidates when quotas are in place are, however, often equally but differently qualified than their male peers; in Argentina for example both male and female members of Congress are highly educated, but women are more often doctors and teachers than men, who are more prone to degrees in engineering, accounting, and the social sciences.

These findings aren’t surprising. Just as firms are out to make a profit, parties are out to win elections. When constrained by gender quotas, party leaders have no rational long-term reason to continuously select incompetent women as candidates. Instead, party leaders have incentives to begin to search for, and groom, qualified women for top electoral list positions. My interviews with local party leaders in the Federal Republic offer concrete examples of how this occurs. Top quality candidates for local-level elective office in Germany possess a high Bekanntheitsgrad, or name recognition in the constituency. The more personal contacts a candidate has, the more like s/he is to attract votes for the party. Traditionally, when putting together electoral lists, party leaders selected local businessmen or members of male-dominated Vereine, such as the men’s soccer team or the volunteer fire department, because they were well-known in the community. After forced by quotas to select female candidates, German party leaders began to identify high-visibility posts held by local women, such as leaders of parent-teacher associations or church women’s groups, and began to seek female candidates from among these positions. While not possessing the same type of reputations as traditional male candidates, “quota women” brought different kinds of visibility to the ticket, attracting an even broader range of voters.

Similarly, when required by quotas to select female candidates, German parties discovered many qualified women within their ranks had not put themselves forward before because they lacked confidence to run for office. Some feared public speaking. Others were uncertain how local government functioned. To remedy this problem, parties with quotas began to offer their members public speaking courses, political education about government functions, and formal mentoring programs.  German parties without quotas were much slower to adopt such programs, if they did so at all. My survey of over 1000 local party leaders in the Federal Republic found members of parties with quotas significantly more likely than members of parties without affirmative action rules to report access to such candidate development programs. Quotas, then, far from reducing candidate quality in Germany have helped male and female party members become better prepared to hold elective office. There is no logical reason to believe German corporations would be any less likely in the long run than political parties to resort to unqualified female board members rather than identifying and grooming qualified women to assume these posts. These steps produce a broader array of talented prospects than previous selection mechanisms.

Lukas’ second concern about gender quotas for corporate boards is that these policies will reduce firms’ profitability. Although German parties are not for-profit enterprises, they do compete in the electoral marketplace for votes and there is no evidence that parties without quotas have suffered low returns in this arena. To the contrary. After the Greens adopted Germany’s first candidate quota in the mid-1980s, the party began drawing votes away from the SPD, prompting the Social Democrats to phase in their own gender quota in the late 1980s/early 1990s. After they did so, the CDU became concerned about its increasing loss of female voters and it too adopted a candidate “quorum” in 1996; faced with declining returns in Bavaria, the CSU has also adopted a gender quota for inner-party offices. Indeed, the only major German party without a quota today is the FDP – now absent from the Bundestag! Diverse slates of candidates can appeal to a broad range of voters, just as diverse corporate boards can harness the perspectives of a broad range of consumers. Moreover, many management studies have found more diverse groups make better-informed and carefully thought-out decisions than homogeneous ones, suggesting German corporate performance, just as German parties’ performance, is unlikely to suffer after boards have diversified.

Finally, Lukas expresses concern that boardroom quotas will be detrimental to businesswomen’s careers, leading them to be perceived as tokens rather than serious executives. Again, the experience of women within German parties suggests that this outcome is unlikely in the long run. Candidate quotas have inspired German parties to invest resources in mentoring and training programs to develop female candidates and, as a result, quotas have led to a steady supply of qualified, politically ambitious women competing for top places on party lists. The party leaders who I interviewed reported high degrees of competition among female candidates for their half of the ballot and several across Germany concurred with a Social Democrat who reported “situations when men are happy that there’s a gender quota because … there are more women available as potential candidates than men.” Women who rise to leadership after being primed by their party and fighting off competition for powerful positions are very unlikely to be derided as tokens. Perhaps the best evidence for this point comes from an admitted “quota woman” who observed that her career was “in part due to the fact that I am a woman and at times it was exactly a woman who was needed” (qtd. in Koelbl, p. 53).

Rather than being derided as a mere token, this woman – Angela Merkel – has been deemed the most powerful woman in the world. Based on her experience, German corporations and businesswomen have little to fear from the coalition’s quota law.

Louise K. Davidson-Schmich is Associate Professor and Director of the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Florida, USA and a member of the IASGP Executive. The views represented her are her own, not the IASGP’s, and based on her forthcoming University of Michigan Press book A Glass Half Full: Gender Quotas and Political Recruitment.


4 thoughts on “Louise Davidson-Schmich: What Germany’s Gender Quotas for Candidates Can Teach Us about Its Gender Quotas for Corporate Boards

  1. Yes. The qualifications argument just does not work for politics because there are no formal qualifications that will make a politician better. I have a suspicion that if I went around my apartment block and chose women at random they would be more honest, hard-working and insightful than the majority of the lousy politicians we have here in Spain. For me gettting gender equality in politics and the workplace should bring about real changes in the way things work. It should not mean that women are pressured to adapt to the macho system that is already in place.


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