When you put numbers into context, most people are quick to see that equal numbers may or may not matter as far as fairness is concerned; context is everything. What difference numbers mean for opportunities and choices is important. I could offer some trite examples. We learn through life and experience that it’s not an equal or fair contest to just set teams of equal numbers against each other. As children, once we learn to count, we start to focus on equality of numbers: “It’s not fair! She’s got more than me.” However, as we mature, we start to perceive differences, even in seemingly absurd ways: “He’s got the bigger half!”; the attributes of the parts start to matter. We eventually understand that being equal in numbers matters a lot less than what the numbers can do in some collective way.
It’s simple to see that equal numbers don’t tell much of a story, if they did then we would not bother with the contests that attract so much attention and passion from the expectations that our ‘number’ is better than your ‘number’. It doesn’t take kids long to figure out that tug of war isn’t even when the 4 kids aged less than 6 lose to daddy.
We can understand that 1 against 1 can often be highly unequal: one person yelling and the other not getting in a word edgewise isn’t a conversation.
When we’re watching sport, we know that teams may field equal numbers, but woebetide you if you want to argue that makes things equal: Liverpool versus Scunthorpe is seen as equal starting numbers but isn’t seen as a fair contest. Last weekend, Barcelona lost 2-8 to Bayern Munich; two teams which most people would say on paper are about equal. I saw the tears flow up-close when Brazil lost in Rio to Germany 2-7; each team had 11 men, Brazil were on home soil, both teams have stellar records in the World Cup, then… 😦 How could that be? We know that any Jamaican foursome on the track can beat any other quartet in the world 🙂 In other words, no one in their right mind thinks that the numbers alone tell you anything. It’s because equal numbers don’t mean much that people will pay megabucks to watch teams contend for superiority.
In a familiar Jamaican context, many will see that the team of 4 from school A matches against 4 from school B may be lopsided.
What greater pleasure is there for a neutral or their fans than seeing the weaker side get the upset? Better still, when that side is down to 9 players against 11. So, numbers can even have perverse effects.
It’s often telling, to me, at least, that in politics, people get excited about numbers when it comes to gender representation, without going beyond the mere numbers. I’m not going to get too excited when I see things like the number of women candidates rise. I know that numbers may matter, but what will each person and the group bring to the table? So, if I look at the backgrounds of the candidates (of any stripe), I will start to measure what each is really likely to contribute. Am I going to be as excited to see two postgraduates from US Ivy League schools who’ve cut their teeth within the party machinery amongst the candidates as I would be by seeing two candidates whose highest academic qualifications were graduating from basic school, but then built successful businesses?
I know, too, in the context of politics and other areas where ‘merit’ may be a cluster of subjective features, that we are not seeing people assigned just based on some clear objective measures. So, the importance of numbers alone gets diluted. I’d feel more comfortable getting excited if I knew that ministerial positions were ‘open’ competitions and that we could measure who and why one candidate seemed better for a position. But, that’s part of some Utopian dream 🙂 The distribution of portfolios is in the power of the leader (and his party), and how that power is used is a balance of many choices.
Jamaica’s upcoming general election has more women contesting seats than ever before (JLP is fielding 18, while PNP is fielding 12, out of a total of 139 candidates from all parties) and that’s generated some early media interest. [For some context, the current Cabinet of 12 ministers includes 3 women (one of whom is not elected). There are an additional 5 ministers ‘without portfolio’, and 4 State ministers, all of whom are men.]
Where I think numbers matter a lot more in the political context is with perceptions. We’d be naive to not see that women were not normally seen as part of the ‘club’, so have to ‘earn’ their place in the eyes of current ‘members’. Much the same as black people in predominantly white settings, or people from ordinary backgrounds in the midst of those settled into activities on the basis of some privileges. It’s a sad reality about most areas of social change.
I also know that numbers for groups that are significant minorities matter a lot in terms of feeling comfortable in many aspects of functioning in an area of activity. At a basic level, we know that previously male-dominated settings may not have facilities that cater for women!
It’s often startling to see how people can get picked on and picked off because they do not have the weight of numbers to counter attack or defend. We’ve seen far too often how an underrepresented group can be the subject of a range of stereotyping that is rarely respectful and sometimes downright rude, often irrespective of the status they have attained. Many black men know the humiliating experience of being referred to as ‘boy’ by white people on many occasions. What could have possessed Everald Warmington to refer to Lisa Hanna (then a Cabinet minister) as ‘Jezebel’?
Many in the Caribbean region are excited by the vision of women leading in politics as that reflects more of the realities of life than if women are not in charge. We accept that many aspects of our society are dominated by women in terms of sheer numbers as well as significant contributions. We rarely veer away from accepting that many families have women as heads of household and can really be called matriarchal. Yet, we also know that patriarchy has an overbearing impact on many aspects of ordinary life and in the wielding of various levers of power. I’m not going to wrestle too much with that conundrum.
Jamaica is one country in the region that has had a women prime minister, so should be at ease with the idea that more women will be in, and can rise to the top, in representational politics. I lived in Jamaica through the end of the last Portia Simpson-Miller administration. I lived in the UK through almost all of the three Margaret Thatcher administrations (1979-90).
Many have touted advantages from increasing women’s representation in business and politics. The management of the COVID-19 pandemic has shown that countries led by women have managed better.
Trust two economists based in the UK to try to explain why. 🙂 According to a recent study, these success stories have to do with leadership styles that are in general associated with women leaders, and the study offers an insight into why women policy-makers can make better decisions in certain types of situations.
That contrast in styles was not enough for our northern neighbour to elect their first woman president in 2016. There’s no woman presidential candidate in 2020, but the Democrats have just nominated a woman as their vice presidential candidate. Need I mention that she has Jamaican roots? 🙂
I’m especially fascinated by what happens in the next election in Jamaica, not least because my three daughters and their mothers have led me for years and I seem not to have suffered much 🙂