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Making the case

We need legally binding gender and diversity quotas to ensure equal representation in politics, writes Evelyn James



For decades there have been calls for equality and diversity in politics. But there remains a power imbalance in leadership and representation which has stifled progress towards gender equality. If, ahead of the next general election, we are to ensure equal and diverse representation for women in political life, we need legally binding gender and diversity quotas.

Many countries have already committed to bridging the gender gap by reforming their electoral systems, resulting in more diverse public and political cultures and better representation of women from minority groups. The UK must now catch up and join this era of progressive change.

Research shows that over 100 countries have adopted quotas which has increased women’s representation in politics as well as representation for underrepresented groups. Quotas are the single most effective tool to increase women’s representation in public and political life.

Take a look at Ireland, for instance, which has successfully implemented a 30 per cent quota for women standing in the national elections. This will rise to 40 per cent in 2023. The number of women candidates increased by 90 per cent at the 2016 election compared to the 2011 election, with a corresponding 40 per cent increase in the number of women elected compared with 2011.

Wales was a beacon of light globally for being the first nation to reach a 50:50 gender balance in its parliament back in 2003. Regrettably, since then things have gone backwards. Following the 2021 Senedd elections, women’s representation has fallen to 43 per cent. The voluntary measures that are in place have clearly failed.

Currently the diversity of the Senedd is appalling. Only three members of the Senedd (MSs) are from Black, Asian, or ethnic minority backgrounds, including the first woman of colour to be elected in May 2021. Only three members openly identify as LGBTQ+. No data has been collected or published on the number of MSs who are disabled, so we do not know if disabled people are represented at all.

The good news is that there is now a historic agreement between the Welsh Labour government and Plaid Cymru for legally binding gender quotas. There must be no rowing back from this commitment.

This should be a turning point for Wales as the Senedd electoral reform process, now at stage two, is looking at how to encourage the election of a more diverse assembly. All nations in the UK need to be part of this progressive movement.

The power of quotas goes beyond simply ensuring equal numbers of represented politicians: it can transform our politics. As former Plaid Cymru assembly member Nerys Evans has explained, the increased representation of women makes it possible to pass groundbreaking policy and legislation on areas such as social care, mental health, women’s reproductive justice and domestic abuse – policy areas which male-dominated governments are less likely to focus on.

It means we are more likely to legislate on issues like menopause or f endometriosis  – which are rarely brought to light by politicians despite affecting up to half of the population. International research shows that quotas in parliament lead to more being done to address poverty, women’s rights and public health. The expert panel on assembly electoral reform recognised that a more equal and diverse Senedd would lead to better decisions as well as being more reflective of the Welsh population.

To this end, WEN Wales and the 27 organisations who support the Diverse 5050 Campaign  are relentlessly working for  more equal and diverse representation especially for women from underrepresented groups such as Black, Asian and ethnic minority communities, disabled women, LGBTQ+ women and women with other protected characteristics.

The campaign has conducted in-depth researchIt has found that combined quotas work best when they operate in tandem –  ie when they are designed to lead to selection procedures that look at different characteristics at the same time, such as legislative candidate quotas for women and ethnic minorities that apply to the same party lists.

Quotas also need to be intersectionally embedded – by this we mean they should use intersectional demands within individual group-based quotas. For instance, if there is a 20 per cent quota for disabled people, the intersectional requirement could necessitate that half of these candidates need to be men and half women.

The campaign also commissioned expert legal opinion showing gender quotas are within legislative competence in Wales.

Quotas are needed. They are key to ensuring that democracy thrives as parliaments better reflect the diverse community they serve and ensure different perspectives and lived experiences are part of decision-making. This is how we ensure that the voices of the under-represented are not silenced.

Image credit: Timon Studler on Unsplash  

Evelyn James

Evelyn James is a campaigner for Diverse 5050 at Women’s Equality Network (WEN) Wales which pushes for equal and diverse representation for women in leadership in Welsh politics


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