On quotas

Labour pushes for more female candidates

I’m not all that keen on quotas. When it comes to ensuring that we have good representation of women in Parliament, I would rather see our political and party leaders keep this need at the forefront of their minds, constantly monitoring the status of women, and reviewing processes and policies to achieve the goal of equal representation.

However, I am very keen on getting more women into parliament. We’ve got some reasonable evidence that the lack of visibility of women in politics makes it less likely that women will engage with politics.

A group of researchers from universities in 10 countries said they were shocked to discover an “unmistakable” gender gap in what men and women knew about current affairs. Sociologists said that the results reflected how marginalised women still feel from public life, where the majority of leading figures are men.

And there’s the rub. As it turns out, despite the advent of MMP, and the use of party lists, the proportion of women in New Zealand’s parliament seems to have stuck at around 33%40%.

There’s a very straightforward reason for using quotas. They work. In fact they work so well that even the Tories are considering using them (h/t Andrew Geddis at Pundit: NZ Labour – as crazy as the UK Tories).

What are the arguments against quotas for women? National party stalwart Ele Ludemann, of Home Paddock, and former Labour party candidate Josie Pagani both argue that women should be selected on their merits, not just because they are women.

But that just raises the question of how merit is measured. And as it turns out, the characteristics that we tend to think of as being merit-worthy in political leaders turn out to be the characteristics that we tend to associate with men (one, two, three, four, type “stereotypes men women leaders” into google and browse through the results).

We see a man, and we think leader, and we see a woman, and we think, not-leader. It’s nothing to do with merit, and everything to do with our pre-conceptions about who is fit to be a leader.

Underlying the meritocracy argument is the idea that the allegedly most meritorious candidate is the only good candidate, and that he is necessarily much better than any alternative. But it seems highly implausible that there is only one potentially good candidate in each electorate, or only one person who could be an excellent representative in parliament. It’s much more likely that there might be several people who could be excellent, and it’s a matter of choosing between several qualified candidates. Once candidates have demonstrated that they are good enough, or excellent enough, then we just need to choose one from among them. It could be done by drawing a name from a hat, or by making the candidates run a race, or by setting a general knowledge quiz, or by following a rule determined in advance by a party’s constitution, or by looking at the wider needs of the electorate and the nation. If it turns out that one of those needs is for better representation of women, then what exactly is the problem with making a choice among the qualified candidates on the basis of gender?

As a matter of empirical fact, we have had women leaders in this country. Clearly, at least some women are able to gain selection for political office. However, just because some women manage to surmount the barriers doesn’t mean that the barriers aren’t there, making it harder to women to enter politics.

Josie Pagani identifies some of those barriers for women.

Fix childcare. Fix flexible work hours. Fix private sector recruitment so that talent gets promoted there, too, and then recruit leaders from there, from the school gates and the weekend sports fields, instead of from the internal power blocs. And value parenting as much as political parties value political networking.

I agree. Those barriers are real, and very salient for me, as I contemplate entering politics myself in the next year or two. The current silliness of putting Parliament into urgency because the House has not managed its time well is highly anti-family. Creating physically huge electorates so that MPs can’t get home at night is anti-family. Expecting MPs to work 100 hour weeks is highly anti-family. Perhaps it’s time to consider increasing the number of MPs in the House, so that there are more people available to do select committee work, and debate in the House, and perform the myriad tasks demanded of MPs. Maybe we should be looking at multi-member electorates, so that our elected representatives can take evenings and weekends off from time to time.

But I disagree with Pagani’s conclusion.

I would like to see all that before they put another fix in to the selection process.

It will take too long. Women don’t want equal representation in 20 years time, when some fixes have been put in place. It needs to happen now. The long slow fix of using the list and fixing childcare and amending sitting rules in the House is just too damned long. That’s why, much as I would prefer not to, I think that the time has come for quotas.

This entry was posted in Constitution, Feminism, NZ Politics and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to On quotas

  1. Andrew says:

    Nice reply to this rather fraught issue, it is great that you are pointing out some of the problems with the term ‘merit’. It implies it is the pinacle of perfection, the ultimate unity of self and culture. He’s earned this! Despite that fact that the extant merit may have little to do with subsequent performance. All selection is tricky as it involves fantasmatically layering something called ‘objectivity’ over something which is and will always be subjective. What you suggest above feels to me like delayering, remove the fantasy of objectivity and actually work with the subject – contested, conflictual and confusing – but at least close to Reality.

  2. rayinnz says:

    Good points and is the merit going to give good results for New Zealand as a whole or the Party the member represents, tricky stuff.
    Rather glad i don’t have to make that decision and it is worth remembering that Ele (I think) has sat on those sort of committees giving a couple of good women reps for the middle of Middle Earth
    My other point which i have already have raised with Andrew is why not use the list to give a better M/F ratio to Parliament

  3. “As it turns out, despite the advent of MMP, and the use of party lists, the proportion of women in New Zealand’s parliament seems to have stuck at around 40%.”

    Actually, it’s more like 33% (41 out of 121 in this Parliament), where it’s been stuck since 2005. It is Labour that has managed to get its ratio of female-male MPs up to 40:60.

    • Deborah says:

      I don’t know why I managed to type 40%, because I know very well that it’s around 33%. … Momentary brainfade, I think. I’ve corrected it in the post. Many thanks for picking it up.

  4. Peneli says:

    I’m a woman now in my mid-forties, and my perception is that if anything we have gone backwards with gender equality. The high profile of female leaders in various roles from a decade ago has led to a stagnation and assumption that nothing more needed to be done.

    I don’t like the idea of quotas, but women are not progressing in politics or many other fields, just check out the number of women Judges – they too remain a significant minority.

    Maybe it is time to give gender equality this boost.

  5. Pingback: And a few more thoughts on quotas | Ideologically Impure

  6. Mindy says:

    “Fix childcare. Fix flexible work hours. Fix private sector recruitment so that talent gets promoted there, too, and then recruit leaders from there, from the school gates and the weekend sports fields, instead of from the internal power blocs. And value parenting as much as political parties value political networking.”

    Get the women in there to demand these fixes and I think it will happen a lot quicker than waiting for these things to be fixed first.

  7. Pingback: Canada has first cabinet with 50% women? But what about choosing based on MERIT?! | anna writes words

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s