Month: August 2015

I used to be against quotas…

Alyson Laird is a Women 5050 supporter, but it was not always that way, read why she changed her mind about positive action. Alyson

Since writing my Masters dissertation last year, my views on gender quotas have changed. I used to be the person who dismissed them as a viable strategy to tackle gender segregation, called them out for being discriminative, and often used that classic scenario of the man and woman going for the same job and the woman gets it because there is  a quota to fill… you know the rest…

I realise now how misinformed I was.

The purpose of my dissertation was to explore the opinions of employers in relation to the use of gender quotas as a strategy to combat gender segregation in the Modern Apprenticeship Programme. I read widely around the subject of gender quotas, most of which was specific to the political realm. The conclusion from my literature review was that quotas had been successful within politics and may be a strategy which could be utilised in other fields.

I now view quotas as a radical way of disrupting the current norms. Whether this be in politics or sectors, the introduction of quotas would see big changes quickly. The changes we have been patiently waiting on for years and years and years, and changes which might not happen in our lifetime if we stick to the status quo. Quotas are a legitimate way to address a societal problem which has existed… well… forever.

The introduction of quotas shouldn’t be seen as discriminative. Women, at present, are not on a level playing field with men. They can’t access politics in the same way that men do. My original view was that they were discriminatory, why should a woman get a job just because she is a woman? But I now realise that is not the case, I do not believe that women just ‘don’t want to work in politics’ or that they are ‘not the best person for the job’.  I now see quotas as a compensatory measure, a way to recognise that women face structural barriers that men don’t and therefore a way to redress the balance and promote social justice.

Although I now see the merits of gender quotas, I still hold the view that alternative strategies should be considered and quotas should not be considered in isolation. They should be discussed, for example,  alongside education to ensure the root causes of discrimination are still being tackled and that the importance of gender equality is incorporated into the curriculum and play of the youngest learners in society.

I am not naïve in thinking that gender quotas are a miracle cure for gender segregation in politics or any other area of society. I believe they are a short term strategy which offer a real opportunity to tackle  gender inequality and promoting social change and social justice. Through my own research I have changed my view of gender quotas, seeing them now as a positive way to ensure women are more visible and that their voices are heard in politics and other fields.

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Gender Quotas and the Myth of ‘Merit’

Dr. Meryl Kenny, University of Edinburgh 

Bring up the topic of gender quotas and you will face a barrage of well-worn criticisms – they are undemocratic, they discriminate against men, they promote ‘token’ women, and so on. Those who oppose quotas will often claim that of course they would like to see more women in politics, but they would prefer that candidates for political office be chosen on the basis of ‘merit’.  This, they will tell you, is about fairness and objectivity – one should always (to paraphrase Yes Minister) strive to appoint the ‘best man for the job, regardless of sex.’

The underlying assumption here is, of course, that women have less ‘merit’ than men – in other words, that quotas promote inexperienced and unqualified women at the expense of their more meritorious male counterparts. But, there is very little research evidence (either in the UK or comparatively) to suggest that this is the case. Studies focused on political experience and backgrounds, for example, have found little evidence of a ‘qualifications gap’ between quota and non-quota women and men – in fact, the opposite has been observed in several cases, with women candidates and MPs sometimes possessing stronger credentials than their male counterparts (providing support to the old adage that women have to be twice as good to get half as far…). Meanwhile studies of parliamentary behaviour suggest that ‘quota women’ are just as effective as men once they are in office and that they have equally successful career trajectories. Finally, while quotas may be unpopular with the public, voters do not penalise women candidates at the ballot box, and quotas don’t lose votes.

The problem, of course, with asking whether quota women are ‘up to the job’ is that it keeps the focus on women’s (perceived lack of) merit – women are expected to earn a place at the decision-making table, while men, in contrast, are generally assumed to possess ‘merit’ unless proven otherwise. If ‘merit’ is as objective and neutral as its supporters argue, then it is surprisingly concentrated in the hands of men from majority groups. Men are only half of the population, but are currently 78% of parliamentarians around the world; just over 70% of the House of Commons; and 66% of the Scottish Parliament. This is not a meritocracy – there is no evidence to support the notion that men are somehow ‘naturally’ better at politics than women. A meritocracy also requires a level playing field – but we know that there are significant systemic and party-level barriers to women’s political participation – and that women who do decide to run for office are often confronted with discriminatory practices and attitudes; subjected to sexist media coverage; and are much more likely to be selected as ‘sacrificial lambs’ in seats that they have no hope of winning.

