Are political quotas bad for women?

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Cristen: Hey there and welcome to the podcast. I'm Cristen.

Molly: I'm Molly.

Cristen: Molly, wouldn't you say that the United States of America, this land in which we live, is pretty progressive in terms of women's rights?

Molly: Most of the time.

Cristen: Fairly?

Molly: Probably compared to other countries, yes.

Cristen: We have a pretty rich history of the suffrage movement, second wave feminism, third wave feminism, et cetera, et cetera.

Molly: At Stuff Mom Never Told You?

Cristen: Stuff Molly and Cristen. We're writing a new chapter right now, but there's one area that the U.S. really lags behind a lot of other countries that, really, we would not think of as very progressive in terms of gender equality.

Molly: Lay it on me.

Cristen: Political representation.

Molly: Very true. Very true. Now, you might not think so, given what's been going on in the past few months with the passage of healthcare reform. Nancy Pelosi is getting all these kudos as the one who gathered all that consensus, but we've got a handful of women in political office or who have been given political appointments.

Cristen: Yeah. We're in the 111th Congress and they actually broke the record for the most female representation in Congress, taking it from a whopping 16 percent to 17 percent.

Molly: Wow.

Cristen: Pretty small proportion, considering that the population is roughly half female.

Molly: There are many would make argument, Cristen, that if we really wanted to have a representative government that's going to take into consideration all citizen's perspectives, needs, desires, et cetera, you need to have that female point of view.

Cristen: Uh-huh. Now, one place, Molly, that this has been happening is India. In early March, the upper house of India's parliament passed a bill to amend the constitution to have 1/3 of seats in India's national and state legislatures reserved for women. No matter what, 1/3 of the parliamentary seats got to be filled by women. All right, this seems, like, hey, off the cuff, this is great news; right? India, it's huge population going to ruled by - partially ruled by women now more.

Molly: Well, it's been very controversial in India because there's been a lot of discussion about who actually benefits. We've talked about India before, how it's very heavily still influenced by that caste system, so some people are saying that this is only good for certain classes, certain religions. That the women who are going to get put into office are essentially just going to be puppets for other political parties, but this idea of putting a quota into place to expand the female representation of a government or a political party is actually very widespread.

Cristen: But, Molly, what are we really referring to when we're talking about this quota? Obviously, it's a requirement that a certain number of women fill government seats, but there are two main distinctions between quotas. There is the legal quota in which in a country's constitution is actually amended to require a certain percentage of women representatives, or they will just have a law enacted. Then you also have something called political party quotas, which there's no legal recourse at all, but it's when political parties take it upon themselv es. For instance, if the Democratic Party decides that they want more women in their ranks, they might enact a party quota for, what, 25 percent of their candidates to be women.

Molly: Uh-huh. So now why would you want to do this? All over the world, I think it's not news to anyone that women have always been sorta the second sex, to borrow a popular phrase. In order to fully accomplish equality, some would argue that you've got to put them in positions of power because how can you really affect change if you have no power to influence laws at the very creation of them?

Cristen: So obviously, since women make up half the population, if we're also not in government and don't have a say with what's going on, that means that our needs, specific needs which are usually characterized by childcare and family issues, equal opportunity in employment, and -

Molly: Reproductive health.

Cristen: - reproductive health, sexual health and safety, all of that.

Molly: Equal pay.

Cristen: Equal pay, yes, Molly, all of these wonderful things are not necessarily being attended to in government. So that's the major pro that people see with enacting these quotas is bringing more of a balance, I guess, into the type of legislation that's being passed.

Molly: Some will argue that these women do need some sort of compensation for barriers that have been into their place, that right now they don't have the same qualifications as men. Perhaps our daughters will grow and see more women in political politics, and they wouldn't need to hop a barrier to get there, but right now have women had the same political training as men have. Now, it's very easy to flip this around and say this totally goes against what we believe in as a democracy because our government is built on the fact that we elect people based on their qualifications and, if we don't like what they do, we throw them out. So how in the world is it good idea, Cristen, to put women into seats and then just say, "Well, no matter if every woman who does a crappy job in this position screws everything up. We've still have to keep a woman in this chair."

Cristen: Right. I think that that's the major question we have to ask ourselves when evaluating whether or not female quotas are a good thing. I think that - I don't know about you, Molly, but going into this topic my kneejerk answer was, "Sure, of course it is."

Molly: It's a good idea or it's undemocratic?

