In seeking to redress the underrepresentation of women in key positions of political leadership, Liberal Party of Canada leader Justin Trudeau has pledged gender parity within government at decision-making levels, vowing as Prime Minister to appoint an “equal number of women and men” to cabinet.
Unveiled in June as part of a larger “Fair and Open Government” Liberal platform, the gender quota proved particularly divisive, sparking heated debate over the wisdom, or even the necessity, of such policy.
Generally speaking, diversity for the sake of diversity, however well-intentioned, is problematic. It not only fails to address the root of a given inequality, but it feeds into the notion of those underrepresented as being so due to an inability to succeed on merit. Further, it casts suspicion on the credentials of those who advanced on merit, but as members of a subset, are assumed have benefited from the quota.
It’s through this “[x] for the sake of [x]” lens that those who instinctively recoil from forced parity have largely viewed the Liberal proposal.
In pointed fashion, columnist Andrew Coyne challenged the idea that merit need not be substituted for gender. “If merit is defined in traditional terms,” Coyne argues, “this is obvious nonsense.”
“Suppose, in a governing caucus of, say, 180 members, one-third are women. And suppose that the talents and experience to be desired in a cabinet minister are distributed equally between the sexes, such that a fifth of either — 12 women, 24 men — might be considered cabinet material. If nevertheless the cabinet must have an equal number of women and men, then in a cabinet of 36 six women who should not have been appointed will be, and six men who should have been appointed will not be.”
What this scenario overlooks, however, is that a Prime Minister need not restrict cabinet appointments to a given cohort of elected MPs. If based entirely on merit, it would be highly-credentialed, non-partisan, and yes, unelected, experts from pertinent fields tasked with overseeing portfolios.
Proven scholarship of a complex issue would be sought over the proven scholarship of a PMO script.
Coyne acknowledges “the idea that we would judge ministers as individuals, on the basis of their ability to govern the country — that train left the station long ago.”
What, then, is meritorious about the status quo? Beyond the presumption of competence, on what superior capabilities – proven merit – are Ministers currently chosen? What explicit proficiencies would we lose to a quota?
Where Coyne’s column succeeds, if not intentionally, is in demonstrating the problem with how gender quotas, and the notion of merit, are traditionally defined.
In 2014, Rainbow Murray, associate professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, published a fascinating argument in defence of gender quotas — for men:
“The focus on women’s underrepresentation has the unintended consequence of framing men as the norm and women as the ‘other’ … The arguments against quotas, based on meritocracy, assume (albeit sometimes implicitly) that the significant overrepresentation of men, over time and space, is the correct and fair outcome.
A much less commonly aired argument is that men receive an unfair advantage in accessing political power … men may themselves be accessing politics on the basis of their sex rather than their more tangible qualities.
As the traditional status quo, (men) benefit both from the presumption of competence and from greater opportunity to demonstrate their worth … It is not sufficient for women to be interchangeable with men; they are expected to offer something distinctive, without which the democratic process is incomplete, thus necessitating their presence.”
By modifying how the quota is approached, emphasizing the problem of overrepresentation, the onus is shifted “onto men … to prove their worth and justify their coveted place within politics.”
What makes Murray’s thesis particularly compelling is its ability to be applied to any over-represented group; the normative reasoning underpinning the quota being its key feature.
“The central concern lies not with gender equality, nor fairness, valid and important though these undoubtedly are. Instead, the emphasis is on enhancing the quality of representation for all.”
“Meritocracy,” Murray concludes, “can be advanced through challenging the status quo, opening a debate about quality, and making better use of available resources of talent. For the problem of (un)fair competition to be resolved, it first must be recognized.”
Trudeau’s proposal may not be the answer to the institutionalized gender disparity within government, but in the absence of a definitive solution, for the interim, a gender quota can provide a point from which to work toward a more-representative, more deeply and broadly qualified, group of representatives.
We do our country a disservice, risk forfeiting the range of talents offered by those we elect, not in contesting the status quo, but in allowing it to persist without dispute.