Quotas and justice

Political committees in Norwegian local authorities should have a representation of at least 40 per cent of each sex. In practice, however, it does not work like this. The law on quotas often has to yield to arguments that it constitutes a threat to local democracy. Ingrid Guldvik has written her doctoral thesis on quotas and gender justice.

In 1992 the Storting (the Norwegian national parliament) passed a law to introduce gender quotas in political committees in local authorities. This part of local democracy legislation came into effect before the local elections of 1995, and entails that the underrepresented sex will be augmented if a political committee does not have a gender balance in its constitution. That’s the theory, anyway. Guldvik asserts that achieving a gender balance in local democracy through parliament voting in quotas just does not work. In practice, almost one in three committees is breaking the law.

Ingrid Guldvik. (Photo: Beret Bråten)

Theory and Practice

What parliament passes is one thing, and what local authorities actually do is another. In her doctoral thesis, recently submitted to the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), Guldvik studies the arguments and practices employed when the quota rules are to be implemented, as well as the concepts of gender and justice they are based upon. She is the first researcher who has studied organisation in local electoral boards. The electoral boards in the local authorities consist of the most important politicians from each party’s local group. These politicians are, more often than not, men. After a local election it is the board that proposes the composition of the committees in the local authority. Guldvik gave one committee electoral board the exercise of discussing quotas, and she analysed the resulting discussion. Additionally she interviewed national politicians and bureaucrats, as well as case-workers in county government.

Electoral boards attitudes and practices

What happens when a council electoral board discovers that the chairmanship, business committee or mountain committee will have a one-sided gender composition? Do they employ the quota regulations in order to balance up the sexes? No – at least not in most of the electoral boards Ingrid Guldvik has studied. She found that they rather view the quota regulations as a problem. It is the principle of gender equality that often has to yield when it comes into conflict with what many electoral boards believe as an important democratic consideration – the parties’ electoral lists and the voters’ adjustment of the lists. The demand for a balance of the sexes is not considered as equally pressing for democracy.

When an electoral board discusses this issue the conversation might go something like what Ingrid Guldvik heard one board say: “The law is a burden the moment we have to select someone we wouldn’t otherwise have selected. It’s a burden because you have to make choices that you would not otherwise rationally have made. And then we have a situation where we are forced to select people who are either less qualified or who are themselves not interested in the post”, said one male Conservative. He was then followed up by a man from the Red Electoral Alliance: “If we nominate as per the democratic process, and we are then are forced into choosing candidates number 2 or 3 from the smaller parties’ lists then this will be unheard of.” “…To have to risk putting forward our second team due to quota restrictions would be a significant problem, regardless of whether they were male or female. This should not be what quotas are about,” a male representative from the Liberal Party said. A Labour Party man however intervenes: “I am always a little reticent when men say that gender quotas have no use. There have been good reasons for having to do such and such at somea point in history…”.

No problem arises as long as “the gender balance, interest and qualifications” all fit, in the words of one male local politician. It’s when a man must yield for a woman that problems arise and the quota regulations must yield.

– In the understanding of democracy that the politicians base their arguments upon gender equality is not a necessary element of democracy, and vice versa.. A connection between the two is rarely made. Gender equality and justice are just not important themes in people’s concept of quotas. Instead, quotas are conceived as undemocratic, and when such a conception characterizes the electoral boards, you need to know exactly what you are talking about and be determined to claim the opposite, says Guldvik.

In her opinion, the ruling perception is based on politicians seeing gender on an individual level. – They question whether the women are qualified, and claim that those most qualified are usually men. In discussions they rarely consider the structural or symbolic elements, or in other words that women are underrepresented and that men become the norm for a “political representative”. The quota system is conceived by them as a form of discrimination against individual men. Women’s limited opportunities for political work become almost a natural phenomenon, related to the home as being their main area of responsibility.

– The few who make the connection between quotas and democracy focus on the social and the structural relevance of our political institutions. They argue that throughout history men have dominated in politics, and that it thus becomes obvious that gender equality is about democracy, says Guldvik.

Gender is more important than party

Which direction the opinions of a board go depends to a large degree on who sets out the premises for the discussion: Who it is that sets the tone. – Parties on the left have traditionally fought for gender equality and support quotas, while parties on the right have been more reserved. One would therefore think that attitudes and practices perhaps vary with the colour of the party, Guldvik says. In her study, however, this is not the case. – It appears that gender, more specifically the female sex, is more important than party affiliation in expressing their strong support for gender regulation and the will to carry it through in practice, she says – or what Guldvik calls being an innovator in this matter.

