Friday, April 04, 2008

Watch out or we’ll start talking about quotas (by Suzie)

          During this election season, there has been much gnashing of teeth over the idea that a woman might (or should) vote for a candidate because she’s a woman. Many women swear they would never, ever do such a thing. They support candidates who best serve their interests, regardless of gender.
         Meanwhile, countries around the globe have gender quotas for political offices.
         You can get some great data, as well as the pros and cons, from the Quota Project, a joint project of Stockholm University and the international Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
          In general, quotas for women represent a shift from one concept of equality to another. The classic liberal notion of equality was a notion of "equal opportunity" or "competitive equality". Removing the formal barriers, for example, giving women voting rights, was considered sufficient. The rest was up to the individual women.
           Following strong feminist pressure in the last few decades, as expressed for instance in the Beijing “Platform for Action” of 1995, a second concept of equality is gaining increasing relevance and support: the notion of "equality of result". The argument is that real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women from getting their share of political influence. Quotas and other forms of positive measures are thus a means towards equality of result. The argument is based on the experience that equality as a goal cannot be reached by formal equal treatment as a means. If barriers exist, it is argued, compensatory measures must be introduced as a means to reach equality of result. From this perspective, quotas are not discrimination (against men), but compensation for structural barriers that women meet in the electoral process.

          The United Nations held a news conference in February to present its "2008 Map of the Political Representation of Women." The percentage of women in national parliaments has risen from 15.7 in 2005 to 17.7 in 2008.
          A news release quotes Anders Johnsson, Secretary-General of the Inter-Parliamentary Union. “Asked what practical steps could be taken to ‘kick start’ the increase in women representation, Mr. Johnsson noted that the top-ranked countries all had some kind of quota system.”
          Quotas should be a temporary measure, Johnson added. He and other UN officials also talked about training and mentoring women as leaders.
          I'm impatient for change. I'm happy to talk quotas, even if it does nothing else but serve as the outer limit for negotiations. Sometimes you need to ask for more than you can get if you want to get anything at all.