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Column: Gender quotas do women no favours – and undermine democracy

Yes, we need more women in politics – but gender quotas go against everything our democracy stands for, writes Labour TD Joanna Tuffy.

Joanna Tuffy

A week ago, Labour leader Eamon Gilmore revealed that a bill to force political parties to select 30 per cent female candidates would be published within the year.

Ahead of a public meeting on the subject of quotas tonight, Labour’s Joanna Tuffy argues here that the legislation is discriminatory – and does a disservice to the capable women in politics.

GENDER QUOTAS ARE anti-democratic.

They are based on the idea that voters can’t be trusted. Gender quotas bypass the voter’s right to decide, and impose a conclusion on him or her. They are imposed at the expense of grassroots participation in political parties by women and men.

Gender quotas are also discriminatory – but the irony is that they are likely to be used to discriminate against both women and men. The proposed quotas will mean that candidates will be ruled out on grounds of gender, and legislation will make such discrimination mandatory. This appears to conflict with Article 16.1.3 of the Constitution, which states that no law shall be enacted placing any citizen under disability or incapacity for membership of the Dáil on grounds of gender.

A further problem is that gender quotas will give party leaders more control over candidate selection. Quotas are blunt instruments and will have unintended consequences – like the quotas found by Swedish courts to have discriminated against women applicants for college places. But even if no woman had ever lost out because of gender quotas, that would not make them right. Positive discrimination is discrimination all the same.

Those that argue for quotas claim that women don’t win selection conventions. Where is the evidence for this? Where the problem really lies is in the fact that not enough women choose to run for election. This is not confined to political parties – less than ten per cent of Independent Dáil candidates were women in 2011 – or to politics, or even to women. Quotas are not the answer to underrepresentation of any group in any walk of life.

‘Quotas treat women as if they can’t hack it’

Like many others that oppose gender quotas, I do want to see more women in politics. I just don’t agree with the mechanism. Mandatory gender quotas are not the only way. Scandinavian countries are often held up as models for gender quotas. But those countries don’t have quota legislation. In Sweden, for example, there are parties that use gender quotas and parties that don’t – with similar outcomes. In Denmark, no parties have quotas and their parliament is 37 per cent women.

In contrast, in France, where they have the type of gender quota law that is being proposed here, the percentage of women elected to the national parliament is not much higher than the Dáil.

There are other steps that can be taken to increase the numbers of women in politics. If more women were active in parties, more women candidates would emerge naturally over time. Measures should be aimed at increasing the participation of all citizens in politics. The State should do more to promote politics through the curriculum. Barriers to voting should be removed. The proceedings of all levels of Government should be televised. And the introduction of paid paternity leave would help women in politics.

Women are emerging in Irish politics. There are more women TDs, councillors, and mayors. More women are studying politics. Many are joining political parties. Even if it takes longer, is it not better to let women emerge naturally from the grassroots of political parties, rather than undermining the grassroots by the top-down imposition of gender quotas?

Gender quotas are to the participation of women in politics what the Kyoto Protocol is to climate change. A target is imposed from the top – but the reality on the ground stays the same because the issue is not tackled from the bottom up.

Quotas treat women as if they can’t hack it a party’s selection convention, like a man can. They decree that women must be selected on the basis of their gender, and this does them a disservice. Women, just like men, should be chosen on the basis of their qualities as individuals and their ability to persuade voters.

When it comes to democracy, the ends do not justify the means. Gender quotas subvert democracy by making the ends more important than the means.

Joanna Tuffy is a Labour TD for Dublin Mid West.

Column: Women will make politics better – and quotas are the only way>

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