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Over the last century we have seen, slowly but surely, women globally gaining their rights and moving toward ending their oppression. Nations around the world have struggled with how best to tackle this persistent gender inequality, some doubting that it is an issue to be dealt with at all. Despite contradicting opinions on the state of women’s equality, one issue that has been pervasive is the lack of women represented in political offices. This is a problem of particular importance in places like the United States where ideas of freedom and equality are championed, yet where this lack of representation is also most rampant (Krook 2009). The past twenty years have seen greater international efforts to address this issue, some with things like gender quotas and others without, each having different results. For example, France passed quota legislation nearly 20 years ago that required parity, but the change has been slow and they have yet to come close to their goal of equality (Freedman 2010). Unlike France, the Netherlands have not passed any formal legislation, rather their parties willingly chose to pursue more equal gender representation which has brought them great success–nearing true parity (Norris 1997). This difference reflects how different cultural and political climates can affect the success of efforts toward gender parity.
Though their success has not been guaranteed, gender quota legislation is still a popular way for governments to focus on this issue. Supporters of this believe that there are structures present in politics that are barring women from entering and that this type of legislation will account for that hurdle. Gender quotas are legislation designed to try and resolve the disparity between men and women in elected offices. They began in the early 20th century and have been widely adopted in various parts of the world–including Africa, South America, Asia, and much of Europe–particularly in the past 20 years. There are different types of quota systems and ways of adapting them to fit the various forms of government and political climates of the nations where they have been adopted. They state that there must be a certain number or percentage of women in office and try to achieve this by requiring more women to be considered as candidates or for more women to be chosen as candidates. This can be done through voluntary party-based action or more official legislation (Krook 2009).
While the gender quota method seems logical based on commonly held ideas about what is keeping women out of office, such as a deliberate exclusion of women from entering politics or sexist voters, when looking more closely at the problem, it becomes clear that quotas are not a true solution. A gender quota would not address the deep, lasting effects of sex inequality in American society that underlie the lack of political representation of women and thus would be a superficial solution at best. In the United States and elsewhere, despite any apparent commitment to justice or equality, there still exists a strong sense of gender difference and appropriate behaviors for men and women, namely gender stereotypes (Levinson et al 2002). While this has become lesser recently, the way children are socialized still affects their self-perception and notions of traditional gender roles, causing women to lack political ambition (Lawless and Fox 2010). Some believe that the increased encouragement women might feel because of gender quotas may improve their confidence in women being able to enter political office, thus causing them to consider candidacy. But, despite the possibility of an increase in women considering themselves as candidates–the first stage of political ambition–the encouragement will not likely translate into a significant increase in the number of women who actually run (Krook 2010). This is because the other factors deterring women’s political ambition are still in place, like self-doubt and perceived levels of discrimination, as well as attachment to gendered family roles, such as being a mother or a wife (Lawless and Fox 2010). The things causing women to not run for office are so deeply rooted in American culture that they must be attacked directly in order to be solved, something a quota cannot do.
Americans still hold onto gender roles and stereotypes and these gendered perceptions are what keep women out of office. Men and women are socialized differently from early childhood to have and value certain traits. Consequently, the things often viewed as important for politics are things women are socialized into suppressing or are stereotyped not to have (Levinson et al 2002). As a result, women are less likely to be viewed and to view themselves as viable for candidacy. In this case, the root cause of women not entering office is not necessarily a structure keeping them from following political ambitions, but a lack of those ambitions. Because of the way American women are socialized and raised, they are much less likely than men to consider candidacy or decide to run (Lawless and Fox 2010). Many different factors, both internal and external, related to women’s roles and psyches, contribute to women not being considered for candidacy. The fact is that, at this point in history, it is unlikely that a women wanting to enter politics would be actively deterred from doing so, rather that desire would be rooted out during childhood or untapped in adulthood. The solution is not to open politics up to women as if they had been locked out before, but to recognize the hindrances that lie deeper in the foundation of American culture.
Quotas might seem like an obvious solution when considered on their own, when thinking about the societal norms that are causing women to not enter office, they do not seem to be addressing the heart of the problem. Legally mandating greater representation of women in office should have that effect, but when there is not a genuine commitment to the policy, there is little change seen. If those responsible for carrying out the changes the quota requires do not make an effort to do so, there will be no improvement (Krook 2009). Though most men claim to not favor other men over women as candidates, party leaders have shown this to be untrue. Party leaders and others responsible for recruiting potential candidates are biased toward men. Even women who are in similar positions of proximity to politics and qualification as men receive less encouragement to consider running for office (Lawless and Fox 2010). As the research done by Lawless and Fox (2010) shows, this type of encouragement is crucial for deciding to pursue candidacy, especially for women. Party leaders and political elites’ willingness to seek out and encourage women to run is an extremely important factor in whether a quota is successful or not (Krook 2009). As evidenced by the previously mentioned research, many men in positions of political power do not find women to be viable candidates. In many cases, they don’t even consider the qualified women they are in contact with (Lawless and Fox 2010). If there are not women actively seeking out these candidacies, it is not likely that a quota in place would increase women’s representation in office if the feelings about women as officeholders does not change first. Men, as well as women, are taught to hold certain views about women’s character and experience, falling into believing in common gender stereotypes (Dolan 2014). Until Americans are no longer taught to undervalue women and their abilities, there will not be as many women selected for office regardless of any legislation put in place.
