Gender Quotas and the Myth of ‘Merit’

Originally posted on Women 50:50:

Dr. Meryl Kenny, University of Edinburgh 

Bring up the topic of gender quotas and you will face a barrage of well-worn criticisms – they are undemocratic, they discriminate against men, they promote ‘token’ women, and so on. Those who oppose quotas will often claim that of course they would like to see more women in politics, but they would prefer that candidates for political office be chosen on the basis of ‘merit’.  This, they will tell you, is about fairness and objectivity – one should always (to paraphrase Yes Minister) strive to appoint the ‘best man for the job, regardless of sex.’

The underlying assumption here is, of course, that women have less ‘merit’ than men – in other words, that quotas promote inexperienced and unqualified women at the expense of their more meritorious male counterparts. But, there is very little research evidence (either in the UK or…

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In Defence of Lovenduskianism

Originally posted on UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group:


Rosie Campbell, Meryl Kenny and Fiona Mackay

In a recent post on the PSA Women and Politics Group’s blog, Jonathan Dean reflects on the June 2015 European Conference on Politics and Gender, as well as the state of gender and politics scholarship more broadly. Dean argues that the conference has made visible a number of struggles within the gender politics community and suggests that the core tension lies between those ‘Lovenduskian’ scholars interested in ‘feminising politics’ versus those who are interested in ‘politicising gender’. The first strand, he argues, considers the gender dynamics of political institutions to be the core area of study for the sub-discipline, whilst the second views the subject of gender itself to be a political project.

We welcome this call for dialogue between the diverse strands of gender and politics scholarship. However (in the spirit of this dialogue), Dean’s musings on the ECPG…

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The Gender & Early Career Researcher REF Gaps

Originally posted on Stephen R. Bates:

by Fran Amery, Stephen Bates and Steve McKay

Men in psychology, economics and biology are so good at research that 29-30% achieved 4* outputs in the last Research Exercise Framework (REF). Women in theology; anthropology & development studies; sociology; aeronautical, mechanical, chemical and manufacturing engineering; civil and construction engineering; agriculture, veterinary and food science (and men in art & design) are perhaps not so impressive: only 13-14% achieved 4* outputs in these units of assessment (UoA). Overall, 22% of men and 19% of women submitted to the REF produced 4* outputs. These apparent differences in purported research quality were highlighted in one of the supplementary reports accompanying the recent metrics review by HEFCE, The Metric Tide*.

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Constitutions, Quotas and Women’s Political Representation

This blog was originally published with the Centre on Constitutional Change. Read the original post here

By Meryl Kenny

Constitutions capture aspirations for the future, setting out broader principles of fair treatment and representation. As such, constitutions inevitably have a gendered impact – they frame women’s inclusion in, or exclusion from, the constitutional community (as well as that of other marginalized groups), and can, therefore, promote, or alternatively, present obstacles to gender equality. Moments of institutional and constitutional restructuring thus offer ‘windows of opportunity’ for gender equality agendas, giving women and other traditionally marginalized groups a chance to integrate gender concerns into these processes. While women’s interest in constitutional design is certainly not new, women’s constitutional activism has taken off in the last several decades, while the importance of a gender perspective in constitution-making is also increasingly recognized by international bodies, most notably in UN Security Council Resolution 1325.

As the constitutional lawyer Helen Irving notes, for women to be full members of the constitutional community, they must be represented and they must take part in all dimensions of the law-making process. Yet, women continue to be politically under-represented around the world – women hold only 22% of parliamentary seats worldwide, and only three countries in the world have achieved 50% women or better in their national parliaments. These are, currently, Rwanda at 64% women and Bolivia at 53% women; and, previously, Andorra at 50% women (dropping to 39% in 2015). Many democratic countries with long constitutional histories continue to perform poorly on women’s representation: in Australia, the first country in the world where (most) women had the right to both vote and stand for the national parliament, women are only 27% of the House of Representatives; meanwhile, the UK has 29% women in the House of Commons; Canada has 25%; and the United States comes in even lower at 19% women in the House of Representatives.

Globally, gender quotas have become an increasingly prominent and popular solution to the problem of women’s political under-representation – and, increasingly, these measures are entrenched in constitutions and/or electoral law, rather than simply left up to individual political parties.  Gender quotas in the form of reserved seats are usually explicitly outlined in constitutional provisions – Article 76 of the 2003 Rwandan constitution, for example, reserves 24 of the 80 seats in the Chamber of Deputies for women.  Meanwhile, Article 83 of the 2004 Afghan constitution specifies the total number of seats in the lower house, and mandates that at least two women should be elected to this body from each province – in practice, at least 68 women (27%). In other cases, constitutional quota provisions are directed at political parties. The French Constitution, as amended in 1999, states that ‘statutes shall promote equal access by women and men to elective offices and posts’ (Article 1), and also requires that political parties ‘contribute to the implementation of [this] principle’ (Article 4). This was followed in 2000 by new legislation – known as the ‘parity law’ – which mandates that French political parties nominate an equal number of male and female candidates in municipal, national and European elections.

Are constitutional or legislative quotas more effective than voluntary quotas used by political parties? Research in this area shows that legal quotas do not in themselves guarantee increases in women’s political presence – they need to be well-designed and effectively implemented to produce results. Crucial here are placement mandates – for quotas to work, they must not only stipulate that more women be selected, but must also ensure that parties are running them in seats or list places that they actually have a chance of winning.  In Iraq, for example, the 2005 Electoral Law (which supports the gender quota provision in the Transitional Guidelines of the Iraqi Constitution) mandates that at least one of the top three candidates on each of the parties’ electoral lists must be a woman.

