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Moving History Along: Quotas and parity cannot make women equal to men, in politics or elsewhere. There are additional steps that countries must take to address women’s political underrepresentation.
August 17, 2020
With Responses From
Aug 17, 2020
7 Min read time
Quotas and parity cannot make women equal to men.
Everyone wants the “next big idea” that will solve the intractable global problem of gender inequality. As I have argued, without women the promise of representative democracy remains unrealized. In order to solve the problem of men’s dominance over politics, many countries have landed on a quick fix: the adoption of gender quotas that compel parties to nominate and elect more women.
Let’s mark 2020 as the year those long denied access got their say, not just because they spent decades hammering at the gates of power, but because the gatekeepers themselves walked right out and made room.
Described as the “fast track” to women’s political representation, gender quotas gained popularity as a policy tool beginning in the 1980s. The fast track model rejects the notion that women should wait for sexism to gradually disappear. As political scientists Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall argue, it captures “the impatience of today’s feminists, who are not willing to wait seventy to eighty years to achieve their goals.” The international community now talks less about gender quotas and more about gender parity, but the fast track still appeals. The World Economic Forum, for instance, recently extolled the importance of policy incentives for “hurrying history” toward gender parity.
This focus on quick gains can seem like magical thinking. My academic work even delivers this rebuke, critiquing policymakers who frame such solutions as a silver bullet. The responses here from Emily Cain, Kelly Dittmar, Suzanne Dovi, Alice Eagly, Kerry Haynie, and Dawn Teele offer the same criticism, expressing skepticism that, on their own, quota and parity policies can give women equal access to political power. By focusing on women’s right to be elected, they argue, we may obscure other viable or more realistic solutions to women’s political underrepresentation.
Given this crowded marketplace of ideas, it is worth being clear about what gender quotas and gender parity can and cannot do. As a fast track, they are designed to do one thing: move history along by rapidly raising the numbers of women in elected office. In my view, quotas and parity also have additional benefits. For instance, they symbolize governments’ commitment to promoting political rights and to linking lofty ideals of justice and fairness with tangible, measurable outcomes. They send the message that women matter. And the social science research shows that more women in office yields concrete benefits, such as narrowing the gender gap in political participation, breaking the association between political power and masculinity, increasing citizen trust, and deepening democratic legitimacy. Taking affirmative steps to elect more women thus hurries history while also changing attitude. Quotas and parity cannot, however, make women equal to men, in politics or elsewhere, and these responses serve to illustrate the additional steps that countries must take.
• • •
Teele begins by highlighting the crucial fact that gender inequality starts in the home. “So long as working women bear the brunt of the emotional, physical, and cognitive labor in the home,” she rightly says, “women will never have the intellectual space or the free time to participate fully in politics.” As women work more outside the home, the gendered division of household labor remains stubborn globally. Even in ostensibly egalitarian countries such as Sweden, which is celebrated for its stay-at-home “latte dads,” women do more housework and cooking than men. Dittmar fittingly praises the importance of the U.S. Federal Election Commission’s recent decision to allow candidates to use campaign funds for childcare. But just like gender quotas, this reform facilitates women’s candidacies while leaving underlying work-family inequities intact. Helping women have it all does not challenge the assumption that women’s first duty is to hearth and home.
Eagly and Dovi share Teele’s view that gender equality requires upending deeply embedded cultural ideas about men’s traits and roles versus women’s traits and roles. Eagly argues that gender stereotypes viewing women as more communal and caring, and men as more agentic and competitive, are longstanding, sticky, and probably more widely accepted than feminists would care to admit. Dovi pushes this argument further, pointing out that political masculinity does more than inhibit women’s access to elected office. As Dovi correctly argues, linking political success to dominance and superiority impedes compromise, prevents legislatures from helping vulnerable Americans, and ultimately harms all citizens. And like Eagly, Dovi is skeptical that U.S. voters care enough about the damage to demand real change.
Cain also recognizes how relentless sexism corrodes women’s electoral opportunities, but she celebrates the upward gains for U.S. women. Thanks to organizations such as EMILY’s List and Ready to Run that recruit, support, train, and fund women candidates, there has been steady progress in the number of women elected. Cain highlights how Congress has become less exclusionary. As Dittmar discusses, organizations dedicated to boosting women candidates transform the very structures that keep women out: they provide alternatives to male-dominated political parties, offering women networks that let them gain access, voice, and influence.
Importantly, these networks continue after women are elected. For instance, women senators have met regularly for dinner since the late 1990s, and in her memoir, Democratic senator and former presidential candidate Amy Klobuchar argues that the dinners yield results. Women’s camaraderie has led to women senators accomplishing what Klobuchar calls “man-sized jobs,” such as passing budgets, ending shutdowns, and reporting on torture.
Attaining women’s political equality requires real sacrifice from men.
Of course, these accomplishments are not just about gender. Haynie argues that analyzing the link between women’s presence (called descriptive representation) and women-friendly policy outcomes (called substantive representation) often ignores lawmakers’ other identities, especially their race and ethnicity. Haynie reminds readers that women of color lead state legislatures in passing bills that attend to multiple forms of inequality, especially welfare reform and anti-poverty measures. The substantive representation carried out by women of color matches Dovi’s ideals of responsiveness and compassion. This trend should only deepen, as record numbers of women of color ran and won at the state and federal level in 2018. As the Center for American Women in Politics points out, however, 2018’s historic firsts for women of color—such as the first Muslim and Native women elected to Congress—also serve as sobering reminders about how much women’s electoral gains remain concentrated among white women.
• • •
So where do these alternative solutions, from deeply rooted cultural change to women-built power structures, leave gender quotas and gender parity? The respondents are right that gender quotas are unlikely to work in the United States. Parties have limited control over candidate selection, as Dittmar says, and gender stereotypes are deeply entrenched, with Americans uniquely reluctant to recognize gender inequality as problematic. Moreover, white men won’t easily surrender their power. This last challenge is perhaps the deepest and truest: attaining women’s political equality requires real sacrifice from men.
As Teele writes, “Men need to be more than allies.” Allies support causes, but do not necessarily take the punches. But elections are a zero-sum game: when women start winning seats, men start losing them. Given this logic, observers often wonder why other countries adopted gender quotas in the first place: Why did male legislators vote themselves out of a job? The answer is simple, in that initial gender quota laws were quite weak, and elite men exploited loopholes with the endless creativity of misogyny. They ran women and then had them resign, as Dovi recounts. They even ran men dressed as women, as happened recently in Mexico. But, over time, the legal loopholes closed, and some men (even if unwillingly) gave up their power. They might not have gone home to wash dishes, but they turned their legislative seats over to women.
Whether gender parity is achieved by an incremental track or a fast track, this transformation is precisely the point. No one group should monopolize political authority. Those who hold political offices should look like—and ultimately care about—the diverse peoples they represent. Universal suffrage did not change white men’s dominance of politics, and many women are indeed tired of waiting. Women don’t need magical thinking when actual political commitments would do. As the United States celebrates the centennial of woman suffrage, let’s do more than commemorate past gains. Let’s mark 2020 as the year those long denied access and influence got their say, not just because they spent decades hammering at the gates of power, but because the gatekeepers themselves walked right out and made room. Men, it’s been a good run, but it’s time to step aside.
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