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Increasing Women’s Political Representation Using Quotas

Education 30 Mar, 2021 Follow News

Dr. Livingston Smith is a Professor at the University College of the Cayman Islands. He is also Director of the CXC Education Volunteer programme

With women accounting for only ten of the fifty candidates in the upcoming elections, there is interest in understanding why this low number. A recent document by UNWomen, the United Nations Organization dedicated to gender equality and the empowerment of women, gives a good summary of the situation as it concerns the Anglophone Caribbean.

It reports that on average, 22% of ministerial portfolios/ cabinet positions in the Anglophone Caribbean are held by women and that across the region women generally do not hold more than 30% of elected positions except for Guyana which has a legislated quota of one-third of the number of political party nominees must be women.

The low number of women in political leadership across the region has not been viewed as an urgent matter that needs to be rectified. As the UNWomen Report says, economic and environmental vulnerabilities, high levels of indebtedness, diminishing foreign reserves and the impacts of the increasing intensity of natural hazards are matters taken to be urgent and weighty, not so much gender equality and the importance of women’s leadership. However, as the report correctly notes, this can be short sighted and limiting in trying to achieve national development targets.

In addition to the fact that gender equality is an important and urgent matter for progressive governments, there are strong reasons for having much more women in political leadership. As the report says, ‘women’s leadership is positively associated with cooperative learning and participatory communication on larger and more geographically dispersed teams.’ The report explains that in general, women bring a more participatory and democratic style to leadership and that the inclusion of higher proportions of women on boards and in negotiations is also associated with increased profitability, increased business performance, and success. Drawing from research data, the UNWomen report says that more women on company boards is linked to greater focus on long-term goals and improved governance.

According to the report,’ Caribbean society seems to have an ideal of what the perfect leader looks like; he’s a married, grassroots, older Afro Caribbean man with a family. However, when it comes to the priorities and issues of greatest concern to them, one thing becomes very clear: they want to see more women in politics and as leaders. Across the Caribbean, 67 per cent of people perceived the national attitude in their country to be generally supportive of women’s participation in politics and leadership.’ Even though the top priorities of people across the region are employment, the economy and crime and violence, Caribbean society is broadly supportive of women in political leadership based on fairness and equity and perceive that women will focus on the core social development priorities that they themselves prioritise.

Despite the broad support for more women in political leadership, the current percentage is low. Even with significant progress in gender relations in the Caribbean, ‘in 2017 on average, around 22 per cent of ministerial portfolios/ cabinet positions were held by women in the Anglophone Caribbean. Across the region, women do not hold more than 30 per cent of elected positions, Guyana and Trinidad and Tobago being the exception with over 30% elected positions.’

The reasons for this low figure are well known. Gender role perceptions still present barriers to women. By gender roles we mean the attitudes, feelings, and behaviors that a culture associates with a person’s biological sex and dictate what is socially acceptable for a male or female. As the report says, ‘the gender roles and associated expectations for men and women are very different and can be delimiting for women candidates.’

In addition, ‘family work and time constraints disproportionally affect women due to the uneven distribution of family care responsibilities. Women are generally expected to spend more time on homecare and childcare work than men.’ Even with changing attitudes regarding males doing an equal share of housework, women still carry most of this responsibility. Childcare responsibilities are still mostly done by women who would find it challenging to balance a political position and family responsibilities, and the fact that women are expected to do most of this work means that women face an added disadvantage.

The UN report notes that global research shows that female politicians have more family responsibility, which takes up more of their time than their male counterparts, resulting in a situation where “only women with supportive families run for office, whereas men are more likely to run in spite of discouragement from their families”.

Institutional barriers present yet another lawyer of challenge for women to be more represented in political leadership. As the report says, ‘while there are no laws or policies prohibiting women candidates and politicians, established practices of recruitment and internal party selection can disadvantage potential women candidates. Particularly with regards to campaign funding, women do not typically have access to existing social networks of people who fund campaigns. When candidates run for elections, they do not receive pay, and so those who are not able to balance work and campaigning, simply cannot afford to campaign.’

It has also been observed that ‘ssuccessful women politicians have historically accessed the political sphere through family networks, informal connections, civic groups, unions, and women’s organisations.’

The above factors still give preference to male political leadership. Caribbean political spaces still present a complex and challenging environment for women who wish to run for election and for women in political office.

Political parties must lead the way in changing this situation. It is political parties that identify, train and support candidates for office. Political parties must support women who show the interest and determination to run for office is crucial. As the UNWomen report says, ‘It is important that the perceptions of the viability of a political career for interested and qualified women are increased. Political parties should recognize and acknowledge the value of women in leadership in their platforms. As for the barriers women face, political parties have the scope to decrease barriers for women in campaigning, including funding, and support early exposure for women to political training and inclusion in networks.’

Very significant is the fact that globally, it is recognized that the most effective way to increase women’s representation is using quotas. This ‘temporary’ facility has ‘been resoundingly successful in countries such as Italy, Sweden, India, and Guyana.’

Curbing the overrepresentation of men in politics by expanding the talent pool can lead to increases in the quality and diversity of the politicians elected, and this translates into quality representation for all. The democratic project requires and demands no less.


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