Quotas and quota systems

Quotas  and quota systems refer to an arrangement where a certain share of the spots for example in an education programme or on a company board are reserved for individuals belonging to a certain group defined according to gender, ethnicity or functionality. Thus, quotas and quota systems can be based on a variety of traits, yet in most cases the concepts relate to gender quotas. There is a difference between voluntary and legally mandated quota systems. Historically, many occupations have been subject to legally mandated quotas, in the sense that they have been reserved exclusively for men. In those cases, national law has prohibited women from entering certain educational and occupational fields. At present, legally mandated quotas do not exist in Sweden. One example of voluntary quotas dates back to 1994, when the country’s parliamentary parties (following pressure from feminist network Stödstrumporna) introduced a ‘zipping’ system according to which every second person listed on the party rosters of politicians available for election to parliament should be a woman. This was a form of quota system, as the purpose of it was to ensure that a certain share of the candidates for parliament would be women.

Besides voluntary and legally mandated quotas, there is also a type of informal quota system. In Sweden today, everybody has the same legal opportunities to for example reach a certain position or get a certain job. However, equal legal opportunities do not always translate to equal outcomes. Instead, the inequalities tend to remain, since in practice people are still sorted into differently ranked groups based on for example gender, ethnicity, sexuality, functionality, age and class. Male homosociality in corporate boardrooms, racism in the labour market and income requirements in the housing market are just some examples of factors that affect people’s outcome. This can be seen as various informal quota systems.

Quota systems favouring women as a method to achieve change in outcomes often encounter resistance from various parts of society, while quota systems favouring men are not as commonly understood as discrimination. Instead, when men are favoured the focus is turned to the need to make the labour market more balanced, to increase the number of male role models in health and other care-related occupations or to increase the status and pay of undervalued occupational groups. One way in which men have been given preference to education programmes has been to decide that a certain share of admitted students must be men. One example is teacher education programmes at Swedish universities, where the quotas were set to 60% men and 40% women during most of the 1900s.

Positive discrimination is a more common system than quotas. It means that a person belonging to a certain group considered to be disadvantaged and/or underrepresented is given preference for example when recruiting staff for certain positions. Swedish law permits positive discrimination only when a certain gender is disadvantaged/underrepresented, only in the labour market and only if the person belonging to the group in question demonstrates qualifications that are identical to those of other candidates. This means that positive discrimination is very difficult to implement in practice.

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