A NEW year and another report highlighting the continuing under-representation of women in politics. Only 30 per cent of MPs in the House of Commons are women, a stark figure highlighted by the Women and Equalities Committee report this week. The Scottish Parliament does not fare much better, with 35 per cent of MSPs women, a drop since devolution. At its high point in 2003, the Scottish Parliament would have been ranked fourth in the world on women’s representation; in current global league tables, it would be 27th.

What can be done about this democratic deficit? Echoing calls by politicians, activists and academics, the report argues that it is time for the UK Government to consider adopting statutory measures in the form of legislative gender quotas to ensure equal representation. The global evidence on gender quotas is clear. Quotas that are well-designed and properly implemented are the most effective way of ensuring significant increases in women’s representation.

Bring up the topic of quotas and the usual suspects are quick to rubbish them with well-worn criticisms: they are undemocratic, discriminate against men, promote token women and so on. Quota opponents will often reassure you that “of course” they would like to see more women in politics but that they would prefer that candidates were selected and elected on the basis of “merit”. This, they will tell you, is about fairness and objectivity. One should always (to paraphrase Yes, Minister) strive to appoint the best man for the job, regardless of sex.

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The underlying assumption is that women have less merit than men; in other words, that quotas promote inexperienced and unqualified women at the expense of their more meritorious male counterparts. There is very little research evidence to support this argument. Studies focused on political experience and backgrounds, for example, have found little evidence of a qualifications gap between quota and non-quota women and men. Studies of parliamentary behaviour, meanwhile, suggest that “quota women” are just as effective as men when they are in office and that they have equally successful career trajectories. While quotas may be unpopular with the public, voters do not penalize quota women (or women candidates more generally) at the ballot box.

The problem with asking whether quota women are “up to the job” is that it keeps the focus on women’s (perceived lack of) merit. Women are expected to earn a place at the decision-making table while male politicians are assumed to possess merit unless proven otherwise.

Yet if merit is as objective and neutral as its supporters argue, it is surprisingly concentrated in the hands of men from majority groups. Men are roughly half of the population, but represent 77 per cent of parliamentarians around the world; around 65 per cent of Scottish MPs and MSPs; and 75 per cent of councillors. This is not a meritocracy. There is no evidence to support the notion that men are somehow “naturally” better at politics than women. A meritocracy also requires a level playing field but research on gender and politics points to significant systemic and party-level barriers to women’s political participation, including incidences of direct and indirect discrimination in selection and nomination processes.

Quotas are not unfair or discriminatory; they are a means by which fairness and equality can be achieved. Several studies have found that quotas improve the overall quality of candidates and elected representatives. In Sweden, for example, research has found that the use of gender quotas on party lists has resulted in the selection of more, not fewer, qualified political candidates. Rather than oust competent men in favour of mediocre women, parties have replaced mediocre men with highly qualified women, raising the calibre of candidates overall. Quotas expand the talent pool for political office and ensure that the “best and brightest” are selected and elected.

Enough is enough, then, of these tired arguments. Quotas do not undermine merit; they enhance it. It is time for politicians to follow the evidence and show leadership. Warm words must be backed up by tough action to embed equality in our political institutions. The time is now.

Dr Kenny is lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh, and a member of the steering advisory group of the Women 50:50 campaign.