The Gender Quotas Used in European Countries Offer a Straightforward Path to Parity—and More Democracy
A few months ago, the new mayor of South Pasadena appointed 18 people to the voluntary local commissions that advise the council in the San Gabriel Valley city.
Routine? Yes, except for one thing. All 18 appointees were women.
The appointments by Mayor Marina Khubesrian might have seemed like a small-town stroke for gender parity in representation. Before the appointments about one-third of all appointees on South Pasadena commissions had been women; after, slightly more than half of all commissioners were women, just like the population of the city itself.
But the move inspired critical media coverage and bizarre public grievance from a few men who cried discrimination because they lost appointments to commission jobs that offer headaches but no pay. The mayor later sought to de-escalate the situation by adding three men to her list of appointees.
I live in South Pasadena, and when this story first broke, I saw it as little more than local theater. But now I wonder if the directness of the South Pas approach to sex balance might hold a larger lesson for the Golden State. While California faces many hard-to-solve challenges, achieving true parity between women and men among our government representatives doesn’t have to be difficult.
It certainly shouldn’t require a dramatic gesture like the appointments of the mayor. In a state that prides itself on being progressive and democratic, such parity can and should be automatic, a legal requirement that is baked into our governing systems. And what better time than now—with the country about to celebrate the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020—to make it so?
The approach would be simple for voluntary government boards or commissions: a 50-50 mandate. For paid gigs that make appointees public employees, it might require more extensive legal changes that make explicit that gender parity conforms with our state’s non-discrimination laws. Such mandates aren’t entirely new; they fit comfortably within California’s tradition of reserving certain seats on boards to serve certain constituencies, like the student representative on the University of California Board of Regents.
But gender parity shouldn’t stop merely with appointments. It should also apply to elected bodies. And here’s the good news: the changes necessary to guarantee a 50-50 male-female split among electeds would make California more democratic in ways that go well beyond gender balance.
In other democracies, there is a proven method for achieving equity in elected representation. It starts by adopting a common election system for modern democracies: proportional representation. In such systems, people vote not for a single person to represent a legislative district—the American style—but rather for party slates of candidates in districts with multiple elected representatives. Parties get a number of representatives roughly equal to their percentage of the vote.
The party slates make gender parity easily achievable. In countries that seek true balance, political parties are either legally required or heavily incentivized politically to offer slates with equal numbers of men and women. I personally saw this system at work in 2016 in the Basque Country, where Bakartxo Tejeria, the president of the Basque Parliament, explained how a mandate for male-female balance had broken her chamber’s male dominance and left the 75-member body with 40 women and 35 men.
Eight countries, most recently Greece and Ireland, have adopted such requirements for gender parity in party slates, and so have many local and regional governments. In another 15 European countries, parties have adopted gender quotas voluntarily. The results: huge increases in the number of women in office.
Proportional elections with party slates have other virtues that would benefit California because they eliminate the winner-take-all problem of our current system. When it comes to party affiliation, proportional elections produce more representative elected bodies, since a party’s share of representatives is directly tied to the actual number of votes each party receives. This also guarantees representation for political minorities. If such a system were established in California, Republicans in the Bay Area, for example, would have some small number of representatives in the state legislature, reflecting their percentage of the votes, rather than being shut out because the party loses every contest in the region’s current single-member districts.
Even better, party-based proportional representation elections could replace California’s non-partisan local elections, which attract scandalously low numbers of voters. Political scientists have shown that partisan elections inspire more media coverage and high voter turnout than non-partisan elections.
Gender quotas work in other fields in California. A 2018 state law requires every public company that is incorporated or based in California to have at least one woman board member by the end of this year.
By this point, many readers may be screaming: You’re talking about quotas! Here are three answers to that objection.
First, our existing system, even with many private efforts to help women candidates, keeps producing male-dominated government bodies, including our legislature (70 percent men) and the Los Angeles City Council (where 13 out of 15 members are men).
Second, the arguments for gender parity are numerous and powerful: Women deserve to be represented in numbers equal to their percentage of the population, women bring different experiences and have different interests, and organizations with a critical mass of women decision-makers tend to perform better.
Third, gender quotas work in other fields in California. A 2018 state law requires every public company that is incorporated or based in California to have at least one woman board member by the end of this year. In 2021, the requirement will rise to three women board members. California is a leader in this; no other state has mandated female board representation.
Critics of that law, and of proposals like mine, often claim that such requirements violate the state constitution’s prohibitions against sex discrimination. Fine. Let the critics argue in court that policies of equal representation between men and women somehow violate principles of equality. And if they find judges foolish enough to agree with them, Californians could use the ballot initiative to change the constitution to permit gender parity measures.
Indeed, there would be gender justice in amending our famously long and dysfunctional constitution—or even rewriting it wholesale. After all, California’s governing document was framed in an 1879 convention that included 152 delegates, all men.
A modern convention, where at least half of the delegates are women, could surely do better.
Zócalo Public Square