Yesterday, with my voice competing with the clanger of the monsoon rain on the tin roof of the Planning Division’s office, I presented my final report to the Gross National Happiness Commission. Twenty-five people were in attendance at the meeting. More important than the number however, was its composition. It included key decision makers from the GNHC: Department Heads and the Secretary of the Commission – one of the most respected leaders in Bhutan’s civil service. After weeks of worrying whether my time here would leave any lasting impression, this was my opportunity to play a small role in influencing the people who drive the country’s policy agenda.
When I first arrived, I had been asked by the Secretary to work on designing a framework for implementing policies that allowed the government to actively engage in pursuing ‘GNH Development’ (by focusing on fostering indicators like uptake of meditation and volunteering). It was important, interesting work and the Secretary had a keen interest in it – the ideal way for a student to spend an internship. After familiarizing myself both with the various dimensions of the GNH framework and the scope of the project however, I realized my work would do very little to address the growing problem of inequity faced by women Bhutan as the country modernized – something I had come to Bhutan to work on. (Gender is an important component of many aspects of GNH, but doesn’t feature strongly in others). So I decided to work on a parallel project independently, focusing specifically on empowering women in politics through the introduction of quotas. I would conduct the research, write the report and present the findings alongside the original assignment, relying on occasional advice from senior figures in the GNHC who had an interest in the area.
The plan worked. Though the issue of gender was not something that anybody had much interest in me working on here, it created by far the greatest stir of the presentation. The Secretary, who opposed the introduction of quotas (like many in the senior ranks of Bhutanese government), changed his mind on the issue. Speaking on the subject after the presentation, he described his “180 degree turn” and decided to use the report to engage the issue with members of parliament. That afternoon, I left the office triumphantly, feeling that a slight of pressure had been added to the arc of justice in Bhutan.
But was I right? Was that the case at all? Are gender quotas fair? Are they effective? Are they the kind of policy that furthers the pursuit of justice? Or are they some misguided interference with natural liberty, nothing more than an undemocratic placation, a re-enforcement of the insidious stereotype that there is something innate in the character of women, unsuited to the vocation of politics, which makes them incapable of making the tough decisions of statecraft?
Since introduced to the idea back in college, I have always known quotas to be controversial. As an undergraduate student, I was involved in a debating society with some of the most articulate women I have ever met - students who were amongst the very best debaters in the world – nearly all of whom were liberal and most of whom opposed their introduction. Indeed, I have been surprised to find that their disapproval is often more virulent in women than in men. I realized however, that what is important to know about quotas is that they are opposed for wide variety of reasons; some are sincere concerns regarding their legitimacy and effectiveness, others on the other hand, are often grounded in misogyny. Reflecting upon the issue, I tried to make sense of some of these common complaints?
Arguments grounded in bigotry – like the notion that women are somehow intrinsically incapable of leadership in politics - are not worth discussing.
The claim that women’s preferences might differ in some rudimentary manner to men; that the female disposition is one which desires senior decision making positions less, is one which I don’t buy either. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s recent article claiming that women have a greater need to be with their children than men sadly echoed this view. Generalizations like this, which attribue women with a more ‘domestic’ character, even if only slight or indirect, risk fostering indifference in the face of injustice. As a starting point in considering gender equity, a much more sensible presumption to make is that the vast preponderance of differences in attitudes toward work, family, and ambition are socially created, rather than naturally imbued. If women don’t run for office, ‘simply because they don’t want to’, policy makers should work from the view that this is because their social environment has caused it to be so and thus should be rectified.
Moreover, this rationalization overlooks the far more important problem with gender inequity in politics and misunderstands the central purpose of a representative democracy. While the right to freely run for public office unheeded by unfair structural barriers is indeed extremely important, it pales in comparison to the right of the polity to be adequately represented. The fact is that most people, regardless of gender, don’t want to run for office. Even if a gender disparity in the preference to run for office does statistically exist, this would not negate the fact that it is unfair that 50% of the world’s democratic polities are represented by parliamentarians, more than 80% of whom share their gender, while the other 50% are left with less than 20% who share theirs. Such is the minuteness of the proportion of people in a country that actually want to run for office that it would be wrong for gender disparities within this tiny group to affect the population as a whole. This is made more immediate in light of the growing body of work, which show women to make different policy decisions to men.
There are other, more measured, complaints worth considering. The first problem often put forward by critics is the suggestion that quotas foster a belief in essentialism, which is the view that women cannot represent men and men cannot represent women, or that all women represent all types of other women. The notion that quotas are grounded in at least some version of this belief is not unreasonable. A large part of their motivation is that issues, which affect women, would be more appropriately addressed by parliaments that were not so oppressively constituted of men.
Taken to its extreme, the idea of essentialism can lead to unappealing conclusions. People assume a plurality of political identities in their lives – based upon race, wealth, age, sexual orientation etc. - and the notion that gender is uniquely important would be difficult to justify. A common complaint of Slaughter’s article, for example, was how disconnected she seemed from the experiences of ordinary women. That being said, most political ideas – from freedom to community to equality - when embraced in their extreme lead to undesirable outcomes. Just because sharing gender with constituents isn’t the only important factor in the effectiveness and legitimacy of a representative, it doesn’t mean that it is nevertheless a very important one. Moreover, our democratic principles implicitly recognize that some aspects of identity are of more importance than others when we conduct elections according to discrete geographical constituencies (rather than having all candidates for parliament or congress run, for example, on a national list system). The notion that Boston might be improperly represented at a national level if it lacked members of Congress is, not unreasonably, rarely questioned. The fact is that sharing specific commonalities with one’s representative is often extremely important, and gender, like geography, is just such an instance.
