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  • Writer's pictureCaitlin Chiam

Why the Best Man Shouldn't Always Win

Gender Quotas Are Meritocratic: Breaking Down The Main Rebuttal to Gender Quotas in Parliament

The idea of gender quotas have struggled to bloom in Australian parliamentary parties in the shadow of doubt and misunderstanding. Practically, gender quotas are an agreement within a political party that a set number of seats will be contested by women at an election. Whilst most political Australian political parties have made gender equity a goal, there is no consensus on the use of quotas. 

Let’s make something clear. Gender quotas do not mean that a set number of women and men will definitely end up in parliamentary seats. They also don’t mean that if gender equity isn’t represented in the elected parliament that men will be removed and replaced by women. Gender quotas are used during the preselection stage of an election when a party votes on who their candidate should be to contest an electoral seat. Gender quotas merely ensure that political parties provide a balanced slate of candidates for preselection from whom the Australian public will ultimately choose their candidate. There is no way of ensuring that elected party members are split along any defined gender lines. Who ends up being elected to parliament house is entirely up to the Australian people on election day.

Gender quotas are not ideal. In a perfect world, the culture of political parties would be conducive to preselecting female candidates and there would be no need for quotas. However, you only need to glance at a few headlines from the past 12 months to know that this is not the world we live in. Both major parties have come under great criticism for a poor parliamentary culture which has been hostile and downright dangerous for women.

Quotas are an effective circuit breaker. They can help to break a cycle of prejudice that is perpetuated by habit.

The question boils down to this – should the systems change the culture or should the culture change the system? Cultures take a long time to change. If we wait for parliament to be a welcoming and inclusive place for women on its own terms, we could be waiting generations. Gender quotas are a lever that can be pulled to snap parties into action and induce a culture change.

Instead of waiting for the culture to become more inclusive to increase the number of women in parliament, why don’t we increase the number of women in parliament consequently making the parliamentary culture more inclusive?

Which parties have adopted quotas?

For the Australian Labor Party (ALP), gender quotas have been instrumental in increasing their proportion of female members of parliament to 46% in the House of Representatives. In 1994, the Australian Labor Party chose to address their gender inequity by introducing a 35% gender quota for preselection. This meant that the ALP would take at least 35% female candidates to each election. In 2012, the ALP adjusted their policy an introduced a 40:40:20 split. This means that 40% of the candidates available for preselection must be women, no less than 40% can be men and 20% of the candidates can be of any gender. Gender quotas have been successful in increasing female representation to almost 50% in the current parliament.   

The Coalition however, have remained staunchly opposed to gender quotas and subsequently only have 18% female MPs in the current House of Representatives. To be clear – quotas are not the only way to achieve gender equity within a political party. In fact, the parties with the highest percentage of women have done so without a quota in sight. For instance, the Australian Greens Party have had a peak of 70% female MPs despite never adopting a gender quota.

For parties that are struggling with achieving gender equity, quotas are undeniably the most effective mechanism we have available to us. However, their efficacy has been undermined by concerns that they are tokenistic and unmeritocratic. Let’s break down this concern.

The Main Argument Against Gender Quotas – They Are Undemocratic

Meritocracy is the idea that the best person for the job should win. The extension of this argument is that quotas will bring women into parliament who did not get their position through merit, but because they are a woman. So, if you are unlucky enough to be in a seat where a woman has been forcibly preselected by quotas, you may not be represented by the best person – just merely the best woman.

There is a lot to unpack in this.

Firstly, there is an assumption in this argument that there are not enough women of merit in Australia to fill half the seats in parliament. This is self-evidently deeply untrue. To put up the argument that gender quotas are a burden to meritocracy is to argue that there are simply more men of merit in Australia, which explains their overrepresentation in the parliament. However, you don’t have to think too hard to bring to mind some men in parliament who may not be the brightest and most accomplished person in their electorate but rather a product of the party machine.

Further, a meritocratic rebuttal to gender quotas doesn’t stand up in an uneven playing field. A Trojan Horse for the meritocracy argument is the following question – ‘how do you know you didn’t just get this job because you’re a woman?’. Another important question that rarely gets asked is how do elected male MPs know that they didn’t just get their job because they are a man? How can any man in parliament be sure that he is not riding on the tailcoat of sexist stereotypes that men are more level-headed and fit for leadership? How can he be sure that it is his list of accomplishments and virtuous character that landed him in parliament rather than sexist and outdated perceptions of who can be trusted with power (and a healthy dose of backroom deals)?

My point is that parliament house is not a neutral place. Gendered ideology already has a significant impact on the way that parliamentary procedures (like preselection) are undertaken. Implicit gender biases override meritocratic processes. Introducing gender quotas can help to balance prejudice and provide a more meritocratic parliament.

In Summary

Quotas are an aid to meritocracy. Humans of course are flawed and often let our own prejudices cloud our judgement of merit. It is for this reason that many companies ask that hopeful employees don’t attach a photo to their CV, so they can read their accomplishments and accolades without allowing presumptions about race, gender or other visible identities to get in the way. Quotas act much the same way – they are a mechanism that we can choose to put in place to help override our internalised prejudices about gender.

Meritocracy is often interpreted as letting the best man win and currently in this parliament, this is often the way that preselection happens. This expression is gendered for a reason. If we want to start seeing the best person win, regardless of gender, we need gender quotas to break the cycle of misogyny. Gender quotas can force a cultural change within an institutions that can recognise they need it.

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