Cameron’s promises for a reformed parliament in 2005 seem a distant memory, with 75% of Commons MPs being men. Big Debate asks, should there be legislative quotas to get more women in parliament?
YES: Alice Smart
Anybody who visits the House of Commons will not find a chamber truly representative of the British Public. Nearly four out of every five MPs are men, leaving women unheard.
It has taken nearly a century to achieve the current record high of 22.4 per cent women MPs. Evidently it will take at least another hundred years before we see a gender balanced Parliament. However, when you account for the impact all women shortlists have had, you realise that much of the progress has only recently been made. All women shortlists were a device used by the Labour Party to select candidates for winnable seats. The 1997 Labour landslide saw more women enter Parliament than ever before. If it hadn’t been for these lists, it’s doubtful we’d have anywhere near the same number of women MPs today. Unless we do something more dramatic to instil a gender balance in the House of Commons we will have to wait a very long time before women have an equal footing in politics.
The oldest argument against legislative quotas is that it will result in candidates being picked because of their gender rather than on merit. To anyone who asks this question I say this. Are you truly suggesting that there are fewer female MPs because women don’t have the talent or ambition to match that of our current males? If our Parliament is a product entirely of meritocratic picking, a collection of the best in the entire country for serving the people, then god help us. There are more than enough capable women to fill these positions. A quota would simply ensure that women have an opportunity to be noticed amongst a sea of testosterone. Female role models are needed urgently to raise political aspirations among young women. Only if our generation are helped into formal politics can we then create role models for women in the future to follow.
A quota needn’t be a permanent measure, but a way to get the equality ball rolling. The criticism that women are already on a level playing field with men is both ridiculous and frustrating. It only takes the observation of conversations to see a remarkably different attitude towards women. For our society, politics and women are not a comfortably-sitting duo. Hence when the opportunity arises, women are under scrutiny and pressure from day one to prove their eligibility. What’s more, British Parliament is an institution created by men that clings persistently to tradition and shuns reform.
Quotas are not giving women and unfair advantage, but catalysing an overdue change to our outdated political sphere. Who is to decide a person’s suitability to politics? When electing candidates we look for determination, knowledge and empathy. Traits that I am sure are not a matter of chromosomes but of character. This is not an issue of women being ill suited to politics, but rather a political prejudice that is ill suited to women. Women do not lack the talent to be MPs, over the years there have been many talented and successful female MPs; there will also have been countless women with the talent to become MPs who were never given the proper chance to prove themselves.
The idea of a quota itself is crucial not only pragmatically, but in the sense of its symbolism. By legislatively recognising the need for change, acceptance of an evolving society will surely follow. A quota is the symbol of a no-tolerance attitude to sexism and to prejudice. Creating the role models today will ensure we won’t have to talk about these quotas tomorrow.
NO: Henry Wise
Would you ever vote for someone because they are a man or a woman? Women voted in their majority for Barack Obama in 2008 rather than for John McCain and Sarah Palin. The majority of women were appalled by Palin’s views on abortion and reproductive rights. Their disgust of this Alaskan ‘hockey mom’ with a shocking naivety of foreign policy and Grade E intelligence meant that the Republicans lost by a landslide. In their millions, the women of America did not vote for the first female vice-president since 1776, but the first African American male president instead. American women voted for Barack Obama because they deemed him most qualified to rescue America from the economic quagmire into which they had dived. And that’s why people vote for certain candidates in elections. They want the most qualified candidate. Characteristically a typical voter, let’s call them either Joe Smith or Jane Wilson, wishes their local representative to have; intelligence, honesty, idealism and pragmatism. What is insignificant is that individual’s genitalia. Quotas for women will not improve the quality of our parliament, unless those women have the acumen that we so desire in our elected officials. Louise Mensch is just one example. In an attempt to increase women and minorities in the Tory Party, she was allowed to contest the seat of Corby which she duly won. But she has just resigned her seat, which was won in a by-election to go and live in New York with her husband.
I do not deny that quotas can increase representation for formally disenfranchised groups. Many European countries have introduced compulsory quotas for company boards. But this has not always lead to better financial performance. Norway started enforcing quotas in 2006 with a 40 per cent target on boards. A study by the University of Michigan, though, has found that when large numbers of inexperienced women were promoted to boards, firms’ performance was subsequently damaged. Companies don’t want to discriminate against somebody, because of their sex; they want to discriminate on the basis of merit. If you were looking to employ someone and you genuinely wanted the best person or the job, their gender should be the last thing on your mind. The same sort of logic applies with politicians. Simultaneously to this pressure for quotas, women are catching up and overtaking men in many important areas, particularly education. In this year’s A-Level Results, of the top 20 independent schools, 12 were all girls schools and only three were all boys schools. There are also more females going to university than males. Young women between the ages of 22 and 29 now earn on average more than their male counterparts. It seems that women have “never had it so good”, as Harold MacMillan once said.
The social progress of women is advancing strongly. More women are gaining positions of authority than ever before. In 2010, a record number of women were elected to Parliament. As young women are starting to do better than young men in education, they will have better life prospects. If you’re a female student at Leeds, it’s more likely that you will have a better paid job than your fellow males after you leave Leeds. Better education equals better job prospects because of greater merit. We don’t need patronising initiatives like quotas to ensure greater diversity in both the workplace and Parliament.