Resisting the pull of cynicism since 1969.

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Women in Parliament: unvoiced assumptions

Stephane Dion's proposals on how to get more women into Parliament have provoked a lot of buzz about just that topic in the blogosphere lately. democraticSPACE, Calgary Grit, and Jason Cherniak each take Dion's proposals one step further (in very different directions), and Vues d'ici relates the discussion to the still-palpable sexism female politicians experience. However, it's notable that none of them lay out why electing more women is important, and this is true not only of these bloggers, but also of the NDP, the Canadian Women Voters' Congress, Equal Voice, and the Research Centre on Women and Politics. It's simply taken as a given that while we might disagree about the best methods of accomplishing the goal of electing more women to Parliament, sensible people already know that the goal itself is important.

The thing is, evidence seems to suggest otherwise. In the June 18th Bloggers' Hotstove podcast, Conservative blogger Greg Staples argued the precise opposite (toward the end of the podcast):

Let me be a Pollyanna here. There's only one reason that you elect someone--they're competent. It has nothing to do with their gender, the colour of their skin, how long they've been a party hack for, whatever. None of that makes an iota of difference. [...] The day we can get past all that is the day the world is a much better place. That kind of stuff, it frustrates me.
Did this assertion meet with an immediate lynching from Staples' Liberal, NDP, and generic progressive co-panelists? Nope. Sinister Thoughts' Greg Bester even essentially agreed, attributing the interest various parties show in women and minority groups to nothing more and nothing less than the way the game is played in this country. There's clearly more than one smart, well-meaning person out there who isn't sure it's actually important to elect more women, or who thinks it's probably important but isn't quite sure why. This makes the absence of explanations from the aforementioned bloggers and organizations all the more problematic. As long as there are people in the world who say things like "the only thing we need is the right person for the job," and mean it, we need to be able to counter those assertions not just with more assertions, but with explanations.

What several of the aforementioned bloggers and organizations do offer are statistics saying that women are one half of the population but a much smaller number of politicians. But two unvoiced assumptions stand between those statistics and the conclusion that we should try to elect more women. The first is that a successful representative democracy isn't just about choosing the best person in each individual constituency, but about making sure the resulting legislative body actually comes close to reflecting the makeup of the Canadian population. The second is that a group of white men aren't going to be able to make adequate laws for a diverse population of women and minorities because they won't be able to wrap their minds around everybody's issues. Conservatives and classical liberals will often counter these assumptions by saying that it's not about Parliament as a whole, it's about each individual politician. But people aren't just individuals; they're also members of groups, whether they realize it or not. We already recognize this when we talk about geographic representation and the rural/urban split, which is why those elements are built into our electoral system. And just as we don't want western or rural Canadians represented by a government made up mostly of Torontonians, we can similarly expect a certain kind of expertise to be lost when the 50% of Canadians who are women are represented by a group that's made up mostly of men.

Research in social psychology has shown us that we all have biases we don't even know we have, and that these biases affect the decisions we make, no matter how well-meaning we are. Malcolm Gladwell's Blink details the story of how the Munich Philharmonic systematically excluded women until they started doing screened auditions, and a 1994 article in Social Psychology Quarterly showed that men tended to be biased toward job applicants with male names when distinguishing between candidates with average but slightly different academic records. A look at history tells us that the effects of these tendencies are apparent in the political arena as well: it was all-white legislative bodies that enacted the U.S.'s Jim Crow laws, and all-male, all-upper-class legislative bodies that denied the right to vote to all adults regardless of race, gender, and socioeconomic class until appallingly recently. And these findings, combined with what we already know about the demographics of Parliament, should lead us to wonder about the way some of these issues might be playing out in today's political parties. Is it really the case that the repeated choice of "the best person for the job" just happens to end up producing a group filled with white male lawyers? Isn't it possible that something else might be going on?

It should be said that none of this points to some sinister plot on the part of white male lawyers, but to simple human nature. I'd even go so far as to say that it would be unfair to expect a relatively homogeneous group to have all the information they need to make the best policies for everyone. It's not impossible for white male lawyers to be aware of the issues of groups other than their own, of course: a white male lawyer married to a female immigrant from Haiti, and who spends a lot of time listening to his wife talk about the issues that immigrants, black Canadians, and women tend to have, is almost certainly going to know an awful lot about those things. But it's undeniable that we human beings tend not to know much about the issues of groups we don't have much contact with, and while this doesn't necessarily mean we'll just willfully neglect their issues, we may simply never be aware that they exist. It only stands to reason that Parliament would do a much better job making laws for all Canadians if a proportionate number of MPs were women, immigrants, people with disabilities, and people of different religious backgrounds, socioeconomic groups, and sexual orientations.

And it's in everybody's best interest not just to do what we can to help that to happen, but also to offer explanations to those who might not yet understand why it's important. Without scorn, and above all, without unvoiced assumptions.

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