Why are we still debating diversity versus merit in 2015?

Tuesday, November 10, 2015


Susan Franceschet, University of Calgary; Karen Beckwith, Case Western Reserve University; Claire Annesley, University of Sussex

Canada’s first gender-equal cabinet is being celebrated by equality and diversity advocates but criticized by those who believe that using selection criteria like gender, race, or ethnicity violates merit. Those who trumpet merit believe that selection to high-level positions like cabinet or corporate boards must be based on demonstrable skills, achievements, and credentials with no consideration of the other characteristics of the individuals holding those credentials. In fact, critics of quotas as a mechanism to ensure diversity go a step further, arguing that quotas will lead to the selection of less qualified individuals. This logic not only reinforces dubious stereotypes and assumptions about the capabilities of women, indigenous peoples, and visible minorities, it also fundamentally misconstrues the meaning of merit.

The problem for diversity and equality advocates is that critics of quotas (or indeed any measures that aim to improve diversity in high-level posts) have framed the debate in a way that sets up an irreconcilable tension between the principle of merit and the goal of diversity. Supporters of quotas for deliberative bodies, especially those who study gender and politics, have countered the critics in two ways. First, they highlight the ever-growing body of research that demonstrates quite conclusively that gender-based discrimination in politics means that women who manage to break through the barriers and reach public office tend to be more qualified than their male colleagues. Research on the impact of electoral gender quotas shows that quotas can actually improve the quality of elected bodies by forcing selectors to look at the whole talent pool rather than over-selecting from just half of the population.

A second strategy has been to reframe the meaning of merit to include experiences directly linked to identity. Here, diversity advocates point out the inconsistency in believing that experience in the business sector prepares someone for a cabinet post while experiencing Canada’s immigration bureaucracy as an immigrant, or experiencing the myriad subtle forms of sexism and racism are irrelevant to the work of cabinet. If cabinet is to be a truly deliberative body (as Prime Minister Trudeau has promised), then diversity matters greatly, since a broader range of voices and experiences actually improves decision-making, ensuring that all perspectives on complex policy issues are brought to the table. In fact, this logic already applies to Canadian cabinets where the most important consideration has always been regional representation. In this sense, merit has always included representative criteria.

But there is a third option, one that the Prime Minister himself offered when asked about why he prioritized gender equality when recruiting ministers: “Because it’s 2015.” While some may view this as flippant, it actually speaks powerfully to a larger point: those who challenge gender parity cabinets bear the burden of demonstrating that the equitable representation of women in government is prima facie unmeritorious – a position that is simply not supported by evidence. In 2015, women’s equal presence in public office and other high-ranking bodies really needs no justification beyond the fact that it is the right and fair thing to do.


Susan Franceschet is Professor of Political Science at the University of Calgary. She has researched and published widely on women’s movements in Latin America, women in congress in Latin America, and gender quotas in comparative perspective. In 2014, she received a Distinguished Researcher Award from the Faculty of Arts at the University of Calgary and an Insight Grant from the Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council.


Karen Beckwith is Flora Stone Mather Professor and Chair Department of Political Science at Case Western Reserve University (USA). Professor Beckwith has authored numerous books and articles on women’s movements, women’s political representation, and gender and comparative politics. She is the Lead Editor of the book series Cambridge Studies in Gender and Politics (Cambridge University Press), and in 2014, she was a Fulbright Scotland Visiting Professor at the University of Edinburgh’s Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities.

Claire Annesley is Professor of Politics and Chair of the Politics Department at the University of Sussex, UK. She has researched and published extensively on gender, politics, and policymaking, exploring how women’s presence in political institutions changes policy agendas and policy outcomes. Professor Annesley’s research was awarded the 2011 Richard Rose Prize by the UK Political Studies Association and the 2012 Best Comparative Policy Paper Award from the American Political Science Association’s Public Policy section. Currently, Professor Annesley is a co-investigator for the ESRC seminar series Feminising Politics

Together, Professors Annesely, Beckwith, and Franceschet are currently engaged in a research project on Political Women and Executive Representation (PoWER). The research project explores cabinet formation in nine countries, including both parliamentary and presidential democracies, to determine how the rules and norms of ministerial recruitment are gendered in ways that create different opportunities for men and women to become ministers.  


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