The problem with populist gender equality-by-numbers

It’s important to have more women in public and political debates. But having a seat at the table isn’t the same thing as being heard.

Nora Jusufi
4 February 2018

Photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.

Henrietta H. Fore, new UNICEF Executive Director briefs the press, Palais des Nations in January 2018. Photo by Violaine Martin/UN Geneva/Flickr. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0) Some rights reserved.

In November 2017, I attended the Council of Europe’s World Forum for Democracy, in Strasbourg, France, as a youth delegate. At the event, I started to count the number of women and men represented among the 123 speakers, moderators, and rapporteurs.

Unsurprisingly, I counted more men (almost 60%) than women (40%). But are these figures all-telling? A quote from the late American academic Aaron Levenstein comes to mind: “Statistics are like bikinis. What they reveal is suggestive, but what they conceal is vital.”

In many of the conference’s main sessions, the ratio of male to female speakers was more like 2:1. Only in a ‘knowledge cafe’, on the “female face of the far right,” did women speakers dramatically outnumber men, 14 to one.

Many of the women who spoke at the event spoke about women, gender equality, and women’s rights. This is important, but I want to see women discussing a variety of topics. Are women only competent to discuss 'women's issues'? No.

Women’s representation, and related headcounts and ratios, are common topics in politics, where women have long been underrepresented in institutions, including parliaments. Numerous countries have introduced quotas for women representatives in response to this.

In an ideal world, with equal opportunity for and treatment of all human beings in the world, regardless of their identities, or which pronoun they prefer to use, we might not need quotas to ensure representation in politics. But, that is simply not the case today.

Suggestions that quotas promote underqualified women are common but this is a flawed argument that supports a male-dominated status quo. Both male and female MPs, from political parties of all stripes, have disappointed their constituents.

There are meanwhile cases of bold women who rose to prominence in politics working to bring justice to their people, who spoke out and did not back down, who stood against their own parties to protect their principles, despite the potential political consequences.

Almost two decades have passed since the conflict in Kosovo, where I live, ended in 1999. Sexual violence during the conflict, and the treatment of survivors, is still sporadically discussed, and it remains a controversial topic.

Lack of basic knowledge and human compassion, and the prevalence of ‘family honor’ shaming, have contributed to the situation. Though our former president Atifete Jahjaga brought the issue of war rape victims to the fore and tried to make it a government priority when she was in office.

Of course, there may be underqualified women representing people in parliaments, including in Kosovo, but this is a very judgmental and trivial reasoning against quotas.

It is crucial that women are represented in public and political debates, but having a seat at the table is also not enough. Women’s ideas must be heard, and taken seriously, and they must be given credit for them.

'It is crucial that women are represented in public and political debates, but having a seat at the table is also not enough. Women’s ideas must be heard, and taken seriously, and they must be given credit for them.'

Too often, women’s ideas are instead appropriated by men who claim them as their own. We see this in everyday life as well as in politics.

A satirical cartoon, printed 63 years in the local newspaper Rilindja, in Kosovo, says: “Theory and practice: “I am going to give a lecture on ‘women’s equality’. And you, woman, don’t look out the window!”

It still resonates with me today, and reminds me of the bogus women’s rights advocates who focus on tallying figures and ticking boxes, talking a lot about gender equality while leaving power dynamics unmentioned and untouched.

As in any field, in politics there are fashions and ‘buzzwords’. Sometimes, I fear that gender issues are little more than this today.

In Kosovo, right now aid donors are interested in projects that raise awareness towards gender equality, sexual and reproductive health rights, and wage parity and equality in the workplace.

At the recent World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, much was made out of the fact that this year’s co-chairs were all female. The WEF has been harshly criticised in the past for gender imbalances at the elite event.

But after the roundtables are over, the same people that advocated for such changes are not necessarily truly committed to them, and may not even support them personally. And what happens at the top doesn't necessarily trickle down.

We need to supplement statistics with new ways of thinking and storytelling for social impact. We need to believe in equal opportunities and treatment and that societal roles that diminish women’s ‘value’ must be dismantled.

We should embrace feminist economics, where women’s housework and childcare is appropriately valued and accounted for. Unpaid care work impacts women in terms of lower wages and less power when they enter paid work.

Characterising such labour as a preference for ‘leisure’ over ‘work’ is still too common, discounting the power of socially-prescribed gender roles. Recognising this should be part of education that each and every human being has the same rights and obligations.

Disclosure of information is important, and transparent statistics on things like salaries do matter. We need to be able to speak with facts. But we shouldn’t wait for institutions and companies to collect, format, and release these numbers.

A #thatsmysalary social media campaign, where individuals post their own qualifications, position, and salary online, could help encourage such disclosure and debate about how to lower the gender pay gap.

In other words: tracking the number of women in public and political debates is important. We need seats at the table, and quotas may be necessary to achieve this. But women’s voices also need to be heard, on a wide range of diverse issues.

Political elites in many countries may make many references to gender equality in their speeches. Governments may commission detailed reports with a lot of data. But this alone does not equal commitment to challenging inequality.

High-level statistics can be deceptive. We need data that help us identify instances and trends that help us take action, and hold ourselves and those in power accountable for enduring gender inequality. We need more than awareness, we need results.

Get 50.50 emails Gender and social justice, in your inbox. Sign up to receive openDemocracy 50.50's monthly email newsletter.


We encourage anyone to comment, please consult the oD commenting guidelines if you have any questions.
Audio available Bookmark Check Language Close Comments Download Facebook Link Email Newsletter Newsletter Play Print Share Twitter Youtube Search Instagram WhatsApp yourData