Could quotas for men help women into politics?

Published on Tuesday, 26 August 2014 10:19
Written by Daniel Mason

Gender quotas that are supposed to increase the number of women in politics should be redesigned as limits on the number of men in positions of power, it has been suggested.

Rainbow Murray, reader in politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said moving to a system of quotas for men would prevent women from being stigmatised or placed under extra pressure amid perceptions that they have been chosen "on the basis of sex rather than merit".

Instead the debate should be switched "from the problem of female underrepresentation to that of male overrepresentation", argued Murray in an article published in the journal American Political Science Review this month.

She wrote: "An undesirable consequence of placing the emphasis on women is that women are framed as the 'other' or the 'outsider group' against a dominant male norm.

"As a result pressure is placed on women to justify their place in politics through questioning women's qualifications, attributes, and fitness to govern. Women may find themselves expected to provide 'added value' and risk being perceived as inferior candidates who were selected only on the basis of sex rather than merit."

Murray said targeting a maximum quota for men instead of a minimum quota for women would shift the "burden of proving competence from women to men". "Quotas for men challenge the notion that the constant overrepresentation of men is the product of meritocracy, and reduce the stigma of being a 'quota women'," she added.

Last week Labour's use of all-women shortlists to select its candidates was put in the spotlight by the party's veteran MP Austin Mitchell, who is standing down from his Great Grimsby seat at the next election.

In an article for the Daily Mail, Mitchell wrote that Labour's "obsession" with all-women shortlists meant the party's "new preoccupations will be social, educational and family issues". He added: "Most selections are now on the all-women basis, even where hairy-arsed local politics, a major Ukip threat or a substantial Muslim population might suggest that it's better to choose a man."

Describing the use of the shortlists as a "suspensions of party democracy", he claimed that with more women in parliament, MPs would be "preoccupied with the local rather than the international" and "small problems rather than big ideas".

He also said women MPs were "more amenable and leadable and less objectionable", provoking a backlash from within the party. The shadow childcare minister, Lucy Powell, said Mitchell's comments were "sexist and misogynistic" and highlighted the "need for parliament to modernise and better represent the people of the country".

The Conservative defence minister, Anna Soubry, said Mitchell was "talking nonsense and insulting women with his absurd theories. To say that women don't care about the big issues is just not true."

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