The case for gender quotas in politics

16 Mar 2015 Ryan Miller    Last updated: 7 Jul 2015

The statue of Boudica at Hyde Park Corner in London
The statue of Boudica at Hyde Park Corner in London

In the past week female representation in politics has been at the forefront of debate. But has a new Stormont report moved anything forward - and was it wrong to rule out quotas? Scope examines the issue.

No-one who follows local politics will be shocked to hear that Stormont lacks the female touch.

Compared with most of Europe, the House on the Hill lags behind in terms of the proportion of its representatives who are women.

However, an Assembly report published last week on the matter ruled out any sort of gender quotas for candidacies.

Ultimately the Assembly and Executive Review Committee (AERC) – nine men and two women - considered but could not reach agreement on such measures, which are not uncommon throughout Europe.

The recommendations that were put forward by the committee are anodyne and non-committal.

Despite being 29 in number, beyond the abstractions they do little more than call for vocal support for more women in politics, the establishment of a couple of panels – “a working group on a gender sensitive parliament” and “a women’s parliamentary caucus” – and request some surveys.

Bloke House

A common objection to quotas is that they reduce the quality of representatives, frequently accompanied by the refrain that candidates should be “the best person for the job”.

However, this position implies that the current situation amounts to that meritocratic ideal.

Observing that the Northern Ireland Assembly is comprised of 108 members, 21 of whom are women, this seems fanciful – and “the best person for the job” line appears naïve.

Indeed, the DUP’s Alastair Ross, a current AERC member, said something similar in last Monday’s plenary session discussing the report.

“One would imagine that, given the fact that 50% of the population or thereabouts is female, a representative body such as the Assembly would also be around 50% female and that we would expect to have around 54 female Members of the House.

“The fact that we do not and that only a quarter of Members are female clearly says that there is a disconnect between the proportion of women in society and the proportion of women represented here in the Chamber, and that is something that is of concern.”

However, he is a clear opponent of quotas, which he said could be “very dangerous” and anti-meritocratic. But does an assembly where 81% of the representatives are men really represent the best, brightest and most capable?

Imagine quotas

Just three days after the report emerged, a talk was held at Queen’s University looking at the effect of gender quotas in politics as part of Imagine! – a “festival of ideas” held in Belfast last week.

Professor Yvonne Galligan, whose primary research interest is in gender politics, gave a presentation outlining results that some may find surprising (a good overview can be found here).

Research suggests that gender quotas in politics actually increase the ability of both male and female candidates in elections, as well as the quality overall.

(Note: “ability” in this case is measured by level of education and relevant experience – these are not perfect gauges, as someone with no GCSEs could make a fine parliamentarian while someone with a PhD could be terrible, but as a measurement of trends it has merit, and it heavily undermines accusations that quotas water down the quality of candidates)

This is because, where ostensibly meritocratic systems are tainted by any number of often subtle problems, a quota can shift results closer to where they should be based on ability.

In the case of redressing the balance of men and women, relatively mediocre male candidates tend to slide off ballot papers, replaced by better-qualified females – and, with women more encouraged to enter politics, the standard amongst them rises too.

Speaking with Scope after chairing the discussion, Prof. Galligan said: “One of the problems we have generally is the disconnection between elected representatives and the public they seek to serve. It excludes rather than invites inclusion, which reinforces the gap between civil society and its representatives.

“This creates a lot more difficulties for the culture and health of our democracy. Going back to gender, if women are included in parliament at a reasonable number – at a minimum of 30% - the culture of that parliament changes.

“The issues it considers are wider than it would do so otherwise, and solutions proposed for problems are again wider – and you can often see women in parliament raising issues that have never been on the agenda before.

“One example is childcare: it is discussed now, but it has been an issue as long as women have been trying to reconcile working and family life.”

Scope put it to the Professor that low representation by women in politics is a problem, and one that quotas can address directly, but that it emerges from a multitude of other social, political and even economic issues.

We asked whether quotas could in fact harm these underlying problems by treating a symptom and not the cause itself.

Her answer was to consider Rwanda – a nation that suffered civil war, followed by a genocide with a toll of death and suffering considerably beyond the Troubles. It has a 30% quota for seats (as opposed to just candidates) for women in legislatures.

She said: “In Rwanda there is a process of peace and reconciliation with the past that is very, very painful but is nonetheless working very well.

“There are victims and perpetrators living in the same villages. They don’t particularly like it but they are prepared to live alongside one another in support of mutual tolerance.”

The African nation has also seen strong economic improvements since 2000, and a substantial reduction in poverty.

Professor Galligan wonders whether it would have been so successful had it not imposed political gender quotas. She said this illustrates that quotas, rather than masking underlying problems, can potentially act as a salve - with a better-balanced parliament ultimately more effective and able to improve the lot of all its citizens.

Her comments are not that far removed from the thoughts of Hillary Clinton, who has praised the role of women in the peace process in NI.

Back in NI

The AERC report says: “The paper identified that the Northern Ireland Assembly has one of the lowest levels of female representation of devolved and national legislatures in the UK and Ireland.

“Dáil Éireann has less but has recently introduced quotas for women candidates in the next elections. The paper described how in a European context, with the exceptions of Italian regional legislatures, the Northern Ireland Assembly has the lowest levels of female representation of comparable devolved institutions in Western Europe.”

No-one denies there is a problem. Agreeing on the nature of the problem is a different matter.

If you think that Stormont is fit burst with the most suitable people for office in Northern Ireland and, specifically, that the gender balance is line with the talent and ability within the population, then it seems logical you might suggest quotas are not a fix and any issues lie elsewhere.

However, if you think the current outcome – 21 female MLAs – itself shows a systemic failure, then it is natural to be curious about the potential benefits of quotas.

Similar arguments are made wherever some established bias is perceived to exist. However, poor communication about the benefits and limits of quotas, and incorrect characterisations of the problems they can tackle, work against their implementation.

All democratic policy relies on buy in. The cleverest plans can fall apart if badly explained or understood.

Quotas have a place in addressing stubborn, systemic flaws. While it is not a guaranteed fix, it is a shame the Assembly has not resolved to pursue a measure that can work better than you might expect.

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