However, one of the advantages of constitutional and/or legislative quotas over voluntary party ones is that they allow for legal sanctions in cases where parties don’t follow the quota rules. The most effective type of sanctions are those that give electoral authorities the power to reject party lists that don’t include a sufficient number or percentage of women candidates, as seen in countries like Belgium and Spain, for example. Other countries have financial sanctions on the books, which are often less effective. In France, for example, the parity law does not specify any placement mandates and only includes weak financial sanctions for non-compliance – the larger parties can therefore afford to pay a fine rather than comply with the quota law. Thus, despite the existence of the above-discussed constitutional provisions and the parity law, women are still only 26% of the National Assembly.

The other advantage of constitutional and/or legislative quotas is that they apply to all parties in a country. Voluntary party quotas, in contrast, apply only to those parties that have chosen to implement them. In cases where multiple parties across the political spectrum have chosen to adopt voluntary quotas – for example, some of the Scandinavian countries – these measures can have a significant impact on levels of women’s representation. In countries like the UK, however, where the use of voluntary party quotas has been largely one-sided, gains in women’s representation continue to be slow and incremental. Responding to these trends, repeated calls have been made by campaigners at Scottish and UK level for the need for legislative quotas to ensure real change. These kinds of measures are potentially more difficult to adopt than party quotas – legal gender quotas require parliamentary support – but they are also necessary in order to achieve more equal and inclusive decision-making bodies.

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Feminising Politics, Politicising Gender


Jonathan Dean (University of Leeds) on varieties of gender politics scholarship — and the issues and tensions in play. Reflections from the 4th ECPG held recently in Uppsala. Signs of a healthy and dynamic field!

Originally posted on UK PSA Women & Politics Specialist Group:

Some musings following the 2015 European Conference on Politics and Gender from Jonathan Dean.

JoniThe Fourth European Conference on Politics and Gender saw no fewer than 450 scholars from across Europe and beyond descend on Uppsala in central Sweden, rendering it an excellent opportunity to take stock of the current state of gender and politics scholarship. At one level, the news is unreservedly positive. Feminist perspectives are being brought to bear on a bewilderingly wide variety of political phenomena, and the affective climate of the conference was often defiant and optimistic. But on digging deeper, one could detect numerous signs of unease. In the lunch breaks and in the bars of Uppsala all too frequently talk was of precarious employment and institutional marginalisation. No one could be left in any doubt that to pursue “gender-aware” political analysis is to engage in often bitter political struggle against a political science…

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Why women talk less


No easy answers – but a measured response to complex issues from the Debuk blog

Originally posted on language: a feminist guide:

This week on Newsnight, Evan Davis talked to three women about all-male panels—a subject made topical by the recent popularity of a tumblr set up to name and shame them. Why, he asked, are women so often un- or under-represented in public forums? Are they reluctant to put themselves forward? Are they deterred by the adversarial nature of the proceedings?

The women offered some alternative suggestions. Women don’t get asked, or if they do it’s assumed you only need one. Women aren’t seen as experts, unless the subject is a ‘women’s issue’. The age-old prejudice against women speaking in public means that any woman who dares to voice her opinions can expect to be deluged with abuse and threats.

But while all-male panels are obviously a problem, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Just ensuring that women are represented on a panel does not guarantee their voices will…

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Another Crack in the Glass Ceiling? Leslie Evans appointed Scotland’s top civil servant

Another first for gender equality this week: with news that First Minister Nicola Sturgeon had appointed Leslie Evans as Scotland’s top civil servant – the first time a woman has held this position. Guest genderpol blogger Professor  James Mitchell, University of Edinburgh reflects on this break through and the barriers that remain for women in public service. 

Leslie Evans has been appointed Permanent Secretary at the Scottish Government. The office dates back to 1885 when the Scottish Office came into being (though had its antecedents dating back further). She is the nineteenth person to hold the post and the first women. That the new head of the Scottish civil service is a woman has drawn most attention.

While much attention and research focuses on the number of MPs, MSPs and councillors, there has been far less on the opportunities for women in the civil and public services. A year ago, research on Whitehall by the Hay Group concluded that the culture and leadership climate in the civil service prevented talented women from progressing into more senior roles’. This constraint on the talent pool was a major impediment in performance. The research concluded that women who entered the service had the qualities and capabilities required to reach the top but raised questions about the conditions that inhibited this talent from rising. The conclusion of the report (Women in Whitehall: Culture, Leadership, Talent) warned that if these matters were not addressed then the civil service would no longer be ‘fit for purpose’.

While stated policy was broadly positive, there were significant problems when it came to how this was translated into practice and particularly people’s perception of the reality – the rhetoric was not believed when it came to policy and promotions and what is valued. Many talented women simply opt out. The challenge was presented diagrammatically.


 There is considerable variation across the civil service with the Ministry of Defence, Ministry of Justice and Foreign and Commonwealth Office amongst the poorest. The Department for Education was the only department in Whitehall in which the number of women senior civil servants exceeded men. The Scottish Government’s record has been better probably reflecting the nature of its responsibilities.

One response has been to scrap all-male shortlists, except in ‘exceptional circumstances’ and emphasise a more inclusive leadership climate. The greater effort to ensure more women are appointed to public bodies and boards is thought to contribute to a changing climate. Having diversity champions and mentoring and providing support for women before, during and after maternity leave, and training to remove unintended bias in interviews are all being encouraged.

The current climate is unlikely to have been decisive in Leslie Evans’ appointment but this appointment highlights the loss of talent in the career progression of the civil service. We are still some way from the day when the sex of a senior official is deemed the most notable factor in an appointment

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