How Effective are Gender Quotas in Achieving Meaningful Change for Women? A Case Study of Argentina

By Katharina J. Hopp
Interstate - Journal of International Affairs
2015, Vol. 2015/2016 No. 1 | pg. 1/2 |

Statistics show that it is reasonable to argue that an increasing number of people worldwide are convinced of the importance of gender equality, in other words the idea that women and men should have equal rights and receive the same respect in society.1 However, although these numbers represent an achievement, it does not mean that people agree on what exactly gender equality means in a specific situation or how to realise gender equality in a particular society.

Since 1991, when Argentina implemented a legislated candidate gender quota — the Ley de Cupos — as the first state worldwide, gender quotas have increasingly come to be seen as an excellent remedy to eliminate the disease of patriarchy in politics and achieve representational equality between the sexes.2 In this regard, the discourse on gender quotas is part of a wider discourse of representation and the question how the concerns of oppressed groups in society can be represented in national policy-making.3

Interestingly, while “equality of presence” regarding the right to vote has been achieved in most countries, the same cannot be said for “equality of presence” regarding political representation.4 Until 2006, approximately 40 states had established gender quotas in elections to national parliaments and political parties in more than 50 countries had introduced party quotas.5 Despite the fact that the number of countries having some set of gender quotas is steadily rising, in 2011 on average women still accounted for only 19.5% of members of national parliaments worldwide.6

Critics of gender quoatas question whether being in a place of power is sufficient on its own to empower and achieve meaningful equality

At the same time though, the implementation of gender quotas remains a highly contested issue for various reasons, critics particularly question whether being in a place of power is sufficient on its own to empower and achieve meaningful equality.7

Consequently, it is highly important to find out how effective gender quotas are in achieving meaningful change for women. Generally speaking, I argue that gender quotas are an insufficient, but a necessary concept to realise gender equality in society: despite the drawbacks, having a gender quota is definitely an improvement and brings women closer to true gender equality.8

The following text will first analyse and contrast theories and analytical frameworks in favour of and opposed to the gender quota, using Argentina as a case study. Afterwards, the essay will present a number of policy recommendations on how to mitigate the negative effects of gender quotas before giving a conclusion.

Generally speaking, when arguing in support of gender quotas, one can approach the concept from two different angles. On the one hand, it can be argued that gender quotas are important in terms of social justice, emphasising the notion that they help to realise the right of women to be represented in national parliaments.9

On the other hand, focusing on a democratic perspective, it can be argued that gender quotas are needed to increase a democracy’s quality because the more representative a parliament is of its citizens, the higher its legitimacy is among its population.10 In spite of the fact that both points of view are significant and mutually reinforce each other, the essay will, for the most part, emanate from the first perspective and analyse how effective gender quotas are in achieving women’s right of representation in national parliaments.

In order to understand the significance of gender quotas, it is important to emphasise the idea that a more representative parliament produces more prudent policy outcomes given that a parliament which is predominantly composed of a particular citizen body making decisions for, rather than with, a different group of citizens is very unlikely to cover all the relevant issues regarding a specific policy.11

This notion is highly important given that it acknowledges the fact that every human being has different experiences in life that lead to different perspectives which, in turn, can enrich political discussions in order to ensure that a future policy is scrutinised from all possible angles. Notably, as Phillips has argued, it also “... reflects a more humbling recognition that no one group has a monopoly of virtue.”12 In this way, a gender quota is a useful means to increase a parliament’s diversity and to raise the quality of its policy outcomes.13

Furthermore, gender quotas increase women’s symbolic representation which can be seen as an aim in itself.14 The significance of symbolic representation must not be underestimated: fulfilling symbolic representation means fulfilling women’s right to be represented by female bodies in parliament to which they might relate much better regarding certain issues such as childcare, maternity leave and exposure to sexual harassment.15 This is essential because symbolic representation of female bodies leads to a process of questioning as to why a specific type of body, the male, is highly dominant in a political institution which allows for the de-normalisation, not de-valuing, of male bodies and hence starts a process of normalisation of female bodies in parliament.16

This normalisation process is very powerful since it challenges the widespread idea of women as subordinate and powerless human beings which potentially has a positive impact on women’s empowerment and gender equality in society in general.17 Accordingly, in Argentina and Latin America generally, symbolic representation as a result of gender quotas can help to challenge the widespread culture of Marianismo and therefore open new ways of being for women: it can lead to the creation of identities that deviate from the concept of Marianismo, namely being an apolitical and powerless mother.18

Notwithstanding the importance of symbolic representation, emphasising the distinct female experience and voice in advocating for gender quotas occupies a danger of essentialism.19 Essentialism takes effect when gender quotas generate an over-emphasis on sex, on femaleness, thereby decreasing the significance of other vectors of power influencing a person’s identity such as race, class and sexuality.20 This tendency might result in the use of stereotypes and often serves to minimise the differences within the female group to the advantage of the dominant in-group within the group.21