- The theory of so-called critical mass means that changes will occur if the proportion of women on an executive or a committee comes up over a certain level, for example 30 per cent. However, much indicates that this is not enough. In addition, the women need to be in positions that allow them to set the premises for the debate, Guldvik points out. This is the situation in one local authority that has a female mayor and deputy mayor, and where the mayor is also the chairperson of the electoral board. In this council the natural environment management committee is the most attractive committee to serve on, and previously there has been room for women on it because many men have wanted the privilege. But with the law on the mayor’s side this time they are looking for a woman. And eventually they find one who accepts. She is married to “a man who knows the mountains”.

A judicious decision

But if party affiliation does not have great significance in the local electoral boards, both party and gender are significant in the office of county governor. The county governor is responsible for advising the councils on the quota regulations and supervising their implementation. But it is up to the county governors themselves how they go about this in practice. They can use their discretion. There is therefore a great deal of variation between what the various county governors’ do.

Guldvik investigated what the county governors did in both 1995 and 1999. In 1999 there was one county governor who raised the topic of quotas in meetings in the run up to the election. Nine county governors “reminded” the boards about tightening the enforcement of quota regulations. After the election two county governors monitored the gender composition on all the executive committees in their county, while three others monitored individual committees.

– Provided that a county has a county governor and case- workers that believe that the law on gender quotas in committees in local legislatures is important then they will find ways to implement them for the good of the local authority, Guldvik says. If, however, the county governor is not so interested in quota regulation, then they don’t bother local authorities about it. Guldvik finds that factors such as personnel resources and geographical location have little bearing on the county governor’s approach. The chances of having a county governor that is keen to implement gender quotas increases if the person in question is a woman and is from the left of the political spectrum. Additionally, the gender of case workers is influential.

Necessary, but not adequate

– There is a myth that Norwegian politics has achieved gender equality, points out Guldvik. – But the reality is that politics is still dominated by men. At the local level men’s dominance increases the higher you look up the hierarchy.

Before the local elections of 2003, three out of four mayoral candidates were men. Women at the top in local politics are still exceptions. – Gender quotas in local democracy legislation are a completely necessary measure in order to create greater gender balance in local politics, but it is not an adequate, says Guldvik. – The law is not fully effective, since if those who are to implement it resist it then there remains no one to oversee that it is complied with, and there are no consequences when it is broken. If quotas are to be an effective tool in achieving gender equality then the legislation must be followed up in a much more systematic fashion.

Quotas are fine – just not here

Geographical quotas to the Storting were written into the Norwegian constitution in 1814. And some geographical quotas remain in the parliament. Northern Norway, for example, is overrepresented in the parliament in relation to its population – something that is not very controversial. In comparison, quotas based on gender are very controversial. Gender equality and gender quotas have never been written into the constitution, Guldvik states. – And quotas based upon ethnicity are barely even discussed in this country.

– Moreover, it’s a paradox that parliament has passed gender quota legislation for local democracy and executive boards in private industry, but that it completely rejects introducing electoral legislation that comprises gender quotas in relation to the Storting’s composition. It can look as though parliament is completely in favour of gender quotas as long as it does not apply to parliament, concludes Guldvik.

So it seems that parliamentary representatives’ opinion of quotas is quite like that of the male local politician who said: “It surely must be the free choice of the individual to vote for who they want, regardless of whether it’s a woman or a man. And when we implement legislation that demands we too must consider our gender composition then, in my opinion, we are abandoning something of our democracy”.


Translated by Matthew Whiting KILDEN

About the Researcher

Ingrid Guldvik is a political scientist and director of research at the Eastern Norway Research Institute (ENRI) at Lillehammer. She presented her doctoral thesis "takt og utakt, sagt og usagt. Kjønnsrettferdighet og kvotering i lokalpolitikken" (tact and tactlessness, said and not said. Gender justice and quotas in local politics) at The Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU) in Trondheim in September 2005.

The Peronist Party and gender quotas

We believe perhaps that gender quotas are a Nordic imvention. They are not: The first political party that established rules for gender quotas was the Peronist Party in Argentina. It happened in the 1950s as a result of direct lobbying by Eva Perón who was married to the then current President Juan Perón. The use of quotas, combine with the success of the Peronist Party, resulted in an increase in women's representation in the Argentinian parliament from 15 per cent in 1951 to 22 per cent in in 1955.

In 1991, Argentina was the first country in the World to introduce laws on gender quotas in its national assembly.

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