Gender quotas: bad for women, bad for voters

I don’t usually sit on the fence about things but I’ve never been too sure how I feel about gender quotas in politics. On the one hand, I can certainly see why a career in politics might be more difficult for a woman rather than a man, and I do think that more needs to be done so that the women who want to make a contribution are actually able to do so.  I’m just not sure that gender quotas are the best way to go about it.

My doubts resurfaced last week, with the news that Fianna Fail in particular is facing a “stark challenge” to meet its requirements under the Electoral (Amendment) (Political Funding) Act 2012 before the next election. The Act sets a high standard – at least 30% of candidates in the field must be female or the political party in question will lose half the funding it receives annually under the Electoral Act 1997.  That’s a tall order for any party, and particularly so for Fianna Fail which has no female TDs at all at present and just two female Oireachtas members.

Of course, there’s nothing to say that Micheal Martin’s party can’t turn this around and it has made serious efforts, even setting up the Markievicz Commission which has just produced a report and set of recommendations. Martin himself remains confident that he will meet the target of 27 female candidates.

Faced with the prospect of losing vital funding, party leaders are going to make every effort to reach that magic 30% figure.  But in the process, female candidates won’t be given the same opportunity as their male counterparts.  Their ideas won’t be listened to.  They won’t even be heard. They’re more likely to be rubber-stamped for selection once they meet the basic criterion of being female.  Which is fine, I suppose, if selection is your main aim in life. But it’s not exactly meeting the feminist ideal of being judged on your talent though, is it?

Quite apart from that, are gender quotas the issue that should be foremost in the minds of leaders in the run-up to the election?  Shouldn’t they be thinking more about the abilities of the people on their team rather than their sex?  I know how the old argument goes and yes, of course, a woman can do a job as well as a man.  But that presupposes that the woman and man in question are equally matched in terms of ability and experience.  Why should a man with a  lot of talent in one area be passed over in favour of a woman of lesser ability?  Why should that be deemed progressive?  Surely the electorate is best served if the leaders of political parties are free to make a decision based on considerations other than gender – something that won’t happen within the pressurized atmosphere created by these rules.

And if we are going to impose strictures for choosing candidates, why stop at gender?  Why not quotas for professions?  Race?  Religion? Why not insist on a certain number of successful entrepreneurs? Should we be asking how a teaching qualification might enable someone to run the health department?  Those questions are answered of course but they’re answered by voters on the day of election, and I can’t see why forcing a restriction on the available candidates should amount to anyone’s idea of equality.

At the end of the day though, actions will always speak louder than words, and that’s really why it’s becoming more and more evident that gender quotas have no place in the electoral system.  A few days before Fianna Fail’s gender concerns were highlighted in the Irish Independent, the same newspaper reported on Lucinda Creighton’s announcement that she intends to set up a new political party in the coming weeks.  In doing so, Creighton was following in the footsteps of no less a luminary than Countess Markievicz herself, who was of course one of the founding members of Fianna Fail.  Given those circumstances, you would have thought that the gender quota promoters would be out in force to support her and encourage other women to thing along the same ambitious lines.

Strangely, that didn’t happen. The women’s groups and organisations that specialise in helping women get the training and encouragement that they need to make a difference were at best silent, and at worst, mocking. Creighton’s outfit might be in its fledgling stage but stepping into the arena is a tremendously  courageous act in itself and you might have expected some more support to go her way.

If there was ever any doubt over whether the whole concept of gender quotas was just a token designed to satisfy some groups in society, then that has been put to rest by the muted reaction to Creighton’s announcement. Bottom line, policy matters. The people who mocked and criticised Creighton over her policies weren’t going to stop just because she’s a woman – even if, by their actions they have essentially scored an own goal.  By refusing to applaud her efforts and express the hope that she might lead the way for female politicians in Ireland, they have dealt their own argument a fatal blow.

In the process, they’ve reminded us that policy matters more than gender. I can’t see Lucinda Creighton losing any sleep because that’s a good thing for democracy, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum. Come polling day, we deserve the chance to vote for politicians who have worked hard to convince us that they can do a good job when in office, not the ones who have been shoehorned onto the ballot by a clumsy piece of legislation.