Moving In From the Margins

Moving In From the Margins

Mandatory gender quotas are a controversial proposal for increasing women’s participation in politics. But are they a true solution, or just papering over the cracks?

Give them a chance: we must take positive action

Genevieve Shanahan

On Saturday the 18th of September, UCC played host to a conference on women’s representation in Irish politics. Presented by the Women’s Studies department and the PSAI Gender Politics Specialist Group, it came at a time of renewed focus on the issue in the media, following the resignations of Olwyn Enright and Liz McManus.

Female participation here is undeniably dismal. With women only making up 14% of TDs, we have gone from being ranked 37th worldwide for women’s representation in 1990 to 84th – 23rd out of the 27 EU member states. Senator Ivana Bacik, who spoke at the conference, has advocated strongly in favour of quotas; last year being involved in the Oireachtas sub-committee  on “Women in Politics” which published a report recommending the introduction of mandatory opportunity measures.

Opportunity measures, as opposed to outcome measures, do not mandate that any particular proportion of seats be occupied by women, but simply that each party put forward a certain minimum number of female candidates for election. In this way, “it is not the freedom of the voters – but rather the freedom of the party organisation – to choose only male candidates that is being restricted by electoral gender quotas,” according to Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at the University of Stockholm.

The Oireachtas report makes it clear that such quotas would be temporary, including a ‘sunset clause’ for when adequate representation is achieved. However, in August, The Irish Times reported that 14 of the 23 female TDs were opposed to the introduction of quotas. It’s not difficult to see why people might be reluctant to lend their support to the idea.

Politicians such as Mary O’Rourke suggest that “such quotas are discriminatory” because they judge candidates’ eligibility based on a supposedly irrelevant attribute rather than purely on merit. Mary Upton compares it to having “quotas for people with blue eyes”.  But this misses the point. In an ideal world, gender would be an irrelevant factor in one’s candidacy, and it’s often tempting to try to affect change by treating the world as if it were already ideal – raising standards by raising expectations.

However, I think we’re discovering that this sort of approach does not work in the case of institutional discrimination, which is really what we’re dealing with. In reality, male politicians do not adequately represent women in government, and there are various factors that disadvantage women’s opportunity to participate in politics. Fiona Buckley, a lecturer in UCC’s Government department, stresses that “quotas should be viewed only as a compensatory measure for the structural barriers that prevent fair electoral competition in the first place.”

Senator Bacik, meanwhile, points out that even where females are chosen to run in elections, most such candidates are not selected based purely on merit – attributes not really relevant to political ability, such as geographical location and family ties are formally and informally recognised as factors in candidate selection. Thus, other measures to promote equality of opportunity would also be necessary, such as civic education programmes, financial supports, facilitation of childcare and family responsibilities, mentoring and training programmes, and support for women’s networks.

Those in opposition focus on the idea that to be brought in on a quota would be demeaning and undermining to the legitimacy of one’s election. The Oireachtas sub-committee considered this in their deliberations and I believe it was one reason for the decision to recommend opportunity rather than outcome measures – in other words, that parties should put forward a minimum number of female candidates to contest elections, but that the final makeup of TDs need not contain any particular quotas.

This solution is ideal. If female candidates are not seen to merit election, then voters are still free to choose male contenders. This should make it difficult to suggest female representatives are in any way less deserving of their position than males.

Women’s involvement in politics, the political system and attitudes towards women in society at large are interdependent. Change in one inevitably affects the others. Waiting for a natural evaporation of institutional prejudice against women has not borne fruit, so it’s time to kick-start the process ourselves, if only as a temporary effort to change what will not change itself. If women do not want to be represented or are unfit to lead there will be no change to our political landscape. What have we got to lose?

Forget quotas: let’s tackle the real roots of discrimination

Tom Smith

Ireland’s lowly position of 84th in the world rankings for female participation in parliament is shameful; I hope we can agree on that from the outset. Otherwise, I suppose, you may as well stop reading now.  I also hope we can agree that the sooner that participation increases in a meaningful way the better. However, I can’t help but feel that recent discourse on quotas in a lot of the mainstream media has been decidedly one-dimensional and failed to grasp some key issues which I will briefly discuss here.

Fact 1: Scandinavia is often pointed to as the place to look to in terms of well-functioning quotas, but in fact Sweden, for example, increased the representation of women to the top of world rankings in the 70s, prior to the introduction of electoral quotas. The increases there were due to sustained pressure and activism from the women’s movement.

Fact 2: Ten years later, they were introduced in Belgium, another supposed idyll for women’s representation thanks to quotas. Studies showed that male representatives still viewed women’s positions as illegitimately gained and quotas were revealed to have done little to tackle the internalised issues of gender inequality.

Fact 3: In Tanzania, quotas have been shown at times to “serve as a subtle mechanism to prevent certain women from participating in competitive politics” according to Tanzanian academic Ruth Meena.

Fact 4: Quotas in India have led to some women being used as proxies by husbands and other men, lacking the expression of their own views and opinions.

Of course, these facts don’t, in themselves, imply that we shouldn’t introduce gender quotas, but they do indicate that much care must be taken in how they are implemented and what accompanying measures are put in place. This debate on the qualitative aspects of female participation is what has been lacking in heated discussions on increasing the quantity of female TDs. For instance, if more women were to get into the Dáil, would their ability to set the agenda and contest inequalities be increased, or would men simply retain the true positions of power? A superficial change is effectively no change at all.

Essentially, depending on how quotas are implemented, the outcomes will be very different. If our political parties of questionable ideological variation are going to be the gatekeepers in terms of what women get to participate, then surely we can’t hold out much hope for who gets through, seeing as the majority of women we have now say they don’t even agree with their introduction. Instead of the male heirs of political dynasties, might we simply get the female heirs?

Party quotas will privilege women who, most likely due to what party their parents belonged to, are members of anachronistic arbitrary groupings based largely on something which happened towards the start of the last century (civil war), who for the most part certainly don’t represent my interests. By all means, increase the amount of women who are in the Dáil, but the types of women who are likely to get through our parochial system to stand for election are likely to be about as sympathetic to the cause of women generally as Maggie Thatcher.

If you want women to feel welcome in positions of power, let’s start at the bottom rather than the top, and build true equality. We should not get distracted on the singular issue of quotas as the panacea for all our gender-related woes. We must be wary of allowing the idea to become so central that if or when they are introduced, there might exist an excuse for complacency and inaction from our elected officials. Such complacency is what mustn’t be allowed, for it shows how quotas could easily set back or slow down the cause of women, not push it forward.

So, starting from the bottom, let’s tell the Catholic Church, which runs our primary schools and still holds much societal sway, that it’s an inherently discriminatory institution. Let’s look at the disempowering way the rest of our education system works. Let’s hold our media to account for subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination against women. Let’s enact a constitution which sees men and women as equal, while simultaneously endorsing the aforementioned discriminatory organisation. In short, let’s question the whole system, not just the most visible part of it.

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