How Poland is pushing for gender equality in Parliament


3:22 pm - December 12th 2010

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contribution by David Mentiply

Last week the Polish Sejm (parliament) passed the Parytet law which will see radical changes to Poland’s electoral landscape. At every General Election, all political parties in Poland must ensure that 35% of their local candidates are female.

In a deeply religious and socially conservative country, this could represent a breakthrough in attitudes towards women and their role in civic society.

At present, only 20% of the Polish Sejm are female. A paltry 8% sit in the Senate. Compare this with 33% in neighbouring Germany’s Bundestag, 42% in the Dutch parliament and 56% in Rwanda.

The idea of the Parytet law was first mooted back in 2007, with the creation of Partia Kobiet (the Women’s Party). The party was formed on the back of an article, Polska jest kobieta (Poland is a Woman), by the journalist Manuela Gretkowska in which she called for greater gender equality and challenged the closed-door political culture in Poland. Gretkowska highlighted the gross disparity in pay between men and women and questioned the effectiveness of endless demonstrations and signing of petitions.

Paradoxically, it was a petition that propelled the ideas of the Women’s Party into the mainstream. In Poland’s political system, if enough citizens put their names to a petition, then it can be presented to the Speaker of the House for consideration. The Women’s Party presented their petition, initially calling for the introduction of a 50% electoral shortlist.

Predictably, the petition was met with fierce opposition from across the political spectrum. Both men and women from a range of parties vocally opposed the proposals for 50% shortlists. The ultraconservative Law and Justice Party (the party of former President Lech Kaczynski) raised concerns about changes to abortion and IVF laws if more women entered politics. MPs from Donald

Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform Party were also uneasy about the consequences of a Parytet law.

In January of this year, the Commissioner for Civil Rights Protection, Janusz Kochanowski, conveyed the outrage that many felt towards the possible introduction of a Parytet law. Just three months before he died in the plane crash that killed many prominent Polish politicians and officials, he said:

First it’s women, then bald people, gays and lesbians, then blacks and then Catholics. We’ve already tried this with the old socialist regime!

Senior members of the Law and Justice Party echoed Kochanowski’s views and vehemently opposed any changes to the law on the basis that those of a different skin colour or religion could soon make similar demands. In a country where 97% of the population is ethnically white Polish and the Catholic Church still has a great influence on public life, this is a spurious claim.

By the time the petition reached the Sejm, the proposals had been considerably watered down. Instead of 50%, a compromise of 35% was agreed. According to the new Polish President, Bronislaw Komorowski, Polish society was not yet ready for such radical changes to its political system.

Critics may accuse the recent passing of the Parytet law as being little more than fig leaf politics. Why was such an arbitrary figure as 35% chosen? If Poland really wants to increase the number of women in politics, the system has to be changed further as it is still unfairly bent in favour of men with connections.

The Parytet law may well mark the beginning of such a change.


David blogs at Greensen and tweets as @greensenblog

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Reader comments


As long as women only want quotas in parliaments and boardrooms, but not in garbage collection or in coal mines, I know it’s not about equality but about an easy way to a career: http://andreasmoser.wordpress.com/2010/10/03/quotas-for-women-why-only-in-boardrooms/

1
Quite right, those pesky women could never carry sacks of coal like call me dave and georgy boy.

@1
Yes, because it isn’t the case that women are told from birth that careers in manual labour are “mens work” and that they would lack the necessary strength for the work, and would be expected to put up with the laddish behaviour that comes with such labour.
Oh no, wait, it is.

Perhaps if our society stopped demanding that our women be fragile waifs concerned with maintaining a delicate beauty, and were instead allowed to be judged on character rather than looks, THEN you might see more women doing heavy lifting, dirty jobs.

Same problem as most top-down measures to address issues of inequality. They succeed in securing more equal representation in a few key positions rather than addressing the underlying reasons that the inequality exists in the first place. Reducing the Catholic Church’s influence on public life would be a good first step.

Geofff/4: They succeed in securing more equal representation in a few key positions rather than addressing the underlying reasons that the inequality exists in the first place.

That’s true, but on the other hand having got people into those key positions they are in a better position to make changes to address the underlying reasons. (Or, if you like, the lack of prominent role models and people with influence is one of the reasons for the inequality persisting)

Quotas compensate for rather than correct existing discrimination, are democratically messy (some voting systems just break if you try to apply them; others work reasonably well), and can have bad side effects on underrepresented groups who don’t have a quota set (this is far less of a risk if there’s only the one quota, though).

On the other hand, despite these flaws, they’re basically the only thing that’s so far been found that actually works. I can’t think of any country with over 30% legislative representation for women that doesn’t have quotas either for candidates or for the seats themselves or both.

As a long-term temporary measure to accelerate the fixing of the underlying issues (by making there be more people in Parliament who know first-hand what they are, if nothing else) I fully support them.

cim, I’m familiar with the rationale for quotas, I’m just not convinced by the underlying assumptions nor the evidence that quotas actually work.

The choice of which groups should benifit form quotas one of the most problematic aspects. Are there to be quotas for homosexuals, blacks, non-university educated people, ex-drug addicts? What about for those that fit all of those categories? These choices are inherently political and under the theory supporting quotas, will leave groups left out that would otherwise be deserving of the same treatment.

I understand that the inability to produce a perfect solution shouldn’t stand in the way of doing *something* – but if I was going to introduce quotas, it would be along economic lines rather than sex. If the argument is to get people into power that have been on the recieving end of socieites injustices – it is surely the economically disadvantaged that are best placed to do this – rather than well educated, probably affluent women (that would be the likely benificiaries of an MP quota).

Whether having fisthand knowledge of the issues that need changing significantly increases the facilitation of such change is another question. How long does this change take? How many countries that have introduced a quota system have later removed it? I wonder whether the potential benefits are worth the distortion a quota system creates.

Whether having fisthand knowledge of the issues that need changing significantly increases the facilitation of such change is another question.

Well, it’s obviously difficult to do a controlled experiment on this sort of thing on a national scale.

Anecdotally, the progress in Rwanda, for instance, has been extremely quick in some areas, though – http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/may/28/womens-rights-rwanda

How many countries that have introduced a quota system have later removed it?

None yet, as far as I know, though on the other hand relatively few countries have had one for more than a few electoral cycles. Of course, if you’re setting the quota relatively loosely, you don’t particularly need to hurry to remove it if you get to be well ahead of it anyway. (If you’re getting 45% women’s representation, then a 30% quota isn’t necessarily needed any more, but isn’t doing any harm either, and provides some cushion against backlash or regression)

I wonder whether the potential benefits are worth the distortion a quota system creates.

I argue at my own blog that quota systems can actually be counter-distortionary – if you view existing prejudice and stereotypes as a distortion in themselves – and so lead to an objectively better government.

Certainly there are some voting systems you shouldn’t run quotas with. I’ve concluded that List PR (open or closed) is about the only system where count-stage quotas are usable, in an entirely non-distortionary sense, and even then you have to be careful. I’m not sure that quotas at the candidate selection stage are as risky in that sense, though.

Where are all the feminist posters?

Yes, the problem with how much the catholic church controls Poland has to be taken into consideration otherwise you get a load of Theresa what’s her face our Equalities MP and who wants that?

It’s not an either nor or situation and I wish govt or business would stop dealing with problems in such a poor way.

I’m surprised no one has picked up on the fact that in the UK Parliament, just 21% of MPs are women.

We do not compare favourably with other parliamentary democracies across the world.


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