Quotas, then, are not unfair or discriminatory – they are a means through which fairness and equality can be achieved. Nor do they undermine the principle of ‘merit’ – indeed, they may actually enhance it. Several studies have found that quotas improve the overall quality of candidates and elected representatives – in Sweden, for example, the use of gender quotas on party lists has resulted in the selection of more, rather than less, qualified political candidates. Rather than oust competent men in favour of mediocre women, parties have replaced mediocre men with highly qualified women, raising the calibre of candidates overall (and particularly among men).  In other words, quotas expand the talent pool for political office and ensure that the ‘best and brightest’ of both genders are selected and elected.

A gender-equal parliament that draws upon ‘all talents’? Surely that is a real meritocracy.

People! Why not try politics?

Ever feel like your voice doesn’t matter? That the political system isn’t for you?
Why not try this particular period of time! With added women, LGBT rights and constitutional debate, this political culture may be for you. Hurry, while stocks last!
Ok so that might be overselling it-watered down minority rights anyone? But there are and have been and will be massive changes in politics. Maybe.
It’s a maybe because what makes these changes happen, and translate into foundation shaking, paradigm shifting, culturally important moments is, surprise surprise, people!
It always cracks me up when folk are all “ooh things are different now for [insert minoritised group]” as if one) my bad, inequalities fixed, let’s just pack up and go home to our post racial, post sexual, post gender utopias then, and two) yes, because change is like the wind, it just happens. Nuh uh dude.
People made it happen, bro. People. People stuck their head above the parapet and thought and  fought about an alternative way of doing things. Sometimes they won, sometimes they lost, sometimes they compromised. But, it made a difference. Somewhere, to someone.
I’m a member of the Women’s Equality Party precisely because of this, because I can do it, and I feel like I should. I’ve written else where about the complications of organising in this way, but I’m willing to give it a go, and be part of those conversations. I’m part of the violence against women and girls policy group, and we’re feeding into chats about equal pay. Policies are developing and tactics are emerging and it is exciting. In fact, we’re having an open discussion about equal pay in the next few weeks with anyone who fancies it, so tell us what you think we should do about it then.
Of course, structural and institutional racism, homophobia, transphobia, poverty and sexism do not disappear because we want it to. If minoritised groups had the power to break these systems down, then of course, we really would be living in a feminist utopia. It is a long haul. And it is a fight. BUT I strongly believe that as these systems were built, we can shake them up. We could even revolutionise them (<— I know right?! But really we could. I think…… Who knows, but let’s try)
I have the capacity and the privilege to get stuck in to politics, and not nearly every woman does. I’m not going to bang on that because at some point my family were working class, I therefore understand the struggles of all women- cos that would be ridiculous, but I am driven by the experiences of women I know and love.
My nan was one of the best women to ever live, and to steal a quote from George Clooney (amen to him) “for those who didn’t know her, I offer my deepest sympathies.” She worked all her life-in a cafe, in a pub, as a cleaner, as a mum, as a nan. She was pregnant at 15. She had been poor. She was a matriarch. She was busy and also ballsy. She sort of fancied my partner which was ok because that’s the type of woman she was. She did not mess about.
She told me to keep stirring the pot and to do all the things she didn’t have the time to do what with raising her loud, massive and sometimes complicated family. So here I am, doing that, repping hard for all women. If you can’t get involved, I want to rep for you too. I want to shut up and listen and learn from you, I want to make sure your voice is heard. I want this potentially new and potentially exciting period of politics to mean something-and do something-for you too.
And if you can get involved, well.. What are you waiting for… Whether it’s women 50:50, Women’s Equality Party, mainstream or outsider politics, local or global activism or any other political movement that’s available – if you can- do. We need you.