Cristen: That it's a good idea, but you're right. I mean, is that also at the same time not only dismantling our ideas of equal opportunity and democracy, but also almost categorizing women once again into this kinda separate special little corner that they need to hang out in and work on their childcare, et cetera, types of issues. Rather than allowing us to have to jump in the fray and get in there right beside, elbow our way in alongside the men.

Molly: Right. You'd always have to wonder if you were empowered just because you're a woman or if you really had something, I think, to contribute to the government. Now one of my other pro I'll mention that we kinda skipped over is that in this country - and we're going to keep comparing, I guess, to the United States. Again, we don't any sorta quota system in the United States in political government. This is more largely in the developing world, places like Latin America, Africa. Anyway, it's also good I think. The one thing I did like about it is that if you have a quota, 1/3 of your seats, let say, are dedicated to women in government.

Cristen: Right, and 30 percent, just to note, is usually the average quota.

Molly: In fact, we can only find one example where there's a 50/50 mandate, which some people say benefits guys as well as women, but I digress. The one thing I wanted to say that was cool about having a quotas as opposed to just grooming certain women for a position is that there's no token female, which I do think is something that still perhaps dogs women in the United States. They're set apart, they're the token female. I think that's very stressful. You think about all the pressure that was put on Hilary Clinton in the last Presidential election to be this banner carrier for women. Isn't it easier for women to actually gain footholds in government when they don't have to be the representative of their entire gender?

Cristen: Well, sure, and I think that you could say that on the flip side as well for Sarah Palin. Obviously, completely different politics, but I think for that segment of women who supported her, a lot of it came from the fact that she was a working mother. I think more on that later. I think one thing we have to keep in mind too when we're thinking about this issue of political quotas in the States is that they're going to operate a lot differently and have a much different effect, I think, in more of the developing world, and in countries where women still are far more disenfranchised than they are in the U.S. For instance, quotas have been enforced in a growing number of Asian countries, to the point that it's been referred to as something called quota fever. This includes countries like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan. The thing is, they've had mixed results because a lot of times these might be illiterate women coming from smaller villages who are just being tapped because they have to be tapped, and are then simply used as pawns by the male leaders of political parties. They're not actually allowed to anything really worthwhile. This is also a complain that some women in the Iraqi government have expressed because Iraq also has a quota. A lot of these women are complaining because they're saying they're being kinda pushed off to the softer ministries. They're not really allowed to get in there and work alongside men, but that also has to do with Islamic tradition that generally segregates men from women as well.

Molly: So that divide gets back to what you were discussing when you explained the difference between the political quota and the legal quota. It seems that women who are tapped to be part of just a political party's slate are at a huge disadvantage just because they do have to keep in stride with a party leader. That article you mentioned about the Iraq women, some of them have formed their own party to try and show to the people that they aren't under the thumb of some minister who's telling them what to say. In that same article, another Iraqi woman raised the point that politics and governance is all about ideas, theories, what's best of the entire people, and she didn't know if a gender approach would be the best way to deal with that.

Cristen: A lot times, the women who are being selected to fill these reserved seats are going to kinda just naturally be extension of powerful men in government, especially in a lot of Latin American, South American countries, which we have learned from two articles by Alexander Star. The first one was in Slate in 2006 and, then, there was one published actually a week ago in Foreign Policy. She points out that in a lot of Latin American countries these women will be tapped because they are the daughters or wives of presidents or other powerful men in government.

Molly: Which is something that Hilary Clinton had to shake the entire campaign.

Cristen: Sure.

Molly: So we've got women that, as you mentioned, Cristen, are essentially just tapped because they know someone. From the outside, it might look like these statistics of female participation in the government are really a positive development. You see more women involved from the outside, that seems like it can only be good for the country. Then you've got to start looking at what they actually do when they're in power, and that's where things have started to break down. We don't see the kind of change that we might expect from a female leader. Now, that's got a lot of asterisks, we've got to say.

Cristen: Right.

Molly: I mean, what do you consider the proper policy path for a female leader?

Cristen: Right, and should we expect a certain set of policies?

Molly: Exactly. A lot of these women essentially just continue to follow the previous government. They're not rocking the boat in ways that you might expect them to if there was a need for a political quota, if that make sense. I mean, obviously you're saying if we need a quota there's something wrong with not getting the female voice heard, but then once these women are in those positions, what exactly are they trying to say about the female experience within that country?

