Women in Jamaican politics: no quotas, please

As my blog is my thinking space, let me use it to think about a hot topic in Jamaica–women’s representation in representative politics.

Last Friday, Senator Imani Duncan-Price’s raised a motion for gender quotas in Parliament. It has stirred a good amount of debate, not least because she put forward the idea of quotas to redress the numerical imbalance, notably that neither gender would fill more than 60 per cent or less than 40 per cent of the appointed or elected positions.

Not surprisingly, those for and against quotas have taken to whatever forum they could to make a case. I’m personally not in favour of quotas in this instance or in many others. I read a good argument in line with those views in yesterday’s Gleaner, under the byline ‘The Gavel’

The numbers for Jamaica are as follows: 12.5 per cent of the seats in the House of Representatives are filled by women; 14 female legislators are in the 84-member Parliament, eight of whom were elected to the Lower House and six appointed to the Senate. Jamaica has a female prime minister.

Portia Simpson Miller, Jamaican Prime Minister
Portia Simpson Miller, Jamaican Prime Minister

Women tend to be numerically underrepresented in representative politics worldwide. The concern of many about that is how this reflects current and past discrimination. So, I am all for removing the discrimination, but not by allocation. That raises more issues than it solves, not least the reasonable expectation of any person or group that feels or can show it suffers or suffered discrimination to have similar treatment. People for certain income groups. People from certain schools or types of schools (imagine the UK Parliament if there were limits on persons from Eton, Oxford and Cambridge). People of different sexual persuasions. The list could get long. They all have grievances.

What struck me was what I know of the world from personal experience. Of all the people I know in all of my life, barely a handful have chosen to run for political office or been nominated to serve in one. I have moved from poor Jamaica, to the UK, to the US. I have worked in many countries. The acquaintances that I have made are almost as varied as there are people in the world. Yet, barely a handful of those are politicians, neither men nor women. Some of them come from serious political families. The people I know and have known have done or do many other things to help the world be a better place: doctors, pilots, nurses, engineers; in media; in films; writers; economists (hmm :-)); athletes; musicians; parents.

Only one person I know and work with went into national politics after we met and he became president of Mexico.

My view has been that a certain kind of person is drawn towards national politics. The common perception of politics is that it is a dirty game or business. Even Jamaica’s Minister of Youth and Culture called it a ‘blood sport’. It’s rough and tough. Yet, I know people who are very much into such activities, yet chose not to enter politics.

The one woman I know who entered politics, is of Jamaican descent and lives in the UK, becoming the first black woman to be elected to the House of Commons. Let’s call that a double gold.

My Scandinavian friends enjoy a life where women are numerically far better represented than in most of the rest of the world. But, analysis of that development shows that what mattered most was making opportunities for women better, especially after they gave birth, reducing some of the social biases of domestic life. Let’s call it ‘investing in women’.

Denmark's member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl and her baby attend a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg
Denmark’s member of the European Parliament Hanne Dahl and her baby attend a voting session at the European Parliament in Strasbourg

Their societies have a better numerical gender balance than most others. Last week a friend shared a report that Norwegian men have the highest rating for helping with domestic chores. It’s a pattern of how life is led. My Scandinavian women friends all work outside the home; they are all well-educated (a key); share domestic duties with their male partners; had children for whom day care was easy to find and very affordable; have easy commutes; are mostly managers.

Jamaica has an advantage over many other countries because its women are climbing the higher education ladders very fast. That augurs well. Women are rising to high managerial positions in the private sector also at a good rate. Jamaica has one of the best role models for women, with a female prime minister, serving her second term. She beat out men to become party leader and beat out men to lead the nation.

We are part of an international grouping–Commonwealth countries–that has had a female head of state, the Queen of England, for well over 60 years. We have all been able to see how she can lead a nation from a non-political position. Her life is undoubtedly privileged, but it also has had its strains not least that almost all of it, personally and that of her close relatives, has been in full public gaze. The UK had its female political leader, Margaret Thatcher, known unflatteringly as ‘iron lady’.

The "Iron Lady", Margaret Thatcher
The “Iron Lady”, Margaret Thatcher

To add to the startlingly small number of people I know who have gone into politics is the astonishing number who have never expressed the slightest interest in it, either. I know that we are not all cynics, but perhaps we have a good sense of what politics can do and what other aspects of life have to offer. I certainly know people who are much brighter than most of the politicians I have encountered. I certainly know people who are much more articulate and persuasive: some are now bureaucrats, or write speeches for politicians; some are in literary fields, some are business people (not all successful :-)). I certainly know people who have shown more vision than most politicians I have encountered; some of them are now priests; one is a doctor, who is very happy in her field. I certainly know hordes of people who are more honest than most of the politicians I have encountered. Many friends had no political aspirations but found themselves advising politicians.

Politicians are not paragons, and may well be deeply flawed. Politicians seem to get embroiled in more scandals than ordinary people, but maybe that is something that is skewed by media interest. None of my acquaintances over nearly 60 years have had the kind of sordid lives I have heard about for some politicians, and my connections are not just with nice people. I have friends and acquaintances who were criminals and have spent time in prison.

I am sure there are women who desire to become politicians, who feel that a quota may offer them the best chance, given other constraints on rising up the political ladder. I don’t know, however, if they would want to take up the quota offers, given the ‘baggage’ that would come from such favouritism.

For long run sustainability, I’d rather see Jamaica go the way of Scandinavia. Invest more and better in women.

Author: Dennis G Jones (aka 'The Grasshopper')

Retired International Monetary Fund economist. My blog is for organizing my ideas and thoughts about a range of topics. I was born in Jamaica, but spent 30 years being educated, living, and working in the UK. I lived in the USA for two decades, and worked and travelled abroad, extensively, throughout my careers and for pleasure. My views have a wide international perspective. Father of 3 girls. Also, married to an economist. :)

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