Matthew Jones feels that gender quotas would ultimately serve to undermine the sexual equality movement
The issue of gender quotas is not a new one. Quotas for ethnic minorities and for females in the workplace already exist in many companies, most notably in the BBC. Recently however, there has been a surge in demand for gender quotas to be introduced in politics, regardless of the effect that this would have on Irish democracy.
Olwyn Enright TD, who represents Fine Gael in the Dáil, recently announced that she would be retiring from politics at the next general election. With her second child on the way, she cited family commitments as her primary reason for retiring.
Ms Enright’s announcement has heightened a sense of outrage felt by many about the disparate numbers of men and women making up the elected representatives in the Dáil. Numerous claims have been made that the Dáil is unfair in its treatment of female representatives with families, despite the inclusion of a crèche in Leinster House. In addition, it has provisions for late sittings, not to mention the €90,000 annual salary, plus expenses, received by sitting members of the Dáil.
A survey conducted in August 2010 showed that Ireland is ranked 84th in the world for gender balance in politics. The same survey showed that eight out of the top ten democracies had gender quotas in place to ensure that this balance was maintained. Many proponents of the introduction of such quotas cite these figures as an example that we should be following, but they are missing the massive problems associated with having quotas in place.
Gender quotas ensure that specific percentages are met in terms of personnel, but these “percentage women” may not necessarily be the best candidates for the job. At the same time, the government may have to remove a particularly talented local representative just for the sake of making up numbers.
Politicians in Ireland are elected based on their proposals, character, and most importantly, their merit. Having people stroll into a position, regardless of their merit, would only be to the detriment of equality movements everywhere. If women were given positions based solely on their gender, then public confidence in our system of government would be shaken, and these tokenistic women would receive much of the blame.
Fine Gael councillor Tony O’ Donnell remarked in his blog that “we hold free and fair elections in Ireland, where men and women can put their names forward, and men and women get to make their selections”.
“My mandate is no less valuable because I am a man, and no legislation should seek to frustrate my ability to represent my constituents on grounds as arbitrary as gender.” Councillor O’ Donnell makes a heartfelt argument that stands out as a voice of reason, pointing out that the option of running for political office is available to everybody.
The Labour Party’s Liz McManus is of a firmly opposing opinion. The 63-year-old Wicklow TD recently announced her forthcoming retirement from politics and is “absolutely convinced” that gender quotas should be introduced. She even goes so far as to advocate financial penalties against political parties that do not fall in line with her views. On the night when she announced her retirement, she remarked: “There are eight of them for every one of us.”
This backward way of thinking, maintaining that men and women are competing with one another, does not serve Ms McManus’ cause but further alienates it. She is not the only person to hold this view; it has become a popular statement that half the population is under-represented. However, the role of an elected official is to represent, to the best of their abilities, the needs of all their constituents and not just those of a certain gender.
The view that gender quotas are not a viable long term solution is upheld in the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality Defence and Women’s Rights second report on Women’s Participation in Politics.
In the report, it is stated that: “The advantage of the mandatory or legislated ‘electoral gender quota’ is that it can be more effective in a shorter timeframe, by ensuring that all parties must comply with the same principles. Whether candidate quotas are adopted on a voluntary or mandatory basis, they are generally only on a temporary basis, with a built-in ‘sunset clause’ providing that they will lapse once certain targets are met.”
This shows that the real solution to the imbalance lies in the education of the population, not the elimination of qualified men from politics based on positive discrimination. We need pioneering women to act as role models, who show that the government is not just an ‘old boys club’, but a place for people of all genders, races and creeds to represent their constituencies.
The point is that going into politics is, was, and always will be a personal choice. It is up to the individual to make that choice instead of relying on, or being limited by, the imposition of an unfair, undemocratic quota system.