The political equality struggle: a PS

Yesterday I published a post here in which I suggested that gender quotas could make a useful contribution to greater equality in the political world. I mentioned this also on Twitter, and between the tweets and offline emails I received over the past 24 hours I can tell readers that the more vocal responses were overwhelmingly negative; some were in fact quite rude. One kind emailer even suggested that ‘Irishmen [sic] had not fought for freedom all those years ago to have it taken away by gender quotas’. Several tweeters suggested that people should be elected and appointed in politics ‘on merit alone’ rather than on the basis of their gender (which was more or less the point made by Lucinda Creighton that I referred to in my last post).

I won’t bother with the fighting Irishmen in this context. But the ‘merit’ argument is worth a brief response. It is based on the assumption that people make choices, whether in the polling booth or in the Taoiseach’s or Prime Minister’s office, based on objective criteria. From this it follows that, as a majority of the working population is now female, but only 20 per cent of senior management positions are held by women, women objectively and on merit are less well equipped to lead. It also follows that the four women Enda Kenny appointed to junior ministerial posts are all less qualified than the 13 men appointed to cabinet.

In fact, and with apologies for the blunt language, the merit argument is a lot of codswallop. When we make choices about whom we elect or appoint, we are all weighed down by the cultural inheritance and the conscious and subconscious prejudices we have acquired. Nobody is totally objective. Right now we are living in a society that is getting some really important things badly wrong. It is allowing young men to become disengaged, from education in particular, and thereby risking the development of a disoriented and dysfunctional male class; while at the same time holding back women from senior leadership roles. This particular cocktail of discrimination and neglect is one of the biggest dangers we now face as a society.

There are many things we need to do to address all this, but gender quotas may be one sensible, though temporary, measure to create a fairer and more viable society for future generations.

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18 Comments on “The political equality struggle: a PS”

  1. evertb Says:

    Gender quotas are a prime example of the “Big Government” approach that might quickly win votes and support from certain target groups but it hardly leads to long term improvement.
    I have only anecdotal evidence but I would put money on it if women were “put” in political positions which they would not have reached without strictly enforced gender quotas that this will have a negative impact on the perception of these womens skills and achievements.

    As you state yourself “cultural inheritance and the conscious and subconscious prejudices” are the real causes. These can only be addressed through education. Educating the women so you empower them to desire and achieve higher positions in politics, business and society and also educating those blinded by the “cultural inheritance and the conscious and subconscious prejudices”.

    Improvements should be achieved through education rather than legislation.


    • This really isn’t an either/or situation. There is no reason not to do both.

      I often hear the argument that women elected or appointed in a quota system will be seen as somehow lesser beings than the men. There is no actual evidence to support this, not even anecdotal evidence. In the few places where it has been tried it has worked well.

      In any case, if that argument were right, the men now in power should feel embarrassed and ashamed, as they clearly got there solely because they were males.

      • evertb Says:

        Of course it’s not an either/or situation from a practical viewpoint but as with issues like these ideology gets dragged into it and my ideology says that education should get priority and yours doesn’t. Neither is 100% correct but that’s not the point of the discussion.
        However your last statement is factually incorrect. It might apply in your frame of reference but if you take 10 random men from 10 random backgrounds I am certain that the majority would think less of a woman in an position equal to theirs only because of a gender quote than one who had reached that position because of merit.

        It’s also not just a issues affecting women. It’s the same for people of different races, different social classes etc. etc.


        • Evert, when you say I am ‘factually incorrect’ you actually need to produce factual evidence. So what is the actual evidence that allows you to be certain of this? Studies have been done to establish the opposite. Nothing to do with anyone’s frame of reference.

  2. evertb Says:

    OK, let me dig up some of the supporting data.

  3. Colum McCaffery Says:

    Individual freedom is not incompatible with quotas, e.g. maintaining the right of any person to stand for election is not incompatible with requiring political parties to nominate a proportion of female candidates a little bit greater than is done at present.

