From Interstate - Journal of International Affairs VOL. 2015/2016 NO. 1
How Effective are Gender Quotas in Achieving Meaningful Change for Women? A Case Study of Argentina
Obviously, changing societal attitudes of politicians and people is always a very long-term process. Consequently, it is important to acknowledge the limited potential of gender quotas while taking account of the positive change they generally induce and have induced in Argentina. It is useful to consider the interdependency between political norms and societal norms: political norms can alter the perception of females and female issues in society, while societal attitudes do affect legislators and political norms, therefore gender quotas can play a small but significant role in a general process towards women’s empowerment and gender equality.49
After having examined the connection between gender quotas and substantive representation, one should give consideration to a significant argument against the effectiveness of gender quotas, namely its inherent elitism.50 It can generally be argued that female legislators, in Argentina as well as elsewhere, are likely to be middle or upper class and well-educated which might limit their perspectives and therefore their ability to represent a wide variety of women.51 It is important to note, however, that female legislators in Argentina do explore ways how to include different points of view.52
For instance, one legislator established weekly office hours during which women leaders from shantytowns can discuss their concerns with her and thereby ensure that the parliamentarian becomes aware of working-class perspectives.53 Besides, a number of parliamentarians also consult with various women’s groups working on different women’s issues such as reproductive rights.54 Although one should appreciate their efforts to learn about other women’s problems, these options are very limited indeed and do not ensure that working-class women’s concerns are effectively included in future policy-making processes since decisions still depend on the judgement of the individual legislator.55
Criticizing the implementation of gender quotas, one could perhaps propose the introduction of the ‘representation of discourses’ by John S. Dryzek and Simon Niemeyer as a better way to ensure the inclusion of different kinds of knowledge.56 In their theoretical framework of ‘discursive representation’, Dryzek and Niemeyer argue that politics at the national level of a democracy should be transformed in the sense that instead of trying to represent a large number of citizens, it is wiser to put the focal point on the representation of diverse discourses.57
According to their proposal, discourses are “a set of categories and concepts embodying specific assumptions, judgements, contentions, dispositions and capabilities.”58 Besides, they argue that representatives can be appointed by using a variety of social science techniques.59 Certainly, this approach appears to present a very logical way to further the representation of different discourses in politics and the possibility should not be completely rejected. However, despite the positive points, there are at least two disadvantages. First, such an approach suffers from a similar problem as gender quotas, namely elitism. Chosen representatives would most likely come from the upper echelons of society as is the case with most politics-related professions.60
Second, above all, an approach such as the ‘representation of discourses’ appears to create an artificial and non-existent disruption between a human- being’s life experiences and a human-being’s ability to represent a variety of different discourses. It could indeed be argued that it seems to be unrealistic to assume a clear separation between one’s private life (life experiences) and one’s public life (profession). For this reason, the discursive representation theory can be used to emphasise the possible effectiveness of gender quotas.
I argue that the presence of ideas cannot be completely separated from the presence of experience because, as Phillips rightly emphasizes, what one “... cannot really expect is the degree of vigorous advocacy that people bring to their own concerns.”61 Moreover, despite binding mandates and party discipline in politics, legislators do generally have autonomy over setting their priorities and voting behaviour, and for this reason it does matter whether a legislator is male or female when it comes to women’s rights bills since experience can impact on one’s political concerns.62
This argument is supported by the fact that between 1989 and 2007, 69% of all violence-against-women bills and 73% of all sexual harassment bills in the Argentinian Congress were introduced by female legislators.63 What is more, women parliamentarians are more likely to introduce women’s rights bills irrespective of party membership.64 In spite of the fact that these numbers can be used to criticise the ineffectiveness of gender quotas for substantive outcome-representation, it does show that gender quotas allow for substantive representation concerning the process which shows that this mechanism helps to achieve meaningful change for women to a certain extent.
Nevertheless it is highly significant to try and find ways to mitigate the negative effects of having a legislated candidate gender quota, that is to say its elitism. I propose two options in particular. Firstly, as is already done by some legislators in Argentina, it might be useful to establish regular communication between all legislators, particularly so-called ‘quota- women’, and a wide variety of women’s organisations which work and produce information on different women-related topics.65 The communication should be an integral part of the policy-making process and could take place in the form of regular roundtables.
For instance, women’s rights organisations could participate in the agenda-setting and draft-writing part of the process. Importantly, both male and female legislators should attend meetings in order to reduce the probability of essentialism and to ensure that both men and women develop a sense of responsibility towards female issues such as reproductive rights and the eradication of sexual harassment. By getting women’s groups involved in the entire policy- development process, their impact would increase considerably compared to the current situation in Argentina where only a few female legislators make the effort of communicating with local groups.66
Furthermore, it might be reasonable to conduct referendums on women’s rights bills to ensure the representation of non-legislators’ women’s voices which could further the inclusion of, in Foucault’s term, “subjugated knowledge” and thereby help to diminish the influence of elitism.67 In fact, referendums can effectively represent another source of representation leading to the inclusion of more diverse perspectives.68
In conclusion, it can be said that the topic of gender quotas is certainly and rightly a much contested concept. As can be seen from the analysis, there are arguments against as well as in favour of it. On the one hand, there is the danger of essentialism and elitism, two drawbacks which might result in the election of female legislators who fail to consider perspectives that are not their own.
In addition, when it comes to outcome-related representation, the case study on Argentina shows that gender quotas are ineffective, at least in the short-term, in achieving actual policies to enhance women’s empowerment in society given repressive institutional rules. However, on the other hand, the case study does point out the effectiveness of gender quotas on process-related representation. Generally speaking, it must be stated that the mere increase of elected women in parliament does not necessarily lead to an increase in the number of introduced women’s rights bills since it is also dependent on the individual legislator and her priorities.
Although the success also depends on specific factors such as the electoral system, the example of Argentina shows that thanks to the bottom-up approach in advocating for gender quotas, female legislators seem to feel a responsibility towards women’s issues, a fact very much proven by the number of bills they have introduced in Congress.69 This serves to support the argument in favour of gender quotas and shows that a human being’s sex and personal experiences of being a female person in society do matter in determining an individual woman’s political priorities.
In summary, it appears logical to argue that gender quotas alone are insufficient, but highly necessary to generate meaningful change for women. If combined with the policy recommendations, the negative effects can be alleviated to a certain extent and thus, the implementation of a gender quota in parliamentary elections has huge potential to contribute to the effective empowerment of women in the long-term.
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