The irony of calling quotas patronising

Adrianne Peltz believes in the benefits of quotas
Adrianne Peltz believes in the benefits of quotas

This month Scope has chosen to discuss gender quotas in politics. Here political activist - and feminist - Adrianne Peltz outlines why many of the standard objections are objectionable.

Few topics can incite the outrage of the merit vs matter militia like a discussion on gender quotas. In stark opposition to the veritable vaults of peer-reviewed, quality evidence gathered across the globe, the faux concern for merit amongst candidates will come out trumps every time.

In isolation this wouldn’t be so frustrating, except that the only time anyone seems to care about the competency of candidates is when it is in relation to giving women fair representation. For the remaining 364 days of the year, vocal opponents of gender quotas are seemingly happy to be governed by mediocrity in public life.

There can be no denial that in public life, the numbers for women’s representation don’t stack up to anything remotely reflecting real life. We can all, I hope, agree that the absence of more women in politics and public boards is a Bad Thing.

However, somewhat typically, there is no leadership on what steps are taken to resolve this Bad Thing. The recent Assembly report on this issue is yet more navel gazing camouflaged as leadership on Bad Things.

Stop me if this sounds familiar.

With a raft of vague recommendations that avoid any tangible and measurable action, the report may as well be suggesting spontaneous osmosis of women into the Assembly. I’m sure such a feat is more likely than convincing the fearful hordes of self-selecting parlia-men-tarians who reject every piece of evidence that quotas really do encourage peaceful, equitable & economically resilient societies.

The detractors of gender quotas often criticise the practice as patronising to women, flying in the face of democracy, or plain unfair. However, more patronising to women is the insinuation that their scarcity in these roles is due to a lack of talent, or interest in leadership, and not due to the structural barriers that they face.

Similarly condescending is the notion that putting more women on the ballot paper somehow circumvents democracy by enforcing votes for women candidates from the electorate. Giving voters and the public more diversity is healthy, and a mark of open participatory democracy.

It is a truly warped view of what denotes fairness if the only faces on election posters are the faces of men, when a robust democracy must strive to be governed by all of its members.

Quotas are in fact not a reflection of the direct beneficiaries of such a system - namely women - but a diagnosis of the institutions that sustain public life and democracy. The need for quotas is a damning indictment that the current approach is not working and the incremental changes to systemic flaws are not moving at a fast enough pace.

By introducing quotas, these institutions are forced into the kind of rapid change which delivers real results now, in my own lifetime. Quotas create an environment of measurable accountability where leaders can no longer rely on the tired excuse that they “just couldn't find any women”, instead having to invest effort and resources into recruitment & cultivation of female talent.

The consequence of no gender, ethnic and sexual-orientation diversity in almost every decision making body Northern Ireland is patently clear when considering which problems are prioritised as matters for urgent reform.

The apathetic and often deliberately slow development of a coherent childcare, racial equality and sexual orientation strategy are blindingly obvious examples of where real Assembly diversity could have affected policy changes.

Alas, the burden of costly childcare and its deep socioeconomic implications has been ignored by the disproportionately male Assembly in favour of flags, parades and other charades.

Recognising that a systemic error of this magnitude is occurring & taking action to compensate for it should not be controversial or, as Alastair Ross puts it, “dangerous” - unless of course your career has been built on the exclusion of half of the population.

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