Gender quotas: System Justification

Thoughts Topical

Institutional changes via quotas may also hasten the narrowing of the workplace gender gap due to system justification (Jost & Banaji, 1994) whereby people are motivated to defend the status quo regardless of whether it is unfair or illegitimate. Therefore, it follows that if the status quo becomes inclusive of females in high-status roles, people will begin to defend this new system. A related concept is injunctification, where people perceive the status quo as the most reasonable and desirable system (how things are is how things should be). Kay et al. (2009) ound that when people were told that many women were in politics, they tended to rate female MPs as more desirable – the more people see women occupying high-status positions, the more they accept that women should be occupying such positions. Quotas would therefore harness the system justification motive to encourage equality.

On the other hand, system justification can reinforce the gender imbalance – to defend the system that they would like to perceive as fair, people believe that fewer women are in high-status positions because they are less well-qualified, not because of prejudice (Crosby et al., 2006). Quotas can therefore cause the beneficiaries to be seen as incompetent (if they were adequately qualified, they would not need to get the job via quotas) – they become stigmatised, and lose credibility (Heilman, Block, & Lucas, 1992). This not only increases workplace tension and hostility towards beneficiaries, but damages women’s self-image and lowers their assessment of themselves – they devalue their performance and leadership skills, and feel more inadequate (Heilman, Simon, & Repper, 1987). They also have lower job commitment and satisfaction, perhaps because they do not feel personally important to the organisation (Chacko, 1982). Women who know they owe their position to quotas make more timid and limited decisions (Heilman & Alcott, 2001). The same study, however, also found that quota women who are confident of their ability make ambitious decisions in order to make a good impression, so in practice, these negative effects of quotas may not apply. This is supported by the fact that being hired via quotas can be beneficial for some women – one female movie executive described it as her first “big break” (Martinson, 2015). Furthermore, provided that promotion is not obviously based on gender, reaching powerful positions increases womens’ self-esteem because they feel their success is based on achievement (Unzueta, Gutiérrez, & Ghavami, 2010).

Chacko, T. I. (1982). Women and equal employment opportunity: Some unintended effects. Journal of Applied Psychology, 67(1), 119–123.

Heilman, M. E., & Alcott, V. B. (2001). What I think you think of me: Women’s reactions to being viewed as beneficiaries of preferential selection. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86(4), 574–582.
Heilman, M. E., Block, C. J., & Lucas, J. A. (1992). Presumed incompetent? Stigmatization and affirmative action efforts. Journal of Applied Psychology, 77 (4), 536–544.

Heilman, M. E., Simon, M. C., & Repper, D. P. (1987). Intentionally favored, unintentionally harmed? Impact of sex-based preferential selection on self-perceptions and self-evaluations. Journal of Applied Psychology, 72(1), 62–68.

Jost, J. T., & Banaji, M. R. (1994). The role of stereotyping in system-justification and the production of false consciousness. British Journal of Social Psychology, 33, 1–27.

Kay, A. C., Gaucher, D., Peach, J. M., Laurin, K., Friesen, J., Zanna, M. P., & Spencer, S. J. (2009). Inequality, discrimination, and the power of the status quo: Direct evidence for a motivation to see the way things are as the way they should be. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 97(3), 421–434.

Unzueta, M. M., Gutiérrez, A. S., & Ghavami, N. (2010). How believing in affirmative action quotas affects White women’s self-image. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 46 , 120–126. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2009.08.017.