Merit vs fair representation is a false dichotomy

Today, NUS UK is debating a motion to introduce quotas for women on student union delegations to national conference, and within a number of the bodies elected by the national conference. There is information from the pro-campaign here

I’m not at the conference, but delegates I know opposing the motion seem to be framing it as ‘merit’ vs ‘equality’. I’ve just written a long post on Facebook about why I don’t think measures to address women’s under-representation are anti-meritocratic, and as I’ve now written versions of it a couple of time, I thought I’d post a version here for more general consumption.


Framing the debate on the introduction of quotas for women within NUS UK as ‘merit’ versus ‘equality’ is a false dichotomy.

A ballot elects the nominated candidate who receives the most votes. On the other hand, merit selection processes should consider the knowledge and skills of a candidate against those required by the position. However, research shows that even merit processes often fall short of being gender and race blind.

I’m confident our campus student population includes a number of women who have the skills and knowledge to be excellent members of the voting delegation. So, the complete absence of women from the voting delegation either this year, or last, isn’t a question of merit. It’s about something far more complicated – the role and status of women in our communities.

A recent (US) study identified five factors that contribute to college age women being less likely than college age men to even think about running for public office.

  1. Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.
  2. From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.
  3. Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about winning.
  4. Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office—from anyone.
  5. Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers.

Thanks to the Women & Public Policy Program at the Harvard Kennedy School for sharing the research. There is a short write up of the research here (and the five factors summary is the Boston Magazine’s) and the short article links through to the full study.

NUS UK introducing quotas for women’s will not address all of the complicated issues that underpin women’s under-representation in civil society. However, it will create a powerful pull factor to keep student unions focused on ensuring that qualified women candidates run, because student union’s will not want to send delegates to NUS who lack the skills to represent their students. 

Yes, there are some student unions, including ours, who might do work on this issue without the fair representation measure, but student unions are busy places and the fair representation requirement will help to ensure that addressing women’s under-representation in student unions remains a focus of our work.


One thought on “Merit vs fair representation is a false dichotomy

  1. Graham

    Surely, from your reasoning, it would make more sense to run programs to encourage women to run for election? That is all we need, as you have addressed the merit issue. Placing women in positions to fill a quota is demeaning to women and men alike, and will only lead to strained relationships, as some will feel that the women are there simply to fill the quota, and that the men were not good enough for that role, as they did not have a vagina.


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