Such legislation would also not solve the anxieties women have about sexism in the political arena. Despite the growing equality between American men and women, sex discrimination in the workplace–particularly higher level positions–continues to be an issue. This is a fact women are very aware of, particularly those in the pool of potential officeholders who tend to hold positions in these fields. Though discrimination persists, women actually tend to overstate the amount experienced by women in politics (Lawless and Fox 2010). Many women have internalized their gender role and, therefore, fear the repercussions of stepping beyond what is defined as acceptably feminine, as well as showing traits that would make them seem overly feminine and weak. Both men and women associate certain traits, such as emotionality and irrationality, with women and see them as possible hindrances to a woman’s political success (Brooks 2013). Women’s increased consciousness of their gender leads them to perceive more discrimination than actually is evident. The anxiety caused by this pushes many women away from the idea of pursuing a political career (Lawless and Fox 2010). A forced quota system would not alleviate these concerns. Unless the parties voluntarily adopted quotas, which seems unlikely considering the current feelings about quotas in America, the adoption of a gender quota would not actually signal a greater acceptance of women in office. Gender quotas are often adopted as a political strategy or are impressed upon the political elites by a higher power that wants to encourage gender equality (Krook 2009). Quotas as a means of trying to fix the gender problem are merely surface level. They are not going to change the previously held feelings of politicians about women, and, therefore, will not alleviate the concern about gender discrimination.
Not only do women fear discrimination from their colleagues, but also judgment of their personal lives from others because of their choice to pursue a career that could keep them from their families. One major issue making women turn away from politics is their disproportionate obligation to family duties, including housework and childcare (Lawless and Fox 2012). This can only be fixed through completing the work of redistributing those duties and eradicating the notion that women have a particular role and that their place is in the domestic sphere. Women have been tasked with most of the household responsibilities throughout American history and today vestiges of this role still remain as hindrances to women. A woman’s obligations to her family will likely prevent her from attempting to run a campaign while she has children to take care of, even if she considers politics as a potential career. Even though this adherence to traditional family dynamics may not keep women from considering running, it puts them in the difficult position of having choosing to prioritize work or family (Lawless and Fox 2012). Because American culture socializes women into the nurturing mother role, women feel much more responsible for their children and household in general than do men (Thompson and Walker 1989). This is especially relevant when considering the backlash women in politics face, being called bad mothers due to their perusal of a political career and constantly being asked about the wellbeing of their families. These statements about women in politics reinforce gender norms and can discourage women with families from wanting to run for office. Because this factor is one that is internalized and perpetuated by society, women are not likely to break from it unless its reinforcement stops. The adoption of a gender quota will not alleviate women of their disproportionately heavy load of household duties, nor will it convince them or the public that her career does not constitute neglect of her family.
The hurdle stopping women from entering politics is less so that women think women are unable, collectively, to be good politicians and qualified candidates, but that women individually are undervaluing their skills (Lawless and Fox 2010). Opening up greater opportunities for women, in general, may increase the number who already have strong political ambition to be elected to office, but it will not likely aid in increasing the number of women who consider candidacy and decide to run. Women have a tendency to feel that they are not as qualified as they are, a result of the socialization of girls (Bennett 1989). They are taught the virtues of modesty and submissiveness and they are subject to the negative stereotypes placed on women that affect their self-perception. Because of American gender norms, women grow up underestimating their abilities. Studies have shown that girls often predict they will not do as well at things as they are actually capable of and perceive themselves to be bad at things–like math, for example–even if they are at the same skill level as a boy who feels he is good at it (Levinson et al 2002). Without confidence in themselves, women are unlikely to believe that they have what it takes to be a politician. Though most modern American women would not extend their own doubts to the rest of women, they will still likely feel that only an extremely qualified woman could be considered a viable candidate (Lawless and Fox 2010). Their underestimation of themselves keeps them from considering their own merits, and their overestimation of the needed skill to run for office also limits what other women they believe to be qualified. Men and women, in this way, are socialized into opposing roles, as men tend to overstate their qualifications and perceived ability to run for office (Lawless and Fox 2010). The imbalance of confidence between men and women causes the much larger numbers of men as aspirants and candidates. The way to get women into office is to begin shifting our ideas about gender roles and opening up the full range of opportunities to young people. Americans need to reevaluate how they raise their children and begin socializing girls into leadership, just as they do boys.
The root of the lack of women in office has been traced back to women’s unwillingness to run (Lawless and Fox 2010). Even if a gender quota in America did cause an increase in the number of women in office, it would not fix the underlying gender inequalities currently causing the representational disparity. The gender gap would not close with the adoption of a gender quota because of the lack of women who are running compared to men. The women with the political ambition to run for office will benefit from a quota, but those women are exceptions and are not representative of the greater population of women, as research has shown that most lack that ambition. As seen in many cases– like in France, as previously discussed–representation of women increases, but not enough to create parity (Krook 2009). The question of how to increase women’s representation in political office is one that cannot truly be answered with a top-down approach like a quota. What is at the heart of this disparity is a flaw in American culture. The lasting gender inequalities at a personal and social level need to be examined in order for women to be raised into a society that believes in their abilities and in which they can value themselves as capable leaders. Even if quota legislation were to improve the inclusion of women in American politics, the oppression and social inequality that are causing the disparity would not end, thus not truly bettering the situation. One cannot solve a problem by treating the symptoms but not the cause.
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