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30th Jul 2016

Women quotas are 'demeaning', says Latvian ex-president

  • Europe should promote 'meritocracy', not gender quotas, says Ms Vike-Freiberga (Photo: Valentina Pop)

The EU commission's idea of imposing quotas on women in businesses is based on the "demeaning" principle that no woman can make it on her own merits, says former Latvian president Vaira Vike-Freiberga.

"What does it actually mean to have quotas? It's to say we don't have enough competent or interested women to do a certain job," Ms Vike-Freiberga told the EUobserver on Tuesday (8 March) on the margins of a gender equality workshop organised by the Norwegian funding scheme for eastern European countries - EEA/Norway Grants.

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On the same day, in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, a special event with EU commission chief Jose Manuel Barroso and vice-president Viviane Reding stressed the importance of closing the gender gap on companies' executive boards via a special pledge Ms Reding is promoting.

But to the 73-year old Vike-Freiberga, quotas are "demeaning", not because they remind her of Soviet times, but because as a psychology professor, she "always felt I could compete with any man."

"I would not need to get in on any quota and find it offensive to be given a grant or made professor just because I'm a woman," she said.

Instead of artificial targets, her vision of an ideal European society revolves around the concept of "meritocracy," where people are given a job according to their qualifications and talent, regardless of their gender, religion or skin-colour.

A useful example, according to the Latvian, is that of the Viennese symphonic orchestra, for a long time a male stronghold. A female cello player, however, at some point went to court after she had been refused a job despite the jury having recognised her as the best candidate. After she won on anti-discrimination grounds, the selection procedure was changed so that nowadays when somebody is auditioning for a position in the orchestra they have to do it behind a screen, and the jury only hears the sound, without seeing the actual person.

"This is meritocracy, this is my ideal of how a society should work," said Ms Vike-Freiberga.

Asked how meritocracy worked in the case of the current EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who was selected by EU leaders along with Herman Van Rompuy, for whose position - head of the European Council - Ms Vike-Freiberga ran openly in 2009, she said: "My objection to the process is that there was no process – these two position were selected in the good old way it had been done for many years in the past. To call it an election is really a misnomer."

This way of taking decisions is a major turn-off for citizens, who would be more interested in EU affairs if the process was more transparent, the Latvian politician argues.

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