Cordelia Fine’s (‘Status Quota’, March) discussion on the need for more women in leadership positions and the debate surrounding mandatory quotas in Australia raises an important question about the assumptions we make about the term ‘quota’. Having recently returned from the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, what we heard very clearly from countries that achieved a 30% target of women in leadership is that it won’t happen without quotas. In Australia, the debate about quotas and the word ‘quota’ itself has become entirely confused and has too often tainted the conversation. The United Nations talks about ‘temporary special measures’ instead. These are measures that are taken in special circumstances where discrimination and bias has occurred – a solution applied on a short-term (and time limited) basis to redress a particular issue. At one level this is what we know publicly as quotas. However, when we think about them as being temporary, special and specific measures to redress an inequality, suddenly people stop having such a strong reaction to the idea.
What I’d like to see is the debate in Australia to change towards a recognition that we do need to introduce these temporary special measures by 2014, if the targets and the progress that we’re all hoping for still hasn’t been achieved. The truth is that targets have been in place for several decades and if they are not working then it is time that as a community we acknowledged the limitations of the target system and looked at other ways to increase the participation of women at senior levels.
Julie McKay, Executive Director of UN Women Australia