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Let's not 'quota' let's design it in

Courtesy of

Eve and I have been involved with a plethora of events recently concerned with addressing women's leadership and political representation. Given the timing, with the election of the 'metro Mayors' (all 6 are male, and 94% of their top teams are men) and the impending General Election (at which there is limited change to the representation of women predicted by analysis for the Fawcett Society), it has been an opportune time to reflect on the need for more structural changes. Indeed, whether there is an argument for "radical structural change" as Steve Rotherham Mayor of the Liverpool Combined Authority stated, to stop replicating the same pictures of power in the system and deliver the goal of 50:50 representation.

In our work with individuals, in peer coaching and with leadership teams and prospective political candidates we focus largely on the 'supply side'. Providing information, raising awareness, boosting confidence and self-belief and delivering support mechanisms to get women to stand and to raise their voices. Owning the, "entitlement to take this journey" and "feeling the fear and doing it anyway" are both great pieces of advice given out recently at WOW Chester but are only one side of the coin; we have to be able to see it and we have to have access. In many ways, the Metro Mayor appointments have crystallised one of the main issues - because these 'top teams' are drawing from the pre-existing layer of power holders at a local authority level the majority of those to choose from are men. Unless we have some other form of mandatory, structural response, how does that change?

Ideas of targets and quotas to achieve gender parity have inevitably been hot topics for years, however, the conversation is changing - its more frequent, is starting to feel less adversarial in nature and with more than more than 100 countries now having some form of gender quota in place in their political systems is more evidence-based. In fact, one contributor commented recently in the Northern Power Women #tweetup I hosted on #toquotaornottoquota, "I predict that we will enact quotas at some point and then forget why were we so against them."

So it feels like there is a shift in the landscape on this issue of "the quota" to a more productive discussion about achieving a valid and widely understood goal. In which case some of the things we have learnt from these many recent discussions on how that might happen are helpful to summarise.

Consistently acknowledge and raise awareness about the structural and cultural barriers

The continued belief in the 'myth of the meritocracy' existing in our political system is damaging our ability to take action to address the inequalities faced by many groups in their access to power. The evidence in this country where structures have been used - Labour's all women shortlists - and from the Swedish model demonstrates that using structural approaches to address inequality does not impact on merit.

We need to challenge this myth by calling out the day-in-day-out inequality, imbalance in representation and the barriers faced by women to access power, and hold those in power to account for their actions to change that. Be that via all male panels, committees, policy making and forums - highlight the problem and don't engage with initiatives where women are not represented, and efforts are not being made to shift that. Move the conversation away from "less qualified women displacing qualified men", this bolsters those who's interests are in not taking action and hinders women from engaging if they feel they will be seen as 'token' or achieving not on their merit.

"I've fought the concept of quotas in politics for years....why the hell does a woman need extra help - we're just as capable as men to represent our constituents in Westminster, lead the country, create new legislation...however statistics tell us we're not. Statistics tell us we're massively underrepresented in parliament & until that unconscious bias is made conscious it won't be changing any time soon. So we HAVE to work with quotas to achieve that societal and structural shift becomes a reality....Which is still too far away from my liking..."

Kate Northcott Spall, Campaigner

This twitter thread from Meryl Kenny provides a raft of great resources for as she states, "another round of 'quota myth busting'".

Promote the benefits for leadership overall

Alongside being clear about the problem we need to demonstrate that taking "unequal action to address inequality" will benefit the quality of leadership. We know it's no good to focus only on the problem, it risks inducing fatalism, we need to talk about the solutions that are available and the benefits they will bring (as the PIRC point out in their guide to election framing). The Swedish study above is the latest in the political sphere but evidence abounds now in politics, business and civic life that diversity make for better decision-making; Sweden demonstrates specifically a resulting improvement in leadership competence overall.

Talk "design of the whole system" for change

The language of 'quotas' is not helpful. Everyone productively engaged in this debate recognises some form of structured accountability around targets as only part of a bigger picture of change. That bigger picture encompasses everything from supporting women's self-belief, changing organisational structures, addressing childcare responsibilities, recruiting male change agents and addressing the gender pay gap - and more in-between!

The benefit of 'designing in' is clear. While we spend much time focused on Westminster representation we have newer parliaments in the UK - Scotland and Wales - where paying attention to the design of representation has reaped benefits for women's representation. Talking of 'design' is enabling - rather than be overwhelmed by the scale of the task we start doing things that may be small but knowing where they sit in the context of the big picture.

This is absolutely epitomised by the excellent report by Professor Sarah Childs on a 'Good Parliament'. While it may be depressing that we need to think about everything from toilet allocation to how you garner collective institutional responsibility it gives us tools and asks. This important report needs to be revisited in light of the snap general election and targets revised and signed-up to by all political parties for an amended election cycle.

"part of the change needs to be structural. Existing authority may have the best of intentions with increasing the number of women in power but when it comes to results few are successful without setting tangible quotas and targets; the numbers speak for themselves! By setting targets, by building them into the design of an organisation or system - i.e. 50% women and 50% men - it ensures that impetus is demanded and necessary adjustments are made to achieve this; the pipeline is populated because it has to be."

Hannah Philp, 50:50 Parliament

Acknowledge that 'quotas' are transitory

Quotas, targets, specific structures of accountability - whatever we want to call them - are generally acknowledged as a temporary need to up the pace and create the change. Viewed in this light they are seen internationally as an important tool to "strengthen and hasten" not an end in itself. See this review on International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics for evidence on this internationally.

It will be important to review any mandatory, structural requirements regularly - to ensure the desired impact is happening, review where the process of change is being subverted (as any change will be!) and look for the unintended consequences that may could result in restricting the access of other groups facing inequalities. There is no point in replicating a new form of restricted access to power.

"Hard to have any quick win impact without quotas. Over time more support and encouragement for women & great role models will help #tweetup"

Sophie Milliken

"I look forward to a time when these strategies would be deemed archaic as we would have surpassed the need for this."

Tanja Lichtensteiger

Work together

One of the great drivers in change has been the focus on cross-party action being taken by women from the breadth of the political spectrum, and those who identify with no political party specifically. In working with The Parliament Project it's evident that bringing women together creates a greater energy and power, opening up the political space and the discussion. It's also clear from debates that there is a need to engage men as change agents, champions and advocates in this shift.

It also supports the final thought evident in the learning: Don't put the cart before the horse

We need women ready to move into the sphere from the grassroots, which brings me in a circle to why we work with DivaManc and the Parliament Project to promote and create the conditions for women to raise their voices and seek power.

Thank-you to all the women and girls who have contributed to these debates recently at events and via the Northern Power Women #tweetup. I look forward to more discussion.....

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