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We need more women in government and gender quotas are how we’ll do it

· Olivia Peters,Women,Gender Quotas,Analysis

Following the Andrews Government re-election and recent ministerial appointments, Victoria has a 50% gender split in cabinet. Victorian Parliament as a whole lags behind with 41% of seats filled by women. While Labor’s contribution to Parliament comprises 48% women, in the Coalition women fill just 29% of Parliamentary seats.

Why we need a gender-balanced parliament

Increasing the number of women in government has numerous benefits for the public. A recent Canadian study of data over 40 years shows links between higher counts of women as elected officials and increases in public health; another study of 125 countries shows that countries with more female parliamentarians experience lower corruption. In this context, gender quotas are not about hiring women simply because they are women; they are about putting practices in place to identify and recognise women who have the skills and capacity to do the job well while removing barriers that currently keep women from accessing these roles.

In any government, achieving a balanced cabinet leads to a wider array of perspectives being heard, being able to better address the specific needs of women and girls, and an equitable range of voices participating in the allocation of scarce funds. It also has a symbolic effect of reflecting current societal values and inspiring women and girls to enter politics or aim for positions of power.

Victoria was not the first jurisdiction to achieve gender parity in its cabinet – Queensland reached 50/50 last year and the Northern Territory has a female majority. Over 100 countries have quotas for female national legislators in some form; over 70 have them enshrined in law. Not all have been effective in a political climate such as Australia’s, but the precedent set by the current state government is in line with standards shown to work in similar developed nations.

Types of quotas in practice

Quotas specifying minimum numbers or percentages of each gender put forth for election can either be legislated or voluntarily implemented by a political party. When parties nominate women, voters do support and elect them. These quotas are not a clear path straight to Parliament but an assurance that women are getting on the ballot as an option for voters.

Both legislated and voluntary quotas as described above have been effective in countries like Australia, with voluntary quotas coming out ahead. The final type of gender quota involves reserving a percentage of parliamentary seats for women. While very effective in developing countries or those undergoing large structural or constitutional changes, there are no developed countries with this quota type.

Although Australia has no legislated quota, the ALP has had voluntary gender quotas for several years and has seen increased numbers of women elected as a result. Unfortunately, not all parties have chosen to make gender-balanced workplaces a priority and as such, legislation is necessary to create a balanced Parliament that reflects the Australian public. While the current state government has made this change voluntarily, there is no guarantee that future governments would make the same choice. With gender in politics being such a hot button issue recently, now is a great time to introduce gender quotas for future elections.

Gender quotas in action

Such legislation must be properly implemented for it to be effective. When France introduced legal limits to create a more balanced government, some parties chose to ignore them and pay the paltry fine imposed for non-compliance. In the subsequent two elections, female representation rose just 2% as parties chose to take the hit to their wallet in order to preserve their political position. Rather than writing quotas off as failed experimentation, France reformed them and applied tougher financial penalty for failure to adhere to the law. In the first election following the reform, women won 15% more seats than the previous election.

A similar situation occurred in Ireland. In 2011, the lower house of Irish parliament had just 15% of its seats filled by women. A law was passed in 2012 that states each party must choose at least 30% women and 30% men as candidates or they lose 50% of their public funding in the next cycle. In the first election since the new law was introduced, the number of female candidates increased 90% and the number of women elected increased 40%.

As a final example, Belgium has seen the percentage of women in its Chamber of Representatives rise from 16% in the late 1990s to 41% in 2014 through several incremental changes. Each party must now provide equal numbers of candidates of both sexes – the difference between the number of male and female candidates can’t be larger than one – and the first two candidates on any electoral list must comprise one man and one woman. These small and easily implemented changes compound to a more balanced Parliament that better reflects the population.

The main criticism on gender quotas is the belief they lead to unqualified women being elected ahead of qualified men, but this is unfounded. The goal is not just more women, it is to ensure the best person is appointed, recognising that women have traditionally been removed from the arena. Gender quotas are the quickest way to influence equality in Parliament and they would ensure we keep the current cabinet gender balance in the future.

Olivia Peters is the Policy Intern at FPL Advisory.

FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.