Citizens, politicians at odds over gender quotas


Europeans believe women in politics positively impact on decision-making, surveys show. However, they do not support mandatory quotas to boost gender representation in the European Parliament, a measure generally favoured by female politicians.

As political parties across Europe gear up for the European elections in June, a new Eurobarometer survey commissioned jointly by the EU executive and the Parliament, published on Wednesday (4 March), shows that more women (67%) than men (59%) prefer non-intrusive methods, like quotas, to boost women’s representation in the European Parliament. 

Quotas or not quotas? 

However, female politicians argue that without some structure in place, women will fail to fill half of the hemicycles, as sough by 70% of women across Europe. 

“I believe in quotas,” said Commission Vice-President Margot Wallström, presenting the survey to the European Parliament. “I see it as a way of correcting an existing imbalance and injustice. Unfortunately, we need those practical tools” to involve more women in decision-making, she added. 

Labour MEP Mary Honeyball noted that “certainly in the UK women representation would not happen overnight; you need to have structures, quotas”. 

According to the survey, there is a low level of support for quotas: only 10% of women and 12% of men think they are the answer. 

Likewise citizens, researchers seem sceptical about using quotas to promote the role of women in politics. “More than quotas, it is important to make politics tangible to women’s daily lives,” said Claudia Fenor of TNS opinion. 

Susan Banducci, a professor at the UK’s University of Exeter, noted however that institutional mechanisms are extremely important in countries where the political culture is not friendly towards women candidates. 

Is politics interested in women?

In addition, the survey showed there is a wide consensus that women can introduce a different style in politics. “A democracy which does not make enough room for 52% of the population at the decision-making table is no real democracy at all,” said Wallström, commenting on the discovery that 77% of women and 71% of men believe politics is a male-dominated field. 

Experts analysed the findings, saying it is important to raise the visibility of issues that are the most appealing to women. The ‘what’s in it for me’ factor will play a decisive role in engaging women voters, they believe. 

According to the Eurobarometer, most women want the next European Parliament to guarantee equal pay for equal work, promote day care facilities for children, treat child-minding years as working time towards their pension and combat violence towards women. 

“The European elections are clearly not yet at the forefront of citizens’ thought even if certain campaign themes emerge,” said TNS Fenor, which stressed that candidates should talk about tangible proposals to tackle daily life problems such as rising prices, unemployment, welfare and healthcare protection. 

Women candidates will attract female voters 

Analysing the survey results, Banducci offered the explanation that unless women candidates are given adequate visibility, not the least by political parties themselves, the likelihood for women across Europe to turn out at the elections will be minimal. “Politics is not perceived as a women’s world unless they are represented and visible,” she said. 

“So, if women are more visible in politics, women will be more interested in politics,” added the British scholar, explaining there is a positive correlation between women representation and engagement. 

According to the survey, almost half of women (46%) felt that women’s interests were not well represented by the EU, but 29% are satisfied with the situation. 

Role of media 

While the role of political parties is key to raise the profile of women candidates, the role of the media was singled out as crucial to engage more women into voting. 

As women are more likely than men to postpone their voting decision until the last the last few weeks of an election campaign, experts note candidates should claim for coverage. “If there is not media coverage, women lack the information they need to make informed decisions,” warned Banducci. 

Angela Buttiglione, director at Italian TV channel RAI, noted that for years women have talked about imposing quotas. "If women don't want to get into politics, you can't oblige them. 

She explained women in Italy were able to get to high-level in journalism and justice, but "if they are not in politics it is because they don't want to be, not that they can't," she said.

"In June this year, 375 million voters in the European Union will elect their members of Parliament. The turnout figure for women and their balanced representation will be crucial for democracy in the EU and for our society," said European Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering at the start of the debate. "The percentage of women in the EP has risen from 16% in 1979 to 31% in 2009 but further progress is needed."

"Europe is not in the forefront on women’s representation. But we are seeing the emergence of a new discourse that says there is no democracy without equality," said Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at the University of Stockholm and author of a study on male-female electoral quota systems and their application in Europe.

"Quotas have enabled progress to be made on the representation of women," maintained Maria Incostante of the Italian Senate and she called for "vigilance on the situation of women as they are the ones likely to pay the price for the economic and financial crisis". According to Liljana Popovska  of the FYROM Assembly, "the use of quotas has enabled us to increase the number of women five-fold".

However, Justyne Caruana of the Maltese Parliament believes "positive discrimination works quantitatively but not necessarily qualitatively. We must also get women interested in politics and fight against the glass ceiling".

Astrid Lulling (EPP-ED, LU), a Parliament Quaestor, argued that "women must exercise their responsibilities when they are elected" but she was cautious about quotas.

If you give me something other than quotas that works, I'm prepared to accept it," said Zita Gurmai (PES, HU), vice-chair of the women's rights committee and member of the informal inter-institutional network.

"Europe cannot play and win with half of the team confined to the bench," said Terry Davis, secretary general of the Council of Europe, speaking at the publication of a report on the participation of women in public decision-making in Europe. "Although there is some progress, the current situation is unfair, unintelligent and ineffective. Gender inequality is detrimental to political, social and economic development. That is why the Council of Europe member states should do more to promote greater participation of women in decision making bodies," added Davis. 

While the last few years have seen a general increase in the number of women in decision-making, they still remain very much a minority in the political and economic spheres. In parliaments, governments and ministries, as well as the private sector, power is still firmly in the hands of men. 

2009 will be an important year for politics. Within a few months, citizens across Europe will go to the poll to elect a new European Parliament, while a new Commission will be appointed and various high-profile posts will need to be filled across the EU institutions. 

Although inequalities still exist, the EU has introduced equal treatment legislation and gender mainstreaming to boost equality between women and men. 

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