Not all gender quotas created equal

Should the European Union follow the lead of governments that have adopted quotas for female representation?

Published March 9, 2007 1:03AM (EST)

Damn, sometimes I feel like I'm living in Backwater Nation.

Yesterday, reported that during an International Women's Day debate, members of the European Parliament clashed with journalists about whether the European Union should adopt gender quotas. The article mentioned that only three member countries have achieved gender parity for their members (Estonia, Sweden and Luxembourg) and two member states (Italy and Poland) have less than 20 percent female representation in parliament.

Since women only constitute 16 percent of parliament members around the globe, a surprisingly wide and diverse number of governments have adopted gender quotas as a way of boosting women's representation in politics (or at least appearing to do so). According to the Quota Project, to date 109 countries have implemented some sort of gender quota for their parliamentary members.

As I learned from the Quota Project, not all quotas are created equal. Some simply involve voluntary quotas by political parties, which promise to run a certain percentage of female candidates. In the end, these candidates may be simply symbolic additions to a list of better-funded male candidates. On the other hand, in South Africa, where the major political parties have adopted gender quotas, they have been effective in bringing more female representation. Constitutional and legislative quotas tend to be more powerful, mandating that a certain percentage of parliamentary seats must be held open for women. But depending on the actual percentage mandated, these laws may mean radical equality (Costa Rica's 40 percent) or toothless tokenism (Kenya's 3 percent).

Though I fully applaud the nations that work the concept of gender representation into their laws, I'll admit to some ambivalence about gender quotas. But my own queasiness may simply be a defensive move against seeing the limits of my own culture. Indeed, the whole idea of gender quotas is anathema to the American concept of democracy and even with Speaker Nancy Pelosi in charge, there's no sign of a U.S. movement for quotas.

Let's face it, we are being left in the dust in terms of political representation. After all, even with its historically high number of women, the current U.S. Congress has a paltry 15 percent female representation; lagging behind not only the global average but also Lichtenstein, which didn't give women the vote until 1984.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

MORE FROM Carol Lloyd

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Broadsheet Love And Sex