The XX Factor

How Gender Quotas Can Get Everyone Better Benefits and More Competent Leaders

Companies that want government contracts are forced to find ways to retain the women in their ranks.


Female ironworkers, who make up just 1.6 percent of their trade’s 130,000-member union, will soon be eligible for a chunk of paid maternity leave that rivals some of the most generous tech company plans. Pregnant women and new mothers in the union will get between seven and eight months of paid leave.

Only six weeks, or eight in the case of a Cesarean section, can be taken after the baby’s birth, however. The other six months are meant for pregnancy. “The challenges of physical work associated with the ironworking trade create unique health challenges that can jeopardize a pregnancy,” the union said in a statement. The president of the union told BuzzFeed he once heard an ironworker at a conference on women in the field talk about working months into her pregnancy because she couldn’t afford unpaid leave. She suffered a miscarriage.

Testimonies like these helped convince the overwhelmingly male leadership of the union and related trade groups to take up the cause of maternity benefits for workers. But contractors and members of management also realized that they stood to benefit from lower attrition rates of female employees who felt supported by their employers. It takes tens of thousands of dollars to train a new ironworker over a four-year apprenticeship. Every time a woman leaves, management loses that investment.

Keeping women in the field is essential for ironworking companies that want to get government contracts, too. States and municipalities often require vendors of a certain size to have affirmative-action plans in place, and federal contractors that don’t meet certain thresholds of employment of women and people of color must show that they’re undertaking good-faith efforts to increase their numbers. A growing number of private companies are also demanding that the contractors they hire employ a diverse workforce.

The case of the ironworkers’ maternity benefits suggests that when businesses are incentivized to keep women in their ranks, they’ll enact more family-friendly policies, which benefit everyone: the female ironworkers already in the union; women who aspire to the trade; babies who are born to healthier mothers and several weeks of maternal care; partners and co-parents of those female ironworkers; and members of a society with better jobs and health support for women. This is a solid argument for gender-balanced employment goals, if not quotas.

Newly published research from the London School of Economics, Stockholm University, and Uppsala University offers another. The authors studied the case of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, which established a gender quota for its candidates in 1993. “The quota became known colloquially as the ‘Crisis of the Mediocre Man,’ since the incompetent men had the most to fear from an influx of women into politics,” the authors write. “Beyond the obvious point that the quota would give fewer positions to men, quotas can have strategic effects on political selection. Mediocre leaders have a strong incentive to surround themselves with mediocre followers, so as to bolster their chances of remaining in power.”

To measure competence, researchers compared politicians’ income from their private work (Swedish municipal politicians usually keep their day jobs) to those of other politicians of similar occupation, educational background, age, and location. “A competent politician, we argue, is a person who makes more than the median amongst politicians with similar characteristics,” they write. “Remarkably, this competence measure is closely correlated with results from enlistments tests of the intelligence and leadership capacity of those who did military service. It is also related to measures of political success and the quality of service delivery.” The authors found that the municipalities where the gender quotas made the biggest difference in getting more women on the ballot saw a marked increase in the competence of their male elected officials.

A 10-percent growth in female representation yielded a 3-percent rise in the proportion of competent men, on average, according to the study. The authors found no significant change in the competence of female leaders, though one imagines their work might have improved with fewer incompetent men around.