Consequently, the danger of essentialism is the underlying notion that “any woman can represent all women.”22 This danger is revealed to be a very real one when examining the identities of female legislators in Argentina: indeed the implementation of a gender quota has led to an increase in the number of female parliamentarians, this progressive change has predominantly been made due to the sex of the women and the legal requirements.23 Nevertheless, it must be pointed out that they are not only united by their sex, but also by other similarities such as having an excellent education and a lower number of children.24

This suggests that most female legislators in Argentina have a middle or upper class background which might lead them to overlook particularly the perspectives of, for instance, working-class women regarding women’s policies.25 This is not to say that all female legislators represent the same points of view since having a shared identity does not necessarily mean shared beliefs or opinions, however, focusing on one identity bears the risk of essentialism that might result in disregard for the perspectives of non-elite women in society.26

Although it is evidently necessary to take account of essentialism as a possible drawback of the implementation of gender quotas, it is equally important to recognise the shared female identity of all women. This shared identity, irrespective of class or race, means that all women do share common issues to a certain extent, for instance all matters related to pregnancy.27 Notably, Phillips rightly stresses that although

“... some women do not bear children does not make pregnancy a gender-neutral event; that women disagree on abortion does not make its legal availability a matter of equal concern to both women and men.”28

Therefore, it can be argued that women’s symbolic representation in parliament matters and is likely to represent the start of meaningful change for women because the presence of female bodies in politics can lead to the increased presence of so-called female issues in politics such as childcare in the related discourse.29 It is certainly accurate to bring forward the argument that women have very diverse opinions on matters related to pregnancy, however, the mere presence of female issues in politics has the potential to relegate social issues, often regarded as women’s problems, to the sphere of importance and thus can, at least, enable a discussion.30

Indeed, gender quotas and hence women’s symbolic representation in parliament might, in the long-term, result in the formation of a society which takes female topics more seriously and engages in a profound debate which might lead to meaningful policy outcomes in the long run.31

After having considered how symbolic representation might lead to positive development for women, it is highly significant to differentiate between symbolic and substantive representation.32 Substantive representation is relevant because symbolic representation alone, the mere presence of women in parliament, is a first step that can have a positive impact but is unlikely to result in meaningful change directly.33 In this sense, it is important to distinguish between two techniques, namely when female legislators “stand for” women as a group (symbolic representation) and when they “act for” women as a group (substantive representation).34

Regarding substantive representation, it makes sense to use Franceschet’s framework of process-oriented and outcome-oriented representation.35 Process-oriented representation occurs when a woman legislator performs activities on behalf of women and outcome-oriented representation refers to the kind of representation which effectively results in specific outcomes, like women-friendly policies.36 In Argentina, the introduction of a legislated candidate gender quota has resulted in the improvement of process-oriented representation because there has been a rise of proposed women’s rights bills in the Argentine Congress, most of them being launched by female legislators.37

Indeed, looking at reproductive laws, 80% of the bills to legalise abortion between 1989 and 2007 were presented by females.38 In fact, it has been argued elsewhere that this increase happened not only due to the gender quota itself, but also thanks to the fact that a domestic constituency had mobilised in favour of the gender quota.39 This is of importance because when a group undertakes activities to support the implementation of a gender quota as part of a bottom-up approach, female legislators elected under the quota are likely to experience the ‘mandate effect’, namely a greater responsibility to substantively represent women as a group.40

Although female legislators have successfully gendered the legislative agenda in Argentina and hence process-oriented representation has been achieved, it has not led to a strong outcome-oriented representation.41 Despite the fact that women parliamentarians’ efforts have resulted in the passage of three significant women’s rights bills since the introduction of the gender quota law in 1991, these numbers are relatively low and legislators still struggle to ensure the passing of women’s rights laws.42

For that reason, it should be highlighted that in the case of Argentina, the gender quota has helped to accomplish a change of parliament’s agenda for the benefit of women’s issues, however, it has not led to a higher number of women-friendly policies.43 While it is necessary to acknowledge that every situation regarding the passage of a women-friendly policy was presumably different and that there are other factors or actors which might hamper the processes—such as the influence of the Catholic Church, institutional rules above all work against the passing of women’s rights bills in Argentina.44 Institutional rules, referring to specific procedures and business practices such as party discipline and party leaders’ agenda control, represent huge obstacles to female legislators’ substantive representation.45

The evidence from the case study thus suggests that the gender quota itself will not be directly translated into meaningful change for women, if ‘change’ refers to actual outcomes in terms of policies.46 Gender quotas will not directly alter institutional rules, however, one might argue that they could help to induce institutional change in the long-term.47 For instance, if party leaders’ agenda control represents an obstacle, it could surely be argued that gender quotas and thus the increased presence of women and women’s issues in parliament are likely to, at least, modify politicians’ perception regarding these topics and make the passage of women’s rights bills more likely in the future.48

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