Mo’ Quotas, Mo’ Problems
Last week the Upper House of India’s Parliament passed a bill that, if enacted, would reserve 33% of State Assembly and Parliamentary seats for women. The bill has been in the pipeline for more than a decade, but was finally passed in its first phase – amidst rowdiness and uproar – just in time for International Women’s Day last month. While this is being heralded as earth shattering for women, who lag way behind men in almost all things in India, there are very good questions about whether a quota will be effective in the way it is meant to.
One of the deepest arguments against the bill is that such a quota, if not further defined to ensure diversity, would favor high-caste, religious majority, and wealthy women in India; in short, a “win” for women writ large would come at the expense of including other disadvantaged groups such as low-caste, poor, and religious minorities (both men and women) .
It’s a valid point. If you’ve opened the door for the inclusion of more women, but those women still represent the same level of exclusion and homogeneity at the expense of other groups, what have we really achieved? Several Indian lawmakers bemoan the cronyism that already characterizes Indian politics – and the inclusion of wives, mothers, daughters and sisters as male politicians’ “proxies,” after term limits are over, is no exception.
In general, it seems, the populous doesn’t take kindly to women succeeding their male relatives or partners in politics, despite the outcome being one of more women in politics. This has dogged Hillary Clinton, as it has a number of other powerful female politicians. The how they got there is just as important if not more than that they’re there. This, perhaps, is the most salient point in all of this quota talk.
We see this same argument against quotas, hinging on the ear of an “old girls’ club” of privileged and wealthy women, elsewhere. I posted last month about Norway’s female quota for boardrooms which is having similar problems. There simply aren’t enough female executives (yet) waiting in the wings for board positions, and as a result you have only a few women holding several board seats. While I suggested there is inherent value in setting up a structure to ensure greater gender equality, now I’m not so sure if this is really the outcome we wanted…
The question about privilege remains, irrespective of gender. That is, we can’t simply breathe a sigh of relief once woman X is in a power seat, but there are more nuanced notions of privilege and diversity we must always consider. A friend also suggested to me this weekend that with the mounting evidence to show that women are blowing men out of the water on several counts, including higher education admissions, jobs, and income-level, maybe such quotas will be counterproductive to the momentum already rolling.
I’m not sure I agree with that, but that if we do impose quotas, they should be constructed in such a way that women of color, low-caste women, and other often disadvantaged groups within the “women” bracket are at the forefront.
This week, The Economist tackles the quota issue, making the point that, at least in the example of Norway’s boardrooms, “imposing quotas for women tackles the symptoms of discrimination, not the cause.” I think that’s very true – by not focusing on what the road there is like, but on who shows up at the finish line, in a few decades time we may very well have the right proportions of men and women in power positions, yet not have made any progress in improving equity — among the sexes or otherwise.