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Debate: Should parliaments adopt rules for equal numbers of men and women?

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Should the numbers of women in the legislature be raised artificially?

Background and context

Women are vastly underrepresented in most democratic legislatures. In this debate, the proposition are applying one form of ‘affirmative action’ or ‘positive/reverse discrimination’ to argue that female politicians should be preferred over male ones in order that parliaments will reflect the gender balance of their electorate. This may be done either via targets (e.g. the aim to get a certain percentage of female candidates): a flexible but easily bypassed system; or by quotas (the necessity to get a certain number of women politicians) which are legally enforceable but inflexible. Possible methods would include all women shortlists of from which parties would select their candidate, two member constituencies (one male, one female), or alternating male/female politicians on party lists. Essentially, what the proposition is arguing for is equality of outcome; the opposition counters with equality of opportunity.Examples: In America, the Equal Opportunity Employment Commission and in Britain, the Employment Tribunals Service are responsible for monitoring discrimination in the workplace. However, both of these institutions aim to deal with commercial businesses rather than with political parties. In May 97 Tony Blair created the Women’s Unit, after Labour was elected with a record number of female MPs through the use of all-female candidate lists (a practice which was later ruled illegal). The Women’s Unit itself was transformed in 2000 to deal with discrimination on any grounds. In France, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin was elected in 1997 with a record 11% (up from 6%) female deputies, and floated the idea of constitutional amendments over the next decade for women to be granted ‘equal parity’. Other European countries have also sought to rebalance the gender of their politicians: in Belgium from 2000 no more than two thirds of election candidates may be of the same sex; whilst Norway and Germany have imposed quotas of up to 40%. Most unusually, in 1997 Inuit

Argument #1


In ‘representative’ democracy it is vital that every part of the population be proportionately represented. The present lack of female voices in parliament symbolises the continuing unconscious male societal bias.


Representative democracy is there to represent the interests of every sector of the population, which may be done without MPs visibly being strictly representative. Why must women be represented but not every other sector of society -- and to ensure parliament exactly reflects demographic makeup is impossible.

Argument #2


Whilst is it possible for men to speak on women’s issues, some topics of debate (e.g. on family issues) are still seen as less important than economics or foreign policy. Creating more female MPs would encourage more debates about social policy, and so do more to produce constructive legislation of relevance to real people’s lives.


This argument is more patronising -- it suggests that female MPs are only interested in ‘soft’ issues rather than hard political, economic or military policies. Margaret Thatcher in the UK, and Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice in the USA show female politicians do deal with stereotypically ‘male’ issues.

Argument #3


Parliaments, particularly in Britain, have a reputation for needless argument rather than cooperation. Bringing women into political life would encourage a more mature, consensual style of politics, and so more constructive, thoughtful policymaking.


The style of political debate in a country has more to do with its customs and history than with the number of female politicians! The two-party, first-past-the-post structure of the electoral systems in the USA and UK encourages confrontational, negative campaigning. Countries with proportional representation and a tradition of coalition government may develop a different political culture. Furthermore, all-female election campaigns have shown that women are just as capable of arguments ad hominem as men are.

Argument #4


At present there is a vicious circle whereby women see no point in standing for parliament because it is viewed (however inaccurately) as a male-dominated institution. Positive discrimination would provide role models for future women MPs to follow; for that reason it need not be a permanent measure. Nor should it be seen as contrary to human rights legislation -- no one is preventing men from standing in elections. This measure would simply try to overcome the institutional sexism in the selection committees of the established political parties, which has for so long prevented a representative number of women from becoming candidates.


A true role model has to be admired. However, if people feel that a woman has been appointed simply for her gender rather than for her talents, then this will damage rather than enhance the status of female MPs. The Opposition are in favour of true meritocracy. The British Labour Party’s policy in the 1990s of discriminating in favour of women in selecting candidates for parliament was rightly found to be in breach of the Human Rights Act, being against the European Convention because it was unfair to potential male candidates.

Argument #5


Positive discrimination compensates women for the many years that they were excluded and placed in the political wilderness. ‘Meritocracy’ only works when candidates are starting from equal positions.


Merely glossing ‘positive’ discrimination does not hide the fact that it is still discrimination. The leaders of nations should be the best on offer -- equality is enough to compensate for past unfairness. Furthermore, women in the past did not have the same educational opportunities as men -- it is only the generation coming to maturity that did; and the balance of women in politics and business is likely naturally to rectify itself.

Argument #6


Whilst women have been involved in campaigns in the past, they remain under-represented at the political centre to which most potential politicians aspire. Wrong as it may be to focus on central legislatures, that is still where most of the major decisions are made -- and made without women.


It is wrong to suggest that women can only enter politics via national parliaments. Throughout history, and at the present time, female agitation has proven effective through extra-parliamentary means: petitions, protests and campaigns. There is already undue focus on the small worlds of Westminster, Washington, Brussels, Paris, etc.

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