To what extent does the Government, present and future, need to take bolder steps in order to reform employment law and how can it help improve equality and diversity? Should the state seek to influence the demographics of the workforce? This Lewis Silkin article looks at these questions in the context of the growing interest in the use of quotas. 

The National Trust for Scotland are considering age quotas for trustees as part of a plan to make it, and its services, more accessible to a wider group, whilst the BBC have announced a ban on all male line ups in their comedy output. During the last election, Labour proposed a series of quotas and targets to get more BAME and working class people into the top civil service jobs.

Quotas, it seems, are back in fashion.

An oft cited criticism of quotas – of any sort, be they at work, universities or elsewhere, and whether for sex, race, age, or any other characteristic – is that they are “social engineering” (for examples, see here, here, here, here or here). Such a criticism is usually repeated by an unsympathetic media alongside complaints that quotas seek to alter aspects of society in order to obtain a multicultural, multisexual, diverse left wing socialist utopia.

Complaints like this wholly miss the point.

These people forget that, in truth, all laws are social engineering. All laws seek to alter the way in which society behaves to achieve outcomes that Government deems desirable. Sometimes this is done with carrots (like tax incentives for pension saving), sometimes with sticks (like fines for littering). Sometimes it’s with nudges to gently encourage people into desirable behaviour (like the smoking ban that makes lighting up less socially acceptable). Sometimes it’s with a sledgehammer (like capital punishment for murder).

Level the playing field or fix the result?

That aside, the debate around quotas provokes a wider issue – to what extent should the state seek to influence the demographics of the workforce? What role should the state take in promoting diversity and tackling inequality?

The answers to these questions will depend upon what you’re trying to achieve. Today, politicians and Governments – particularly in the UK – are more interested in levelling the playing field, rather than trying to fix the result. Why?

Decades ago, nations toyed with the idea of a big state that would plan both lives and economies, but this was rejected. After the destructive ideological wars of the 20th century, neoliberalism was left standing as the winner. Since being embraced in the late 70s/early 80s, neo-liberalist ideas of privatisation, fiscal caution, de-regulation and free trade have slowly settled into the western consciousness and become part of a collective ‘common sense’. The vast majority accept free market capitalism – even after the devastating global financial crisis of the last few years. There is no serious crisis of ideas, ruptures in popular discourse or unsettlings of ideological hegemony. The days of trying to fix the result are gone.

Because of this, neoliberalism is now confirmed as the centre ground of politics. Politicians fight over this territory. Whilst they will put their own spin upon it, it is simply a variation of a theme: a fence may be painted either red or blue, but it is still a fence. Those that manage to secure their tenure in this centre ground will win elections and form Governments. Those that don’t, lose.

21st century revolutionaries

Whatever their political colour, the neo-liberals who win invariably form short-termist Governments lacking grand agendas. They push short term plans like eliminating the deficit; their future is the next election. They spend their time managing the books and sorting out occasional crises. They do not plan and do not lead. They have no vision.

The real visionaries, on the other hand, are tech businesses and entrepreneurs. Those with the great dreams of the future live and work in Silicon Valley and the Shoreditch roundabout. They espouse visions of mobile phones democratising continents, electric cars cleaning our air and algorithms freeing workers from monotony. Then, they turn their visions into reality. Meanwhile lawmakers let them get on with it. Rather than having their own ideas, the politicians of today have given themselves the job of staying out the way of our capitalist revolutionaries.  In a nutshell, building utopia has been outsourced.

Government: the managers

As managers rather than actors in the shaping of our society, we see the manifestation of this laissez-faire attitude in the Government’s approach to recent labour market reforms. Globally, the trend has been towards flexibility. Bastions of employee rights such as Spain and Italy have seen sweeping changes. Inflexible old regimes have been replaced by liberal 21st century labour markets.

In the UK we’ve seen the same sort of liberal reforms to the labour market, yet at the same time family friendly changes such as shared parental leave have been brought in. The biological disadvantages of gender are being neutralised. Men can more easily be primary childcare providers and it’s easier for women to get back into work. In short, the playing field has gotten a bit more level.

The nearest the UK has to a quota aimed at a whole workforces , rather than just the boardroom, grew in the dying days of the last Labour Government with the passage of the Equality Act. This contains a provision which has the effect of allowing an employer to choose to appoint a woman over an equally qualified man, where there are gender imbalances to address. The provision is currently in force, but is completely unworkable in practice – two candidates can never really be equally qualified. This toothless measure was the most radical reform that the then Government dared to try.

Maybe the reason for this is that the idea of quotas runs contrary to levelling the playing field. Instead it is a big state style policy which fixes the result, and given the political background discussed above, it has therefore been a source of contention. Quotas have found some favour in continental jurisdictions more accustomed to planned economies and a greater level of state involvement, but they are yet to be embraced in the UK.

This brings us back to the initial question. Why are quotas back in fashion?

Businesses: the actors

In a modern, diverse, multicultural society, the existence of boardrooms comprised of stale pale males making decisions that affect the many does not sit right with the collective consciousness. It chimes against our sense of fair play. However, for the short termist thinker, a quota is an easy way of appeasing this. It’s an immediate solution to an immediate problem. But it’s a blunt instrument. The real issues – bias during selection and inadequate investment in ensuring a pipeline of talent – are simply glossed over.

But boards aren’t representative of society at large – neither in their form nor their function. They are a tiny, unrepresentative sample that most people will never encounter in their working lives. There’s no evidence to say that gender balanced boardrooms will cause a trickle down of equality to workplaces at large, or foster a change in attitudes. It won’t increase productivity. Given this, it is surprising that so much focus is placed on this very narrow issue.

Evolution, not revolution

Assuming the status quo remains and capitalism keeps delivering for the majority, Governments won’t be interfering in the labour market to any radical degree. They’ll take measures to ensure employers can make the best use of the economic resources available, but will do so in the same way an artist paints a picture. We’ll see gradual touching up of employment laws rather than radical changes. Time limits will be raised and lowered, definitions will be broadened and refined. Any new rights will be limited and often only of token value. It’ll be evolution, not revolution.

By Tom Heys, Lewis Silkin


Do you agree that Governments and politicians have lost their vision? Share why (or why not!) in the comments below.

For more articles like this, subscribe to our monthly spam-free future of work newsletter.