Women in New Zealand were the first to gain the right to vote in elections in 1893. Ireland granted women over the age of thirty the right to vote in 1918 and equal suffrage with men in 1922. By 1994 ninety four percent of countries worldwide had granted women the right to vote. This shift in thinking about the sexes was profound. However the equality agenda was not likely to happen quickly. The culture which saw men as dominant and now has to accommodate two genders was always likely to be slow to change.
Women’s under-representation in the political system, at the higher echelons of the economic system and in institutional church structures feeds into the discrimination that is still prevalent today. Women are still paid less than men. They tend to be in a small range of paid occupations which are predominantly service ones. They also tend to carry the main responsibility for domestic and child care activities.
The argument is made that the absence of descriptive groups has led to the omission of concerns which were of particular interest to that group. In elected assemblies the representation of ideology alone is not sufficient.Gender imbalance in leadership roles and especially in representative politics leads to the omission of concerns which are of particular concern to the underrepresented group. Following the General Election in 2011, the Dail was overwhelming male -85% of TDs were male (the previous Dail was 87% male).
Though not a panacea, Quotas have been shown to be the most effective mechanism for improving the numerical representation of women in parliament. They also encourage a rethinking of the issue of representation by forcing a change in attitude to the inclusion of both genders. Quotas are a blunt instrument but the potential negative impacts are outweighed by the positive impact – the political empowerment of women.
In countries where women are expected to be the primary caregivers for children and the elderly, there will be an under-representation of women in politics. Women are therefore socialised not to see themselves as competitors in the political arena. This underrepresentation constitutes a strong signal that cultural, economic, institutional and societal factors combine to unfairly limit women’s access to equal representation in public office.
The opposition to quotas varies from country to country. In France the collection of data on the ethnicity, race or religion of individuals is restricted leading to problems with women even being considered a group. In the United States, quotas are viewed as the negation of merit, unfair competition and the interference of individual freedom. By contrast African states are more accepting of different territorial, ethnic and linguistic groups being represented descriptively through quotas.
Argentina was the first country in the world to implement legislative gender quotas in the election of national legislators in 1993. Until that point internationally, gender quotas had been limited to intraparty rules in other countries. The impact in Argentina was dramatic. In the Argentine Senate, the participation of women increased from five percent in 1993 to forty four percent by 2005.
The effectiveness of quota legislation has varied, however. Quotas are considered to be positive in principle where the targeted quota legislation is likely to be effective. Some countries have not found it necessary to implement legislative gender quotas in order to improve the representation of women, for example Denmark. Political party voluntary gender quotas have been successful in other countries, for example Sweden. However most countries that seek to increase the representation of women in politics use some form of quota.
There are different reasons for quota legislation being effective. The most effective quota laws contain several key features – a high minimum percentage of women candidates, application to all legislative seats, larger electoral districts and adequate enforcement of compliance. Quota legislation that is likely to be effective is positive.
Quota legislation that is likely to be ineffective has negative outcomes. This is because it allows the establishment to claim to have supported legislation to enhance women’s representation and to continue to resist a rebalancing. It also weakens those that have supported the quota legislation. These are likely to have been feminist and indeed female proponents. They are then placed in the position of having to explain the quotas failure to their constituents.
Quotas can promote the perception that candidates are not being elected on merit. In the political domain being part of a political family dynasty, money and established networks are just some of the advantages that can make candidates more successful than others. There is also a denial that high-ability women are not being lost to leadership positions.
Viewing groups as being a homogenous unit is a problem with promoting the use of quotas. Firstly it essentialises ‘women’. This means that the category ‘women’ comes to be understood as a homogenous group all fulfilling the same characteristics. This is clearly false.
Secondly it excludes all those that do not fall into this category – namely men. There can be the idea that in seeking to redress the imbalance in numbers for women that men somehow do not have any difficulties. This is also clearly untrue.
Thirdly when arguing for a greater number of women in politics the assumption is made that the characteristics which some women display will automatically be transferred. This is also not necessarily the experience. For example, women can be seen as being empathetic and therefore the assumption is that all women are empathetic. Conversely men can be seen as not being empathetic.
Adding women does not lead to automatic outcomes. The simplistic view that more women will lead to a more egalitarian society is naïve. The assumption that by increasing the numbers of women in political office will automatically lead to a feminist position on polices is false. Political ideas vary amongst women in the same way as they vary amongst men.
The Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 which has been enacted in Ireland seeks to encourage all parties in receipt of public funding to field at least thirty percent of candidates of either gender in the next general election. It is to be at least forty percent in subsequent general elections. With this form of quota all political ideologies are being encouraged to pay attention to the gender of the candidates that they select. The political hue of the candidates elected is a decision for the electorate. Quotas are simply a means of levelling the political playing field for women.