10 March 2010

Forget a gender-neutral anthem, we need a gender-neutral Parliament

India is currently engaged in a bold exercise in improving the status of women. The upper house of India's parliament passed a bill yesterday that would reserve a third of legislative seats for women. The bill now goes to the lower house where it is also expected to pass. It will then have to be approved by 15 of India's 28 states.

The measure would represent substantial progress in a country where women currently make up only 11 per cent of the lower house, the Lok Sabha, and 9 per cent of the upper house, the Rajya Sabha. It would, however, be far short of equality.

And that is something we should concern ourselves with as well. Women are better represented here than in India but still make up only 22 per cent of the House and 34 per cent of the Senate. This is better than our neighbour to the south (17 per cent in the House and 15 per cent in the Senate) but well short of Sweden's near ideal representation, where women make up 46 per cent of the Riksdag.

The reason women are so poorly represented is not hard to find. Politics was invented by men for men. It is relentlessly competitive, aggressive to the point of macho, an enterprise in which most women (and many men for that matter) are uncomfortable. Macho women -- Margaret Thatcher comes to mind -- thrive, but most women do not. Former Reform MP Jan Brown once described politics as “an unnatural and combative setting that does not support positive relationships.” “A place,” she added, “where power and gamesmanship determine the rules.”

We could overcome the "unnatural and combative setting" of politics by gradual reforming its institutions and behaviours, but this would almost certainly take a very long time. It took half a century after Confederation just for women to gain the right to vote. Better to simply mandate that 50 per cent of the House and Senate must be women and let the system reform itself which, with a critical mass of women, it most likely would.

So let's put this gender-neutral anthem business aside and concentrate on a gender-neutral Parliament, a 50/50 Parliament. Not only would this be thoroughly democratic -- 50 per cent representation for 50 per cent of the population -- it would lead to a more feminine, i.e. more civilized, politics.

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