01 October 2010

Quotas: Add Women and Stir?

The votes are now being counted in the Labour Party elections for the Shadow Cabinet. Six of the 19 positions are reserved for women. One of the papers in a new IDS Bulletin argues that the May 2010 UK General Election was a missed opportunity to enhance women’s representation in parliament—the percentage stayed at around 22. This puts the UK 52nd in the global league table.

But does this league position matter? Do quotas such as these make a difference?

Quotas for women in decision making bodies have become a prominent mechanism for attempting to advance women’s agency. Have they “worked”? For whom? What does “work” mean? And are there stronger alternative pathways?

The new IDS Bulletin, picking up on the famous quote of the feminist Charlotte Bunch, is edited by Mariz Tadros and explores some of these issues.

My own work has drawn me into some of the women quota research in economics. The research examining the consequences of the Indian village council quotas on the kinds of public services they prioritise and on the prejudice women leaders face has been influential in economics.

These kinds of studies are powerful, but they focus on average results, do not differentiate between types of quotas, tend to miss unintended consequences, and are not strong on articulating theories of change behind quotas. That is why the studies in the IDS Bulletin are so important. Among other things, the collection of papers notes that:

1. Quotas are introduced for a wide range of reasons, the empowerment of women being only one of them, and sometimes not the most prominent one
2. The terms of quotas are negotiated and these terms matter for gender equality and justice
3. Quotas can affect—positively and negatively--other pathways to power for women
4. There are risks that gender quotas can reinforce elite agendas

The report warns that an obsession with getting the numbers right may end up “inadvertently legitimizing, in some cases, agendas that are antithetical to gender justice”. There surely are these serious risks, and they need to set aside the positives that have been found.

The main thrust of the report is spot on—quotas may increase descriptive representation but this is no guarantee of effective representation. Quotas are not a technical fix, they are a highly political undertaking, and the conditions under which they will achieve gender justice are not always present and not always predictable. Quotas may have positive average effects on women’s agency but the effects will be highly dependent on the political process that generated the quotas in the first place.

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