Quotas for Women, Yes or Not?
Erika Casajoana (Belgium)
(Translated from the Spanish Original)

March 2006

Days before International Women's Day of March 8th, the Spanish Council of Ministers approved a bill for equality with
the aim of ending women's discrimination and achieving actual equality between the sexes.  

The bill establishes a mimimum quota of 40% for each gender in electoral lists and executive boards of public
institutions, and it will also incentivize the heretofore token presence of women in the executive boards of private
companies.

Labor Minister Jesús Caldera said that if companies do not make advances in this sense out of their own will, the law
will become stricter and imperative. The bill’s aims are laudable, but it is an illusion for any government to think that it
can undo millennia of women’s discrimination in the public sphere just by using laws, penalties and more discrimination
–this time against men.

In ancient Greece, women spend their day secluded in the gynæconitis, the most remote and private part of the house
that only men of the family could access. In contrast, the utmost masculine area, the andron, constituted the stage for
representation, hospitality and glamour. Needless to say, women were not citizens and thus lacked political rights.

Purdah, a word in Hindi and Urdu that means screen or veil and comes originally from Persia, is a tradition of the Indian
subcontinent and the Middle East that requires women to stay away from public view not only through her clothes, but
also thanks to curtains and walls. Purdah was adopted by Islam but its origin is much older, in ancient Babylon.
Women only achieved full political rights in the 20th century, and there are still places where they may not vote, such
as Saudi Arabia.


Quotas have proved to be the most efficient method to break barriers to female participation in politics and achieve the
“critical mass” of a third or more of women in representative organs recommended by the United Nations in order to
have an influence on power structures and change traditional role perceptions. Quotas are becoming more and more
widespread, especially in Africa and Latin America.

Thanks to quotas, girls, boys and adults of both sexes learn to regard as natural the image of women in power, and
also learn to respect them. A critical mass of women establishes its own contact networks and mutual support, crucial
instruments in career advancement that used to be exclusively masculine. The best of all though, is that government
improves, as women tend to prioritize community issues such as health and education, and their leading style tends to
be more consensual. Moreover, balanced power between men and women is a closer representation of the society it
serves.

But as all distorsions that limit freedom to choose, quotas have a cost.

To begin with, once you have a law you find a trick for it. India demands that 30% of representatives in local councils be
women. Many husbands take over the seat won by their wives, who are only called to write signatures. In our latitudes
there is a little bit more subtlety, but we do find token women officials dominated by the apparatus of their parties.
These hurt the legitimacy of all their female colleagues.

The effects are even more serious if we have a quota of 40% in electoral lists, imposed on a party where women
represent only 20% of affiliates.  Women will have 266% more chances to get to the list than their male counterparts.
Quotas overwhelmingly increase the recruitment of high class women, who can delegate domestic responsibilities in
order to follow the demanding schedules of the political game. Is it desirable to replace middle class men by high class
women?

Spanish Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero and his Swedish homologue Göran Persson will propose a Pact
for Equality in the European Summit in Brussels on March 23rd-24th.

Public initiatives as these are welcome, although the real change will happen when in our families men share domestic
tasks equally, and when our daughters will cease to fear that prejudice will hamper their ambitions. We must strive to
reach the point when we eliminate quotas because they have become superfluous.