Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 20.47.18The case against gender quotas often involves the argument of merit. The logic is that we should recruit on the basis of merit, not gender; quotas recruit on the basis of gender and so are by definition unmeritocratic. This is a myth used to justify the privilege-based status quo, argues Rainbow Murray. By focusing on political recruitment, she explains why merit and quotas are not mutually exclusive but that in fact, quotas are essential to a meritocratic system for they open up politics to everyone.

One of the sticks used to beat gender quotas with is the argument of meritocracy. This is being repeated time and again; the use of gender quotas in Ireland and the appointment of a gender-balanced cabinet in Canada are two recent examples. The argument is underpinned by three fundamental assumptions. The first is that recruitment without gender quotas is meritocratic. The second is that there is a clear, objective definition of meritocracy in political recruitment. And the third is that gender is an inherently unmeritocratic criterion for political representation. I argue that none of these assumptions is true, and hence that the argument is fundamentally flawed.

Firstly, recruitment without gender quotas is not meritocratic. Rather, it is based on (male) gender, privilege, and an uneven playing field. It is rather insulting actually to suggest that the reason why elite, wealthy, middle-aged white men dominate politics and other echelons of power is because they deserve to – because of their greater merit. This suggests, by inference, that under-represented groups, including women, ethnic minorities and people from less privileged backgrounds, are relatively absent from politics because they don’t deserve to be there. If we are basing this assessment on inherent talent, then we are saying that rich white men are naturally superior to everybody else. That’s a pretty bold (sexist, racist) assertion. If we use a justification of qualification and experience, rather than inherent talent, then we must ask ourselves whether we are using good criteria, given that the criteria serve to exclude a large part of our talent pool. This leads to my second point.

The criteria that we use to determine merit are problematic. Firstly, we don’t really know what the criteria are. They vary depending on whom you ask. Secondly, they don’t necessarily reflect what it actually takes to do the job. If you ask political parties what they are looking for in a candidate, they want someone who is loyal, available, and capable of winning. Fair enough, you might say. Loyalty to the party is certainly useful in the sense that it allows voters to base their decisions on a national party manifesto rather than the idiosyncrasies of the local candidate. But at the same time, if you are just voting for a lackey who will toe the party line, what makes one candidate more “meritorious” than another? Wouldn’t any lackey do?

And what about availability? Is it reasonable to make politics the reserve of people with lots of spare time on their hands? This limits politics to certain groups: people with enough disposable income to forgo full-time employment, people beyond working age, people without any caring responsibilities.  That is hardly a representative sample of society. And the adage goes, “if you want something done, ask a busy person”, precisely because people with multiple demands on their time are often the best equipped to multitask and get things done. We should not exclude candidates simply because they are busy. Women often have less free time than men because they shoulder a greater proportion of domestic burdens, but this makes them adept at juggling multiple commitments and delegating where necessary. These are skills that would serve them well when facing the many demands made of a politician. As for capable of winning, there is no evidence of voter bias against women candidates, so a woman is less capable of winning only if a man places deliberate obstacles in her way.

If voters don’t base their vote on candidate sex, what do they want in a candidate? The party ticket is the main criterion, but a number of recent studies have highlighted other things that matter to voters. They want a candidate who is local and someone that they can relate to on a personal level. The “local” criterion is often used to exclude women, but logic dictates that half of any “local” candidate pool should be women. It is only when certain constituencies get stitched up for men (as incumbents or “favoured sons”) that women end up having to travel elsewhere for a chance of winning a seat. And voters may actually relate better to a woman candidate, especially if she is from a background that voters can identify with. There is evidence that turnout increases when there’s a woman on the ballot, and voters sometimes target politicians whom they identify as descriptive representatives even when that person represents a different constituency. In sum, women satisfy voters’ expectations at least as well as men.

If you look at the academic definitions of candidate merit, you get yet another definition. We tend to focus on objective criteria such as education, income and prior political experience. Education and income may be measures of achievement but may also be markers of social privilege. Women tend to be at least as well educated as men, but earn lower salaries on average as a result of discrimination in the workplace. Salaries are therefore not a good indicator of merit. Prior political experience can be an indicator of know-how, but it may also reflect privileged access to lower levels of politics. Besides, voters are wary of career politicians and prefer people who have “real-world” experience outside politics.

One common denominator in our assessments of “quality” and “merit” is that we tend to base these judgements on the status quo. We look at existing politicians and how they got into office as our guidelines for determining what future politicians should do. The result is that we tip the playing field by favouring criteria that have already advantaged men and will continue to do so. There is no objective measure of merit. When we argue that women, or any other under-represented group, have less “merit” than those in office, we are simply saying that they do not reproduce the status quo. And yet, by a different measure, that might be the very thing that makes them good candidates.

Herein lies my third critique of the “merit” argument. We need to think about what it means to represent others. Do we want our representatives to be better than us, or the same as us? Of course we want our politicians to represent the best of society – we want people who are intelligent, talented, honest, decent etc. But we also want people we can identify with. Yet the two concepts are not mutually exclusive; if we draw from all of society’s talent pool, then we can get the best of every social group, thus achieving quality without sacrificing diversity.

And why do we want people like us? Because a large part of representation is the ability to represent the opinions, needs, experiences of others, and we are best equipped to do this when we have direct knowledge and understanding of these needs and experiences. We see time and again that politicians who are ignorant of the lives of others make policies which, whether by commission or omission, adversely affect those groups. If you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu. So when we go back to basics and think about what it really means to be a good representative, the ability to represent others descriptively, substantively and symbolically surely counts for more than the number of hours someone has clocked up in local government, door-knocking for their party or working in a high-status profession. Being a woman, in an environment where women are under-represented and where more women’s voices are needed, fulfils one of the central requirements of representation. Arguably, it is a form of merit.

So when opponents of gender quotas argue in favour of merit, what they are actually defending is the status quo. But when access to politics is based on (male) gender and privileged status, using criteria that discriminate against talented individuals from non-traditional backgrounds, the status quo actually undermines meritocracy. If we truly want our politicians to be the best and the brightest then we need to reopen the talent pool to the whole of society and use criteria that actually reflect the capacity to represent the needs of others. At which point, we might find that some of those wealthy white men don’t measure up quite so well after all.


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About the Author

Screen Shot 2015-12-05 at 20.47.18Rainbow Murray is Reader (Associate Professor) in Politics at Queen Mary University of London. Her research focuses on gender and political representation. Full details of her publications are available on




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