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New Study Proposes 'Controversial' Way to Fix Number of Women in Politics

Better political representation is a numbers game, according to a London School of Economics report on gender inequality.
October 13, 2015, 6:45pm
Screengrab from 2015 Democratic Debate via CNN.

Despite living in an age where Hillary Clinton cracks jokes on Saturday Night Live and German chancellor Angela Merkel is named the most powerful politician in Europe, women still get a tough deal in politics. Only 29.4 percent of British MPs are women, while that number sinks to 20 percent in the US Senate.

One wide-ranging report from the prestigious London School of Economics has the solution: Mandatory quotas.

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The Commission of Gender Inequality and Power canvassed research from LSE lecturers and experts to come up with several proposals to target gender inequality in key areas of politics, law, media and culture, and the economy. The report states that the "most controversial" of its proposals is that political parties should adopt a mandatory gender quota when selecting candidates for election.

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In the UK, it advises that Parliament pass legislation "establishing a ceiling gender quota for the MPs for each political party: A maximum 70 per cent of either sex at the first general election following the legislation, moving to a maximum 60 per cent of either sex at the following one", until gender parity is reached.

It's much easier for many not-very-highly-qualified men to get selected as a candidate in politics than a woman.

"Our framing of the recommendation as a ceiling rather than a floor reflects the strongly held views of contributors to the Commission that the burden of the argument should now shift from the under-representation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men," it concludes.

"My view is that there is a lot of male tokenism at the moment," said Professor Anne Phillips, one of the study's authors. "It's much easier for many not-very-highly-qualified men to get selected as a candidate in politics than a woman."

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"It's pretty clear from all the comparative evidence: The point at which you get change is when either political parties or the country as a whole make legislative change requiring the adoption of some kind of quota policy."

Neither the US nor the UK has a mandatory quota in politics, though the report argues that affirmative action on the basis of gender is actually widely used around the globe.

I don't believe it is good for any of us to underuse the talents of 50 percent of the population.

"Most of those are voluntary rather than mandatory," Phillips told Broadly, "but within Europe now, Spain, France, and Portugal have legislation, and Ireland recently has adopted legislation, requiring political parties to achieve a particular gender balance in their representatives." In France, political parties that fail to field an equal number of male and female candidates will lose part of their state funding, though former French president Nicolas Sarkozy's right-wing UMP party has repeatedly preferred to forfeit millions of euros rather than select more women.

One politician who does support political quotas for women is Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland's first minister and leader of the Scottish National Party. At the Women in the World summit in London last week, she stated that quotas were necessary for more women to enter politics. "I don't want my nine-year-old niece to still be fighting these battles," she said. "I don't believe it is good for any of us to underuse the talents of 50 percent of the population."

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Phillips suggested that any progress made in British political participation has been because some political parties have "made an issue out of it," pointing to the Labour Party's 1997 introduction of all-women shortlists to select parliamentary candidates. She also added that increasing gender parity was often accompanied by an increase in ethnic minority candidates.

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"What's interesting is that there's been a significant increase in the proportion of minority women elected to Parliament," she said. "Of the women elected to Parliament, over 10 percent of them are black or minority ethnic – so getting close to the proportion of the population as a whole."

Despite the Commission's recommendations, Phillips says that there is "very little" political will to implement any kind of quota. "But part of the point of making that recommendation is to try to shift the terms of the debate and get people to start thinking about what measures are absolutely necessary."

"People need to get out of the complacency [where they] look at the figures [for political representation] that are going up and say, 'Oh well that's kind of alright, isn't it?' I don't really see it as alright that men outnumber women two to one in our decision-making chambers that are making these major decisions on the future of policy. You can't just leave things up to time and goodwill."