    In the case of securing a position, everyone clearly is not free. Everyone is subject to being selected by others. We then fall back on equality of opportunity. I don’t know anyone with the courage to say that they are opposed to equality of opportunity. However, I know many people who say the opposite and then over a long period of years and many decisions decline to select a woman. If asked to explain, they generally isolate each decision and say that in each case they they were free to select as they saw fit but that their commitment to equality of opportunity is undiminished. Only a complete fool would swallow such dishonest guff.

    Opportunity is about possibility and for that to have any meaning, there must be an outcome.

    http://colummccaffery.wordpress.com/2010/08/26/on-gender-quotas/

  4. anna notaro Says:

    The fact that the more vocal responses were overwhelmingly negative is not surprising at all and, in a way it is reminiscent of another instance regarding gender & politics recently discussed on this blog (I’m referring to the public’s negative reactions to the *aggressive* behaviour during a TV debate of the Irish woman politician whose name now escapes me). It looks like everytime something is perceived as a threat to the structural and institutional power that regulates male and female gender roles the reaction cannot but be vitriolic…

  5. evertb Says:

    Just out of interest I would love to know how many of the people commenting here actually had any first-hand experience of working with a woman in politics or even as a woman in politics themselves?

    • anna notaro Says:

      the implications of this question (which asks for some anecdotal *first hand experience* are patronizing and not worthy of an answer..

      • evertb Says:

        No they are actually asking for practical knowledge rather than theoretical discussion….

        • wendymr Says:

          And how would anecdotes about experience with a handful of individual women contribute anything at all to the discussion? One woman (or even half a dozen) is not representative of all women who either are or could be in politics, just as not all male politicians are exactly like Brian Cowen.

  6. Pidge Says:

    Quotas are called for on the basis that women are not regularly elected. This is for a variety of social and economic reasons.

    Quotas do nothing to address these reasons, and thus no further incentive to enter politics is offered to women. All that you end up with is that the same few women who are able to work in politics are at an advantage.

    All quotas do is cover up the problem: fewer women enter politics (because root causes (which are nuanced and difficult to deal with) remain undealt with), but those who do have an easier time. This achieves nothing beyond an illusion of equality, by means of numeric parity.

  7. Dan Says:

    Oh come on! We live in a world of quotas, what’s wrong with some more?

    Can anyone seriously tell me that the cabinet is even mildly representative of the society we live in? It has been established through a quota system that favours young men putting in years on the party circuit, working their way through councils, committees, always being late home to dinner and working weekends while their partners, if they are lucky, care for families. We live in a society that works to create and sustain a system whereby young women take a look at politics and say, no thanks…

    Yet, we are happy that this affirmative action in favour of young men – who become old grey haired men – is just, fair and healthy and appropriate for the creation of a political system that leads to a ridiculous proportion of our cabinet being men within shouting distance of retirement. Our entire society has an in- built quota system ; it isn’t blind, neutral or intended to create equality of opportunity.

    Ferdinand, never mind the response to your tweet, you’re obviously saying something right if it annoys that many people….

  8. Mark McGrail Says:

    Good points. I was very dissapointed by Jan and Rosin not being appointed to cabinet. Also Rurai Quinn’s comments that women spend more time with kids is unacceptable regarding min children. Don’t consider. Social ‘Protection’ to be a lesser ministery.
    I’m FG and pro Lab, but very dissapointed at cabinet. Very reactionary.

    We need real reform of the Dail to make being a TD a more normal job rather than a 7 day, 16 hour clientist farce

  9. Vincent Says:

    I’m getting a bit sick of the comment that social welfare is the biggest spending department and as such she should be thankful, for the comment implies she has some sort of real control. When this is the one department that can run itself without very much input from any beyond the exchequer. Actually it’s the one dept’ where you could lop-off the top two thirds with very little impact on the ground.

  10. no-name Says:

    Rather than introducing a minimum quota on the number of women to be included, why not focus instead on a maximum limit on the number of priviledged white men who gain automatic (read “easier”) access? Surely men who do not come from rich backgrounds are almost as disadvantaged in campaigns as women? (A priviledged background could mean, for example, that a parent was a TD, access to an old boy’s network, family wealth, etc., all of which give one an advantage, in any campaign, nearly to the point of first refusal on openings).


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