A More Perfect Union: the Case for Gender Quotas

Mary Tursi ’20

Contributing Writer

Women are still drastically underrepresented in positions of power and prominence, preventing the United States from achieving the equality it claims to have. Despite making up over 50% of the US population, women hold only 24% of the seats in Congress. This is abhorrent for a society in which women earn over 57% of undergraduate degrees and 59% of master’s degrees. Given that education seems to not impact this disparity, it seems doubtful that much improvement will happen without further policy changes. Many other countries have tried to fix this disparity through gender quotas, with varying degrees of success. Although not always successful, gender quotas are arguably the best option the United States has for increasing female representation.
While different types of gender quotas exist, the basic premise is increasing the number of women in political positions by mandating a specific percentage that must be women. Typically, this percentage ranges from 30-40%, though a few countries have opted for the full 50%. Legislative quotas are surprisingly common internationally, with about half of the countries in the world implementing some type of electoral quota for their parliament. A diverse number of countries have implemented these quotas, ranging from Rwanda to Sweden. The United States is one of the few Western Democracies to have no legislative quota on either the federal or state level, resulting in the US ranking at 100 out of 190 countries in female representation in 2017.
Political quotas have a mixed reception. Some studies claim that gender quotas result in better legislative policies and political outcomes. However, critics of gender quotas claim that forcing gender equality results in resentment and less effective leaders. Despite this discrepancy, the majority of studies do agree that gender quotas effectively increase female representation. While society should strive for equal female representation to come about without the necessity of policy intervention, such an ideal is sadly still unrealistic. Even the 2018 Midterms, while groundbreaking for female representation, didn’t achieve nearly as many seats for women as a quota arguably would.
While gender quotas are arguably the ideal solution for increasing American female representation, there are numerous hurdles the policy would face. The U.S. Constitution alone provides a formidable barrier. Furthermore, critics of gender quotas claim that it’s ‘undemocratic’ to force female representation if most voters don’t vote that way. However, you can argue that the existing underrepresentation of a large section of the population is un-democratic in itself, especially in view of past affirmative actions in the United States.
A parallel can be drawn between the experience of women and African-Americans. While contentious, affirmative action to aid minorities has seriously changed the face of many American institutions, from higher education to government contracting to jury selection. Affirmative action demonstrates the feasability of changing society through institutions when social norms fall short.
While the fight to pass gender quotas will be tough, it’s not impossible nor is it an unrealistic standard, especially given a history of striving for equality through affirmative action. American democracy rests on its representatives and women are unfortunately not getting their say. If America prides itself on being a beacon of positive change and an inspiration for democracies the world over, it stands to reason that we should change institutionalized gender inequality. Gender quotas could do that.

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