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Questioning quotas

The question of gender quotas in politics raised its head in Ireland again last week, as Labour TD Joanna Tuffy – who seems to fancy herself something of a maverick, at least when it doesn’t require her to actually defy the party whip – went all over the media arguing against the consensus that seemingly all parties have signed up to. We have a low rate of female representation in our legislature, despite all the main parties having some sort of internal strategy to promote women’s candidacy, so it’s not surprising that many believe it’s time to move beyond voluntary codes. The Programme for Government of the current coalition states that for future elections, funding for political parties will be tied to the percentage of female candidates they run.

Tuffy has made no secret of her opposition to this policy, and apparently it isn’t only quotas she objects to. Earlier this month an email went around to the female parliamentarians, proposing a meeting to discuss what steps they could take to promote women’s participation in politics. Tuffy replied, cc’ing not only the recipients of the original email but every male parliamentarian as well (as if she was exposing some naughty secret being hidden from them), saying that she would not take part in any meeting from which men were excluded. Predictably, she compared it to men holding a meeting and excluding women, and suggested that gender was irrelevant to their roles as public representatives. That the presence of men might hinder a full and frank discussion as to why women sometimes don’t feel comfortable in politics – possibly including, for example, the boorish and lecherous behaviour of certain male politicians (something I’ve experienced myself) – didn’t seem to occur to her or, if it did, she obviously didn’t think it was important.

Last week she addressed the quota issue directly in an opinion piece titled Gender quotas do women no favours – and undermine democracy. Her arguments are mostly pretty weak, but I’m sure they’ve been forensically picked apart elsewhere so I’ll just briefly highlight the glaring flaws:

Gender quotas bypass the voter’s right to decide, and impose a conclusion on him or her…The proposed quotas will mean that candidates will be ruled out on grounds of gender, and legislation will make such discrimination mandatory. This appears to conflict with Article 16.1.3 of the Constitution, which states that no law shall be enacted placing any citizen under disability or incapacity for membership of the Dáil on grounds of gender.

I would accept the validity of these arguments if there was a quota on the number of women that had to be elected. But that’s not what the government is proposing. Political parties will have to select more female candidates but the voter is under no obligation to elect them. Equally, a candidate is under no obligation to run for any particular party (or indeed, for any party at all): if a man can’t get selected for one party because of the gender quota he can still run for another party, or as an independent. If this was the US, where it’s the voters who select the party’s candidates and independents almost never have a hope, Tuffy would have a point here. But not under the Irish electoral system.

Which isn’t to say the Supreme Court might not ultimately agree with her – since their ruling that it’s ok for Portmarnock Golf Club to discriminate against women as long as it defines itself as not a golf club but rather a men’s club that happens to play golf, I’ve given up expecting logic from them in equality decisions – but it’s certainly not self-evident that they will, as Tuffy seems to think.

She next asserts that

gender quotas will give party leaders more control over candidate selection.

It’s a weak argument, made weaker by the lack of any explanation as to how or why they will do so. First of all, anyone who thinks Irish party leaders don’t already have all the control they need over candidate selection has, IMHO, a very naive view of how electoral politics actually works in this country. Secondly, this argument could work both ways: quotas could actually lessen party leaders’ control where too many of the favoured candidates were of a single gender. I suppose what she’s getting at is that under a quota system it isn’t simply a case of running the candidate who gets the most votes at the selection convention, but it isn’t as simple as that under our present system either. I doubt Tuffy is really unaware of all the manipulation that goes on behind the scenes at those “conventions”.

She continues with:

even if no woman had ever lost out because of gender quotas, that would not make them right. Positive discrimination is discrimination all the same.

Broken down, this argument goes like this: Discrimination is wrong; quotas are a type of discrimination; therefore quotas are wrong. It’s similar to one of the most annoyingly simplistic anti-choice arguments (the taking of human life is wrong; the foetus is a human life; therefore abortion is wrong). It reaches its conclusion by assuming that everyone agrees with its premises, unconditionally and without any need to justify them.

The problem of course is that there are plenty of circumstances in which discrimination is not necessarily wrong – or, at least, it isn’t seen as being necessarily wrong. These can range from the micro level (a woman who will only date men discriminates against other women in her choice of romantic/sexual partners) to the macro (a state that only allows its own nationals to enter without visas discriminates against foreign nationals). They already include the electoral level (the Labour Party is entitled to refuse to select Fine Gael members as candidates). If any of these examples are accepted as not being “wrong”, then the blanket assumption that discrimination is wrong is unsustainable – and therefore a statement like “positive discrimination is still discrimination” tells us absolutely nothing about why that is a problem.

She writes,

Those that argue for quotas claim that women don’t win selection conventions. Where is the evidence for this? Where the problem really lies is in the fact that not enough women choose to run for election.

I don’t have the facts and figures about women winning selection conventions, but I accept that the refusal to run at all is probably a bigger problem. It’s odd, though, that she doesn’t see the value in having spaces where women can openly discuss the reasons for that refusal. Does she think it will just sort itself out?

I nearly split a gut reading this part:

Quotas treat women as if they can’t hack it a party’s selection convention, like a man can. They decree that women must be selected on the basis of their gender, and this does them a disservice. Women, just like men, should be chosen on the basis of their qualities as individuals and their ability to persuade voters.