Cristen: Right. I think that one example we could look at would have been Cristina Kirchner, who won the Presidency in Argentina in 2007. Incidentally, her husband held office right before then. Even though she held the highest seat as a female, first female President, she still didn't push for issues like equal pay. She still kinda held onto her husband's more conservative party lines. Then you do have examples of women who are coming together more as a unit, not necessarily just individual women in government, but women who are really using their, I guess, block voting power to enact positive change. Star points out in her article in Foreign Policy that after a quota law in Rwanda mandated that women had to take at least 30 percent of the seats in parliament, those female legislators passed through laws defining rape and protecting victims of sexual abuse. That's huge.

Molly: It's huge, but then you have to wonder is it something that a man is going to respect or is it considered the quote/unquote "women's law?" A lot of scholars have tried to look at whether quotas actually affect a man's point of view on whether a woman can lead. I mean, even our own country, I think that it's not difficult to find a fellow who might believe that a woman couldn't be President because she has a period on a monthly basis.

Cristen: Sure. Those kind of joke were lobbed all the time with Clinton and Palin.

Molly: Right. So if a guy in, let's say India, for example, then sees a women who is leading effectively, does that change his mind about whether a woman can lead even if she is inherently different than a man, or does it only make him react negatively towards anything she tries to do?

Cristen: Yeah. I would think that it could have, definitely, a polarizing affect. The researchers who were trying to answer that question also point out that in a lot of these countries that are instituting what we call fast track quotas, where they immediately pass a law, get the quota on the books - especially in a lot of these Latin American countries. I think there are 12 or 15 now that have the quotas. A lot of the governments use those quotas not so much for internal change, but rather to polish their international image. They know that it's a good thing to show themselves as being gender friendly, but they're not really supporting the women and giving them enough opportunity or really interested in, I guess, instituting more gender friendly policies within the country. I think that an interesting contrast though that we have to talk about are these Scandinavian countries that have taken more of a slow track. None of them have laws on the books mandating quotas. All their quotas have started within political parties. It's kinda had this contagious reaction among other political parties. Once they realize that one party is open to more female representation, then another party scrambles to do the same thing. Slowly but surely, you've had this kinda organic buildup of women in government. It's taken a while; however, it's there and it seems like women are given a lot more support and might be perceived not so much as women politicians just as politicians.

Molly: Right. I mean, I think that one of the articles we read essentially kinda made a - I mean, I was probably reading too much into this, but essentially that feminists aren't patient. If they were a little bit more patient in terms of getting women representation in these governments, they would see more of what the analysts call a quality of results, as opposed to a quality of opportunity. A quality of opportunity refers to the fact that you've got the women in the office, but then you've got to look at do you have them assuming senior leadership roles? Do you have them in office long enough to actually affect change? I mean, institutional change is slow. If you can actually look more at what these women do once they have the power, the results, is there equality there as opposed to just how many women hold a seat.

Cristen: Right, but I don't think that we can completely discredit the role of quotas, especially with a lot of these developing countries where, yeah, you might need - you really might need to just kickstart more equal representation from the top down. Otherwise, the society isn't structured to allow it to build up from the bottom. I think though, just from my perspective, if they tried in the United States to pass some kind of quota law, I think that there would be just massive outrage.

Molly: Oh, it would never work.

Cristen: No.

Molly: But again, you've got to ask yourself do you want it to work? Do you want to get into office because you're a woman? Do you want to get a job because you're a woman? You certainly don't want to be denied a job because you're a woman, but would you want to assume a job because you are one?

Cristen: Yeah.

Molly: That's what we can't answer, but -

Cristen: Well, and that's a question that we come back to a lot on all these podcasts. This keeps reminding me of the episode that we did about women behind the camera, women directors and stuff. This whole argument of whether or not we should even be calling them women filmmakers in their own special categories, or should they take the Kathryn Bigelow tack and say, "I'm just a director. I don't even want to be called a female director." I mean, that's - and it seems completely unrelated, but I do think that that's a question that we come back to a lot of. Are we really focusing on the fact that we're women doing these things?

Molly: Then as a woman sometimes it's hard to see what a bunch of white guys, old white guys, frankly, think about what I should do with my body or my life, or how they're going to compensate me for it. So it's - everyone can make political change in their own way. You don't have to be in office to do it, but it is interesting to consider whether there are institutional blocks to getting a woman into office in this country.

