Cristen Conger

Votes for Gender?

In last Friday's Guardian, Kira Cochrane lamented the minimal gains made by women politicians at the polls. Once the dust had finally settled on the parliamentary elections, only 16 new female representatives picked up seats, boosting the percentage of women MPs to just 22 percent. And to top it off, Prime Minister David Cameron appointed just four women among his 23-person cabinet. It's a similar story on the other side of the pond as well, with women making up only 17 percent of Congress.

As Molly and I have discussed on a recent podcast on political quotas for women, a number of countries have taken a top-down approach to closing that gender gap. Some governments, including India, Sweden and even Iraq, have instituted laws that either set aside a certain proportion of legislative seats or political party leadership for women. Cochrane's column advocates implementing a comparable policy to first equalize the gender disparity in Parliament, which might then have a ripple effect into the upper echelons of the cabinet.

But as Alexandra Starr pointed out in a 2006 Slate article on political quotas in Latin America, the setup doesn't necessarily mean better governing or even pro-women agendas (i.e. family programs, education, reproductive freedom, etc.). And in a more recent article in Foreign Policy, Starr notes that women in those designated slots sometimes have a particularly uphill battle to face against the entrenched male cultures. As a result, the women reps often don't wield as much legislative power as their male counterparts.

Is this an argument against getting more women into politics? Absolutely not. However, it's an important reminder that when it comes to gender and political representation, there isn't a magic bullet. After all, assuming that a woman running for office will automatically share your political views is reductionist and uninformed. But the fact that Cochrane and many others are questioning this issue is a step in the right direction toward building public support and creating a more welcome environment for women who want to toss their hats in the political ring.

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