Quotas: the Myth and Reality

Friday February 18th, 2022

The Welsh Government and Plaid Cymru have recently announced that they will be implementing legally binding gender quotas as part of their co-operation agreement.

WEN Wales and the 21 organisations who support the Diverse 5050 Campaign were delighted that our hard work and campaigning over the past three years has paid off. We believe that diverse and equal representation needs to be legally baked into our electoral system and the commitment to gender quotas is a historic step towards achieving this.

Despite the proven effectiveness of quotas in increasing women’s representation, not everyone supports their use. Here we debunk some of the common myths around quotas.


“People should be elected on merit only”

Our current society isn’t fair and we do not live in a meritocracy. Women and other underrepresented groups face many social, cultural and economic obstacles. Those groups who traditionally dominate politics, such as white middle class men, do not experience these to the same extent. For example, women are still bearing the brunt of unpaid care and domestic work and earn less money than men. Disabled people face a number of additional barriers to elected office due to a lack of accommodation in transport, communication support or equipment.

Research on implicit bias shows that many people, including those who are committed to equality, hold unconscious negative attitudes and stereotypes towards women or people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. Women, disabled people, people from Black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds and LGBTQ+ people are at an increased risk to be targeted by online and offline abuse. Many of these problems are amplified for people with certain intersecting identities, such as Black women.

The idea that quotas pose a threat to merit assumes that candidates who are elected through quotas will typically be less qualified than others. But this is not the case. Research on the UK House of Commons suggests that women elected through All-Women Shortlists (AWS – a form of voluntary party quota used in the UK Labour Party) are usually more experienced than their male colleagues.

All these factors mean that people are not being elected on merit alone in our society. For some groups it is much easier to find the time, money and confidence to stand for election than others. Candidates from underrepresented groups are being held back, even if they are equally or more qualified.

Quotas should be seen as a tool to break down some of the barriers that prevent women, disabled people, Black, Asian and minority ethnic people and people from the LGBTQ+ community becoming politicians. Quotas can help us advance towards a true meritocracy, rather than being an obstacle to it.


“Quotas are patronising”

Some people believe that using quotas for certain groups suggests that these candidates are less capable and need ‘extra help’ to get into political office. But the contrary is true. Quotas are being used because we recognise that these candidates have a harder time getting into political office, through no fault of their own but because of social inequalities and obstacles. Quotas are a way to acknowledge the unfair disadvantage that these candidates face and to address them.


“Quotas discriminate against dominant groups – e.g. gender quotas discriminate against men”

For the many reasons mentioned above, we know that the status quo discriminates against women and other underrepresented groups – in a much more far-reaching way than quotas discriminate against those groups who are traditionally advantaged.

This is reflected in the lack of diversity in the people who are elected to represent us. While the Senedd used to have gender parity in 2003, figures have decreased to 43% and now range behind Scotland for the first time since devolution. In Local Government in Wales, women make up only 28% of County Councillors and at the current rate of change we won’t see gender balance in Welsh councils before 2073.

Black, Asian and minority ethnic people make up 1.8% of County Councillors and 1.2% of Community Councillors, compared to 5.6% of the national population. It took 22 years to elect the first minority ethnic woman to the Senedd. 18% of County Councillors identify as disabled, compared to 22% of the population in Wales and we lack reliable data on the number of disabled candidates in the Senedd.

Quotas do not tip the scales the other way but are an effective step towards levelling the playing field.


“Quotas won’t tackle the root of the problem”

There are many social, cultural and economic barriers that prevent women and individuals from underrepresented groups from securing elected positions. These barriers are a symptom of historic inequalities in our society. The change required to remove them is not going to happen overnight through introducing quotas. We know that we need to keep fighting across many areas to achieve this and that’s why the Equal Power Equal Voice mentoring scheme is so important in creating the pipeline for women and those of all protected characteristics to stand, as is all our work at WEN regarding childcare support and ending online abuse.

But we also know that gender quotas are the single most effective tool for increasing women’s representation. Quotas can be expected to have the same positive effects for other groups if they are designed carefully to take into account intersecting discrimination and ensure the full range of diversity is represented. We know that diversity leads to better decision-making. Quotas can help us ensure that political decisions are thoroughly informed by the perspectives and lived experiences of people with intersecting identities.

Research analysing the impact of gender quotas in parliaments around the world has found that quotas can have a positive impact on policy and issues related to women’s health, violence against women, childcare and reproductive rights. It also shows that gender quotas lead to more being done to address poverty, violence against women and public health. All of these are key priorities for most people in Wales, especially as we try to recover from the pandemic.

So quotas do address both the root of the problem and the symptom. Their power goes beyond equal representation to changing the actual outcomes of our politics. They have a real impact on people’s lives on the ground and can be a catalyst of the long-term, societal change that we urgently need.


It’s undemocratic to enforce quotas – the electorate should decide

Democracy is about representing everyone’s voices, but in our current system people’s voices aren’t represented equally as many groups continue to be underrepresented. Quotas lead to the election of political leaders who better reflect the diverse communities they serve and can ensure their perspectives and lived experiences is brought to the decision-making table.

Democracy also requires that people should be able to vote for the candidates that they prefer, and who they think can best represent their interests and the interested of their communities. The lack of candidates from underrepresented groups means that currently this is not the case. 43% of Wales’ Black, Asian and minority ethnic populations feel that there are not enough positive role models in public and political life. I may prefer to be represented by a woman, but my chances of this happening are very small if no female candidates are placed in winnable seats in my constituency.  There is no evidence of voter bias against women, but there is a lack of female candidates.

The idea that quotas are undemocratic is also contradicted by how popular they are. Gender quotas are now used in over 100 countries worldwide and an increasing number of countries also use them for other underrepresented groups, such as ethnic minorities, young people, or disabled people. A citizens’ assembly in Ireland voted 80% in favour of quotas. Recent polling reported in the Western Mail shows wide public support for electoral reform to ensure gender parity in the Senedd. This is especially strong among young people in Wales, with 58% of 16-34’s saying ‘yes’ compared to 46% of 35-54’s.

Contrary to being undemocratic, quotas can help us strengthen our democracy in Wales and make space for those currently not represented in politics.

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Read our briefing paper on diversity quotas.