Other common complaints suggest that quotas are undemocratic because they impose certain candidates on the electorate or that they are against the principle of ‘equal opportunity for all’ (EOFA). The inconsistencies in these arguments largely parallel those of the previous objections. Some formal structure that would guarantee women gender balance in congress would be no more ‘imposed’ than the framework, which currently exists, ensuring that the people of Boston are proportionately represented as compared with those living in New York. Moreover, complaints that quota systems violate EOFA suffer from a problem previously outlined by fetishizing (more often than not) old, wealthy, white men’s ‘equal opportunity’ to run over democracy’s prior concern that the polity is appropriately represented by its politicians.
Even when focusing narrowly on the rights of the candidate however, it should be clear to most people that women, as it stands, are not enjoying this wondrous EOFA. Though women rarely encounter formal constraints on running for office (a horrific exception being Saudi Arabia), they nevertheless encounter a myriad of informal ones. A study in rural India, for example, highlighted one of the most significant barriers that women face when running for office. Because female candidates compete in an environment in which they are already severely underrepresented in politics (and therefore not seen in these public positions), constituents form psychological biases identifying them as unsuitable for office. Once these informal restraints were alleviated through quotas, the study showed that the barriers began to diminish. Though the experiment itself is not generalizable beyond India, its observations are consistent with findings in the vast literature in the behavioral sciences, and points to something we see every day around us.
Moreover, the EOFA argument’s fixation on formal inequality at the expense of much more important social barriers, is inconsistent with how think about electoral fairness in general. We already accept, for example, the use of legal tools to mitigate inherent structural inequalities in electoral politics when we embrace interventions to limit the influence of money. Campaigns require financing, with some candidates often enjoying more access to this than others, depending on personal circumstances, social connections and the polices that they propose. In recognition of the injustice of this phenomenon, most countries restrict the manner in which candidates can fund their campaigns, either through donation caps or by replacing the private donor model with one that relies upon public monies.
Finally, the most common complaint of my undergraduate peers: Quotas create the perception that women are incapable of gaining election on their own merit alone. It would be difficult to deny that there exists a risk this may happen. The primary reason this disempowerment is so dangerous is that if young women are fed the belief that they are unable to compete with men in politics without a head start, it may have serious adverse effects on their esteem and self-efficacy.
This dilemma cannot be considered out of context however. It must be contrasted with the actual alternative, the status quo in many countries without quotas. Indeed, another study gives reason to believe that these worries might be excessively pessimistic, showing that the introduction of quotas for two terms in local politics in India led to a significant close in the gender gap in aspirations, increased educational attainment and less time spent on household chores amongst girls. Moreover, with well supported public information campaigns outlining the real structural barriers faced by female politicians, these beliefs could be tackled and substantially mitigated.
It seems to me that most fears of gender quotas are grounded in varying degrees of sexism; inconsistent views about the nature and utility of representation, and excessive pessimism in the face of change. But just because the reasons not to introduce gender quotas have substantial weaknesses, it does not mean that they should necessarily be introduced.
Some have suggested redressing the imbalance in politics using alternative, less controversial methods like providing more financial aid, making politics more flexible so as to accommodate mothers, introducing training for prospective female politicians. These are all wonderful ideas – some which would rightfully benefit men too or should be used to support other underrepresented groups. The problem with these interventions however, is that they trivialize the problem. Women constitute 19.2% of their national parliamentary bodies worldwide. They make up 16.4% of congress in the United States, and 15.1% of Dáil Eireann home in Ireland. Massive historical culturally entrenched structural barriers have caused this to be the case. They are highly unlikely to be rectified with a couple of workshops in public speaking and an a few thousand dollars added to the campaign budget.
There is one overarching reason however, that I believe that gender quotas should be introduced not just Bhutan, but in Ireland and the United States. There is something unusually striking about the gender equality in the political domain, when compared against other areas in which women have historically faced injustice. 75 years ago, men in the US massively outnumber women in workforce participation, educational attainment and national politics. By the time the Financial Crisis had wrangled its way into the economy however, women had closed the gap and began to outnumber men in the economy (their proportion of the workforce has now fallen to 46.7% - and serious problems persist in leadership positions). In education, girls now spend more time in school and outperform boys in most areas. Yet when we look to politics, women make up only 16.4% in Congress.
The equilibrating force in education and economy (admittedly, imperfect) is almost entirely absent in politics. Urgency in seeking to tackle this is necessary. Proactive intervention is required because the character of this problem is of paralysis and entrenchment.
So in addition to the reasons I have discussed above (the unfair structural barriers faced by female candidates, the need of a polity to be appropriately represented by people who share a particularly salient political identity, the harm that the status quo incurs upon young women), gender quotas are needed because they are the most radical tool we have to fight injustice.*
* This essay has focused on the legitimacy of gender quotas, largely leaving aside questions regarding their effectiveness once implemented. If you have read this far and would like to read further comments on this, suggest it to me in a comment.