When I was at uni and it came time to vote in student politics, there were a lot of people who would fill up their votes by just picking all the recognisably-female names on the ballot. I was pretty annoyed about it: surely we should be choosing candidates on merit, not gender. Sure, most of those elected were still male, but there was nothing stopping more women standing, right?
So it was with some bemusement, when Justin Trudeau announced his gender-balanced cabinet, that I found myself entirely in favour of Quotas for Women.
My views have changed in the last twenty years. Not so much about Ends, but I’ve got a whole lot less fussy and idealistic about Means. What I’ve come to realise is that the arguments against quotas for female representation simply don’t stack up.
The most important thing to realise was actually pretty simple: Our Defaults Are Not Neutral. The system selects in favour of men. It’s already clearly not a meritocracy, unless you believe that there’s something about men that makes them inherently better at politics than women.
The weird thing about that, though, is that in Gender-Essentialist Land, men are better at spatial things, at maths. Women are better at linguistic things, at talking, better with emotional intelligence. Which one of those skill sets sounds more useful in politics? It’s mostly talking and working with people. Even if men were somehow better leaders (being confident and decisive where women are shrill and pushy), you only need a couple of leaders. Others need to be persuasive, and good at building consensus. That sounds pretty girly to me.
What we’re battling against is a long tradition of politics being exclusively at Men’s Club. New Zealand women got the vote in 1893, but they couldn’t stand for election until 1919. (Rate-paying women could vote in and stand for local body elections from 1867. Elizabeth Yates became the British Empire’s first female mayor in 1893.) We didn’t get our first female MP until 1933. By the end of the 70s, women had never held more than 6.3% of seats in the House, and only four had ever served in Cabinet.
Things got better after the introduction of MMP, as you can see here. Most female members of Parliament came in from the lists, rather than as electorate MPs. Still, it seems we’ve reached a plateau, where women make up about a third of MPs. That’s serious under-representation for women, which simply isn’t getting any better.
And yes, a woman may not represent me any better than a man. Surely I’m no better represented by Paula Bennett than by Grant Robertson, who is LGBT and understands the long-term struggle of being a Black Caps supporter. But this isn’t about one individual woman representing another individual woman. It’s about having enough women to provide a representation of the diversity of women.
Then of course the argument becomes, well, if we have to represent women, why not other minorities? Why not quotas for gay MPs and disabled MPs, and every minority ethnic group? Where are our lesbian midget MPs, hm?
For a start, women are not a minority. This really is low-hanging fruit territory. Also, Maori and Pasifika people are currently represented in Parliament in roughly the same proportions as they are in the general population – 18% and 7% respectively. I can’t tell you if LGBT people are, because we don’t have the data. Disabled people are not, and work needs to be done on accessibility issues. But no “well why not that then” argument means that we should not do this.
The concern-trolling argument is that if we had quotas for women, people would think that women hadn’t achieved their positions through merit, but only to fill the quota. Because right now, it is of course never assumed that a woman holds her job because of who her husband is, or who she’s slept with, or how she looks. Or to put it another way, the Greens have a gender-balanced list. Please tell me which female Green MPs don’t merit their jobs.
What people should be doing, in fact, is looking at a system which ensures that men make up roughly 70% of both Parliament and Cabinet, and thinking that some of those men are there because they’re men, not because of merit. They don’t have to overcome the same barriers women do: nobody asks male candidates who’s looking after their children, after all. Nobody assumes they’re there to make the tea, or because they’re somebody’s spouse.
And then yesterday this happened, and kind of made my case for me.
Female MPs, from Labour and the Greens, co-ordinated a unified response and took a stand which was hugely effective in influencing the public discourse. They did this using their personal experiences. Because they were women, they could say, “What you have done is offensive and damaging to us, because we have been through this ourselves. We are not your punch-line.”
These women made me feel proud. I reckon we could do with some more of them. And the current system will not deliver. I reckon a quota can’t hurt.