Sarah Carey’s article in today’s Irish Times is the latest contribution in the debate on whether we should consider adopting party-level gender quotas for the nomination of candidates. This article appears to me to be a particularly striking example of the combative rhetorical strategies that both sides of the debate have employed. Several opinion pieces on this topic have followed the structure: I am for/against gender quotas – now let me tell you why they are wonderful/terrible.
For instance, look at the title of Ms. Carey’s article: ‘Gender quotas end up perverting democratic choice’. A more accurate description of the content of the article would read along the lines of: ‘Badly designed gender quotas can lead to counter-intuitive results’. I suppose that the use of hyperbole is attributable primarily to a desire to construct an entertaining and readable article. However, it also indicates a mentality that fears that a reasoned argument, one that considers both the advantages and disadvantages of a given proposal, and comes to a nuanced conclusion, will not be as persuasive as an argument that picks and chooses what evidence to consider, and distorts the implications of that evidence. Ms. Carey’s article, like many contributions on both sides of this debate, fails to acknowledge that there is a wide diversity in terms of the policy designs that are broadly grouped into the category of ‘gender quotas’. Professor Mona Lena Krook’s contribution to a previous post on this topic outlines some of the major the dimensions of variation:
1) The body of individuals to which the quota applies: reserved seat quotas versus selected candidate quotas;
2) The specified minimum proportion of each gender: this property can theoretically vary from 0%-50%, in practice it tends to vary between 20% and 40%;
3) The method by which the quota is adopted: legislative mandatory versus voluntary party quotas.
Within the ‘legislative mandatory’ category there are at least two further sub-dimensions:
1) The method by which legislative quotas that are enforced: quota fulfilment linked to funding versus quota fulfilment as a necessary condition for a party to stand for elections;
2) The duration of quota legislation: quotas as a permanent part of electoral legislation versus quotas for a set number of elections versus quotas for an indefinite number of elections until a specified result in terms of gender balance in the legislature is reached.
The quotas being proposed for Ireland by reform advocates have tended to be rather mild, when viewed in the spectrum of possible quota types. Quota advocates typically argue for a 30% quota of nominated candidates, to be imposed by legislation, on a temporary basis (lapsing when a target of elected female TDs is met), with sanctions for non-compliance linked to state funding.
Another aspect of this issue that has received too little attention is the relationship between of the type of electoral system in place and the consequences of quotas for voter choice. In list-based PR systems that are ‘closed’ or ‘semi-open’, the rank ordering of candidates on the party list is key, and quotas in such systems can include provisions with regard to the placement of female candidates, as well as their proportion. Single-seat plurality systems, where only one candidate can win in each constituency, mean that only one party candidate can stand in each constituency (as multiple candidates from the same party would split the party vote) – meaning that, for quotas to work, a proportion of party-constituency nominations have to be set aside for the under-represented gender.
In Ireland, however, we have a multi-seat, highly ‘open’ PR system – meaning that the level of limitation on voter choice implied by a candidate quota is low – parties can run multiple candidates in each constituency, and voters favouring a given party are in no way constrained to favour female over male candidates; they have complete liberty of choice in this regard. The notion that women will have seats ‘handed to them’ via candidate quotas is absurd, given the structure of the Irish electoral system and the competitiveness of constituency-level races.
Professor Krook’s concluding point in her contribution was that: ‘on the balance (…) the international evidence suggests that quotas *are* necessary in order to achieve major changes to women’s access to elected office’. Note the use of the term ‘necessary’ rather than ‘sufficient’. While major improvements in women’s access to elected office do not appear to happen without the imposition of some sort of quota; the design of the quota, its implementation, and movement on other barriers to access to women (the other 4 ‘Cs’ as identified by Senator Bacik) are also vital for improving women’s representation.
If we accept that the election of a reasonable proportion of female deputies to our legislature is an important goal for our democracy, and we wish to make a public policy to achieve this end, a well-designed and temporary candidate quota system, along with a range of policy initiatives designed to address the other 4 Cs, would appear to be the best set of policies currently available. Expert evidence and advice on the subject points to the necessity of this type of legislation if we want to improve women’s representation in our parliament.
The trade-off of implementing the candidate quota aspect of this policy is that, due to a mixture of party strategy, the prevalence of male incumbents, and tight bailiwicking; gender quotas will mean that several potential non-incumbent male candidates will not be nominated by their parties. However, the parties have strong incentives to make sure that the female candidates that they select are highly competent, if they want them to win votes in Ireland’s candidate-centred system.
If we decide that this is too high a price to pay, then obviously we should not adopt candidate quotas. Also, if we judge that the election of female TDs is not an important goal to be pursued, either intrinsically (i.e., because it has nothing to do with what is right and fair) or instrumentally (i.e., because female TDs will not bring any extra useful qualities to the legislature) then keeping the status quo of male-dominated parties selecting male-dominated slates of candidates is unproblematic.
Claire McGing kindly sent on some literature on the substantive effects of increasing female representation in parliaments for anyone interested in looking more deeply at this topic. Here they are:
Anne Phillips (1995) The Politics of Presence. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (provides a theoretical basis for gender quotas)
Wendy Stokes (2005) Women in contemporary politics. Polity Press, Cambridge. (Chapters 1 and 2 give an excellent overview of the literature on women making a difference in politics)
Joni Lovenduski (2005) Feminizing politics. Polity Press, Cambridge. (Especially chapters 2 and 6).
Fiona MacKay (2001) Love and politics: women politicians and the ethics of care. Continuum, London.
Mercedes Mateo Diaz (2005) Representing women?: female legislators in west European parliaments. ECPR monographs, University of Essex.
Sarah Childs (2004) Women representing women: New Labour’s women MPs. Frank Crass, London.
Sue Thomas (1994) How women legislate. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Sandra Grey (2002) Does size matter?: critical mass and New Zealand’s women MPs, Parliamentary Affairs 55 (1), 19-29.
Marian Sawer (2003) The representation of women in Australia: meaning and make-believe, Parliamentary Affairs 55 (1), 5-18.
Manon Tremblay (1998) Do female MPs substantively represent women? Canadian Journal of Political Science 31 (3) 435-65.