Why American politics needs gender quota

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After the 2018 elections, many Americans celebrated the unprecedented number of women gaining seats to Congress. There was reason to celebrate: both the House and Senate included more women than ever before, with proportions of 23.5 percent and 25 percent, respectively, in both chambers.

Yet, these proportions are dismal when compared to most countries in the world, both advanced democracies and developing countries. Last month, the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s database of women in world parliaments ranked the United States 78th out of 193 countries in the world. Why is this the case? And how have so many other countries, like Rwanda, Mexico, Spain and Argentina, nearly reached parity for women in their legislatures? The answer is gender quotas.

Gender quotas are institutional mechanisms intended to increase the representation of women in politics. In some places, like the United Kingdom, gender quotas have been implemented for parliamentary elections at party levels. 

Elsewhere, like in most of Latin America, legislative quotas are mandatory to all parties, and in many African and Middle Eastern countries, women are elected or appointed through reserved seats. Most quotas require a minimum 30 percent of women, but they generally range from requirements of 20 to 40 percent. 

Within the first decade of the millennium, a new wave of quota activism emerged with force throughout the world. This time, legislative proposals for parity systems that require 50 percent of the candidate slots for women and the alternation between male and female candidates in party tickets for legislative elections have been adopted in countries like France, Nicaragua, Bolivia and South Africa, among many others.

Gender parity is based on the principle of equality of outcome and democratic representation and rooted in universally recognized human rights principles. Overall, and as stated in the Montevideo Strategy, parity has been deemed “necessary to overcome certain structural challenges entrenched in the current unequal power relations” between genders. 

While increasing the proportion of women in legislatures has obvious representational benefits, gender quotas and parity have also led to substantive policy results. Through quotas, women have been able to increase the passage of legislation that has benefitted women at large.

For example, Argentina has had a minimum 30 percent mandatory legislative gender quota since the 1990s. Legislation dealing with domestic violence, reproductive rights, reproductive health, reforms to the criminal code, and the more recent gender parity law were all proposed by women legislators. In other words, introducing policy that is more inclusive of women in public office is not only a question of representativeness akin to a democratic political system like the U.S. but it is also a means to diversify policy and expand women’s perspectives.

Given these widespread worldwide phenomena, why then not introduce gender quotas or gender parity policies to the U.S. legislative branch? To be sure, the U.S. has an electoral system that has been known to work against the inclusion of minorities and women, but with some tweaking there could be ways to incorporate more women and distribute the party ticket in a way that more closely mirrors society as a whole.

The Labour Party in the U.K., for example, has implemented gender parity for its parliamentary elections relatively well, by placing women in winnable parliamentary seats. In the U.S., this will take some creativity. Indeed, the U.K.’s major parties employ very different mechanisms in the selection of candidates for parliamentary elections.

Still, there could be ways to increase the representation of women in the U.S. After all, the Democratic Party has attempted to close the gender gap by requiring in its charter that membership in the party’s National Committee, the Executive Committee, and like bodies “shall be as equally divided as practicable according to gender.”

Therefore, the party could extend its bylaws to the larger electorate by increasing the number of women candidates running in primary elections, particularly in winnable electoral districts. The state of Nevada shows what such results can mean. Since the most recent legislative election, a majority of women now sits in its legislature.

Descriptive representation, as elsewhere in the world, has had dramatic policy consequences for Nevada’s women. As Emily Wax-Thibodeaux pointed out in the Washington Post, “bills prioritizing women’s health and safety have soared to the top of the agenda.”

It is time for our country to make serious and concerted efforts through either quotas, parity or other means to attain a fairer distribution of seats in the legislative branch and beyond, and to achieve equality of outcome in the redistributive sense. Otherwise, except for Nevada, women in American politics will continue to have a very hard time catching up with the rest of the world. 

Adriana Piatti-Crocker is professor of political science and co-director of the Global Studies Program at the University of Illinois, Springfield and Public Voices Fellow with the OpEd Project. She is author and co-editor of “Gender Quotas in South America’s Big Three: National and Subnational Implications” and author of “The Diffusion of Gender Policy in Latin America: From Quotas to Parity.”

Tags Political philosophy Reserved political positions Women in government

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