Cristen: I think it'll be interesting too to see what happens with India in this situation. I think that that's a good example of where the quota might actually be disenfranchising people, i.e. the poor in the lower caste who might need that representation even more than a specific gender. It's going to be a lot of upper class, upper caste women who are going to be tapped for these positions, and that might not actually lead to positive social change. So things to think about.

Molly: Keep an eye on it. While there's no right or wrong answer with this one guys, let us know what you think. Are quotas a good idea, a bad idea, somewhere in-between? We'd love to know. Our email address is With our few remaining minutes, we shall read emails that were written to that very same email address. All right. First up, we have an email from Tiffany. She wrote about the podcast on lady poop, one of our favorites. She writes, "I had to share a well known celebration of poop in the military. Although not commonly discussed outside the military, there's a celebration of sorts on a special day in basic training. I was told before I left for basic training that I would be constipated the first few weeks of training. Whether this is due to the extreme emotional and physical stress you undergo that first week or the change in diet, or both, is debatable, but everyone experiences this. Some women are lucky to only be backed up for a few days, but there are a few unlucky girls who can go a week or more. On a side note, most of us get periods. As we females start to form a camaraderie in the absence of men, we also drop most pretenses to femininity. I remember after few days when a woman came out of the bathroom and gave a big thumbs up, everyone would cheer and giver her a high five. It was the only time I saw a bunch of girls cheer for poop and act proud of it. I guess it takes pretty intense and stressful moments, and a lack of men, to get girls cheering for poop."

Cristen: Okay. Well, I've got an email here from Joe. This is a response to our podcast about sunscreen because it's getting warmer outside, Molly.

Molly: It's very warm.

Cristen: And very sunny. Joe actually wrote us some lyrics and, of course, and a bridge, an entire song, if you will, to our song title, "You can't kiss with sunburned lips."

Molly: Right. It was the most thorough response to a request for a song.

Cristen: Yes, and he did promise that he would perform it and put it up on YouTube, but, Joe, you have yet to do that. Not to put you on the spot, Joe, but anyway, I'm just giving you a hard time.

Molly: So not knowing the tune, Cristen, you really can't sing it probably the way Joe intended.

Cristen: And y'all don't want me to sing it.

Molly: But you can probably give us a glimpse of what the lyrics to what this epic song are.

Cristen: I'll tell you what. I'll send you - I'll read a verse, a bridge, and a chorus.

Molly: Okay, okay.

Cristen: "Just another day at the beach. You've gone every day since I don't know when. Trying to tan, looking healthy and young because it's that time of year again. Laying on your towel, you prepare yourself. You brought your SPF 30. You spread on the places that the sun will kiss and smile at the passing guys being flirty. There's just one place that you will miss. Don't you think it's funny that I mentioned kiss." Here's the chorus, Molly, get ready. I wish you had a banjo or something.

Molly: I don't. I wish I had one.

Cristen: All right. "Because you can't kiss with sunburned lips. Your premature aging tells me where you've been. Your lips look 50, though you're 22. Like Cristen says, 'Protect your skin, especially between your nose and your chin.'" And that's all I'm going to read.

Molly: Oh, it's the best song that mentions my name that I can think of.

Cristen: That was my name, Molly.

Molly: But my name's in it later on. You're not the only one mentioned in the song, but truly it's the best song that does incorporate both names, Molly and Cristen.

Cristen: Very true. Thank you, Joe.

Molly: If we want to make that an unofficial competition, then feel free to send us other songs with our names in them.

Cristen: Yeah, we'll take them.

Molly: So if you have songs, thoughts, anything you'd like to share, again, it's Guys, big news about our blog. You may member there is an entire backlog of podcasts where we tell you to go check out how to stuff.

Cristen: Then you probably went to How To Stuff and you were, like, "Hey, this has nothing to do with your podcast, what's up with that?"

Molly: Guess what? Big change is afoot. We are going to have a Stuff Mom Never Told You blog. It will be on the blog page at How Stuff Works. That is where we will bring you the written extension of this fine podcast that we co-host.

Cristen: Yes.

Molly: Things that we're interested in, things that strike about us about gender, women, the question that you never knew you had.

Cristen: Also questions that you guys send us that might not be able to podcast about, but might make for a tidy little blog post.

Molly: So we are very excited about it. We hope you check it out. Stuff Mom Never Told You. Look for our smiling faces greeting you.

Cristen: Smiling with excitement.

Molly: At our site, which is

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