I honestly have to wonder what planet she is on to think that candidates are presently chosen for those reasons. Is that why Maurice “I’m sorry we legalised divorce” Ahern (Bertie’s brother) was selected to run in the Dublin Central by-election over the far more capable Mary Fitzpatrick? Is it just a coincidence that when a sitting politician gets a running mate, the candidate selected for that role is often the one who poses the least threat to the incumbent? The pretence that there is a meritocracy at work in the current system is possibly the weakest of all arguments.

The worst thing about Tuffy’s column is that it is so poorly argued it suggests that there aren’t any valid reasons to oppose quotas, or at least, to question their value. And there are some reasons. Tuffy hints at one when she says

A target is imposed from the top – but the reality on the ground stays the same because the issue is not tackled from the bottom up.

Unfortunately, since she fails to really think this argument through, the reader is left with the suggestion that this alone is a reason to oppose quotas. And it’s not. It’s an argument not to make quotas the sole “solution” to the issue, but not to exclude them as part of the solution. What she could have pointed out is the danger that quotas could mask the “reality on the ground”, could make it look as though there is no longer a problem and hence no need to also tackle the issue from the bottom up. This has in fact been my own experience of quotas: they are essentially a cosmetic solution, and too often they wind up being not a companion to, but instead a substitute for, more substantial measures.

Part of the reason for this, I think, is that quota supporters often have different notions of what the main problem is. Feminists want more women in politics so as to get more pro-woman policies. But in seeking quotas they are allying themselves with people who aren’t feminists, don’t necessarily support such policies and think that once you’ve sorted out the male-female imbalance in public life, that is the problem dealt with.

The case for quotas as a means of advancing women’s issues is often made by pointing to the Nordic countries, which have high proportions of women in their parliaments and also have very progressive policies around things like parental leave. But that country chart I linked to above shows that things aren’t quite as cut and dried as that. There are many countries whose ranking does not appear to coincide with any particular level of commitment to women’s rights. Andorra, at number two, still outlaws abortion under any circumstance except risk to life; only this month in Rwanda, the highest-ranked country, three teenage girls received one-year prison sentences for the same “crime”. It could well be that things would be even worse for women in those countries if they had less gender-balanced parliaments, but a female majority that won’t even remove laws that criminalise reproductive autonomy is hardly a thing worth aspiring to.

The problem with expecting more women in politics to lead to more feminist policies is, of course, that not all women are feminists. Some in fact are the exact opposite – but a quota policy won’t discriminate between the two (you see Joanna, that’s an example of “positive” discrimination!). Who is to say that the consequences of this policy wouldn’t be more Lucinda Creightons? What if men who have actively supported feminist causes were forced out in favour of more conservative female colleagues?

This is one place where my suspicion of quotas differs from Joanna Tuffy’s. She writes that

Gender quotas subvert democracy by making the ends more important than the means.

To my mind, equal representation of women in political life is a means and not an end. The “end” will be achieved when equality between men and women (and those outside the binary) is no more of an issue than equality between the blue-eyed and the green-eyed. Gender quotas could be a step towards getting us there, but they’re far from an end in themselves. And depending on how they operate in practice, in terms of the candidates who actually benefit from them, there is always the possibility that they could make things worse.

And though I don’t like the way quota opponents always resort to whataboutery in these debates, I also don’t think we can ignore the shockingly poor representation of ethnic minorities in Irish politics. As far as I can make out, our parliament has two members who are half-Irish and half-something else, one American of apparently Italian descent and everyone else is of an ethnic Irish and/or British background. There are no Travellers, either. The Houses of the Oireachtas must be one of the least diverse employers of its size in the entire country. And local government – where there isn’t even a citizenship requirement – is little better. Why isn’t this seen as at least as big a scandal as the under-representation of women? If gender quotas are introduced, is there really a good argument as to why ethnic minority quotas shouldn’t be next?

Let me be clear – I’m not against quotas, per se. I’m certainly not opposed to them on principle, as Tuffy is. What I question is the enthusiasm that so many Irish feminists have for them. It is especially galling seeing the energy being spent on this campaign by Labour Women, who could be doing much more for gender equality by stopping their party imposing budgetary measures which will have a particularly devastating impact on women. It is hard to take seriously their claims of supporting women’s interests by trying to get more women into the exclusive club at Leinster House (starting salary: €100K plus expenses) at a time when their (female) Social Welfare Minister is poised to slash the incomes of the women on the very lowest rungs of society.

Ultimately, what it comes down to is this. Women are oppressed because we live in a capitalist and patriarchal society. It will still be a capitalist and patriarchal society after the quota system is introduced (as appears inevitable). The main difference is that there will be more women administering capitalism and patriarchy. Is that better than fewer women? Sure, if they administer it in a way that does women less harm. But there’s no guarantee that they will, and anyway, my feminism is a lot more ambitious than that.

Of course, I don’t expect Joanna Tuffy to understand.


About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

One response »

  1. As a Dane from one of the “liberal” and women-friendly countries in Scandinavia (here in Denmark we are currently hovering around 38-39% women in parliament), I must say that I tend to be positive towards quotas (I do feel they should enforce quotas for the board of directors for example, which has not yet been done in Denmark), however I’m also not so naive as to think more women necessarily mean more women-friendly policies. But at the end of the day, if we live in a democracy, there must be enough space for those women as well, and I think just getting women into politics and business is a step in the right direction.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking article.


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