Who'da thunk proposing that women should get representation equal to their share of the population would be such a controversial notion?

OK - I've got myself all het up about this issue of Labour (maybe, possibly) changing its selection rules to require that 50% of its MPs be female (by 2017) and also to allow individual electorates to request permission from the party to have "all-women short lists" for constituency candidates. I should point out that it isn't really my fight at all - I'm not a Labour Party member, and I have no desire to represent that party (or any other) at any stage of my life. But the response to the proposal has got under my skin for a bunch of different reasons. And so this post is an attempt to itch the scratch until it bleeds.

My first thought is that the coverage of this issue is pretty revealing of the crappy state of political journalism in NZ. The media have essentially taken the narrative spin of a couple of explicitly pro-National blogsites (complete with the manufactured slogan of "man ban") and replicated it verbatim - after searching out a few disaffected Labour-connected voices to underpin it. There's been no attempt to set the issue in context (I've yet to see any discussion about the general issue of the ongoing, static under-representation of women in NZ's Parliament), no attempt to look at overseas precedent (it took me 2 minutes on google to discover that "all-women short lists" are par for the course in the UK) and no attempt to compare Labour's gender-representation record with that of anyone else.

So, sure the measure is likely to cause a measure of internal friction within Labour, and I accept that friction in a party is "news". And Labour probably should have been more on the ball in terms of how it was going to "message" this issue. After all, the basic premise of the argument isn't that hard to defend - women make up more than 50% of the population, and so a party (much less a Parliament) that systemically and repeatedly fails to reflect this fact is unfairly shutting out the views, experiences and needs of the majority of the population. So let's set up a system that gives everyone who wants to represent Labour - be they male or female - a fair go, in that they can be sure the selection processes for the party as a whole does not result in people getting a better chance to be an MPs because they have penises.

But still, the eagerness with which the media has lept on what is, after all, a fairly innocuous internal selection rule change (going from 40-odd per cent women to 50 per cent over two election cycles) and allowed itself to be manipulated into presenting it as part of a partisan discourse ("Labour is ruled by the sisterhood!", "Labour hates men!", "Labour is obsessed with PC nonsense!" etc, etc) is pretty shameful. In fact, it makes you wonder if there is any point to it beyond putting what bloggers think onto newsprint and more-heavily trafficked web pages.

My second thought is that DPF has changed his tune on the issue somewhat since I pointed out that the UK Conservative Party is going to do the exact same thing that the NZ Labour Party is proposing to do: adopt all-women shortlists for choosing constituency candidates. (Actually, the UK Conservative Party approach is even more draconian, in that its central office will force all-women shortlists on to a set number of individual constituencies that it thinks are winnable, whereas the NZ Labour proposal simply allows local LECs to request such short-lists.) 

Yesterday this proposal was beyond "fruit loop" and a sign of Labour's fanatical drift to the left.  Today, DPF's view is:

Also the UK has FPP. MMP allows a party to have a more diverse caucus. But quotas are a sign of no confidence in the party’s ability to balance up the complex mix of skills, geography and diversity. It is saying we want you to make sure half the caucus are women, regardless of the fact that the last woman in may be massively less competent than the man who misses out.

So, apparently the UK's FPP system means it is absolutely fine for David Cameron to force Conservative Party voters in some parts of the country to vote for a woman in order to ensure some set proportion of the MPs representing that party are female ... but here in NZ there's no need to do so because the party lists allow for achieving that end goal. But if you set a rule that this party list be used to bring about some specified mix of gender representation, then that's not OK. Because gender balance in the abstract is desirable and something that parties should try to achieve when putting their candidate lists together, but once you actually set about trying to bring it about in practice then that is wrong. Or something.

(Incidentally, if quotas "are a sign of no confidence in the party’s ability to balance up the complex mix of skills, geography and diversity", then what does the fact that the National Party's list selection process has produced an outcome in which there are 3 male MPs for every female (44-15) tell us? Does it indicate that competent and high quality women simply don't want a place in that party? Or does it indicate that that party doesn't value competent and high quality women? Or does it indicate that while there are competent and high quality women wanting to be selected, and the party values them, it simply can't sort its shit out so as to get them into electable positions? Because for all his spluttering about Labour's "crazy" selection policies, DPF is remarkably quiet about how his own party does things ... and the observable consequences thereof.)

Well, DPF is doing as DPF does and spinning whatever new line will work to deflect, dissemble and destroy, but his last comment raises a point that has been made by a lot of commentators (including on this site). Quotas will result in less-competent and lower-quality female candidates having to be picked ahead of better qualified men. Or, to put it like one of the commentators on my post yesterday did:

I couldn't care less if our MP's are male, female, somewhere in between, brown, black, white, yellow, green. Heck I don't care if they come from Mars. I want the best people in there doing the best job.

I've two responses to that.

First of all, the selection processes a party adopts in part determines the sort of candidates that come forward. So if women can be assured that they have an equal chance of being selected as a candidate (and, just as importantly, a candidate who is in a winnable seat or list position), then that creates an incentive for the sort of "competent", "qualified" or "high calibre" individuals that we might want to represent us to come forward. Whereas, if you think there's a better than even chance that any effort you put into getting selected will be wasted (because 60% of the MPs in your party are from the other gender), then you won't.

My second response is derived from my reply in that previous post's comment thread to one Pete George (who sees fit to lecture the Labour Party on what a party's candidate selection processes ought to look like, despite himself being a candidate for a party that had one woman in its top 10 list candidates, and only 2 on the entire list of 15).

The metrics of "competence" or "quality" as currently applied by political parties when selecting their candidates somehow, mysteriously, magically result in a disproportionate number of male candidates getting chosen (and subsequently elected) to Parliament. And this has happened time-and-time again. Here's the breakdown of female-to-male MPs since MMP elections commenced in 1996:

  • 1996: 35-85
  • 1999: 37-83
  • 2002: 35-85
  • 2005: 40-81
  • 2008: 41-81
  • 2011: 40-81

Note that the numbers of women in Parliament have not shifted since 2005, and barely have risen since 1996. 

Furthermore, gender imbalance happens even in parties that are strongly committed to gender equality. As Tim Watkin argued in that previous comment thread, Labour could be expected to have done as much as any party to expunge gender-biases from its selection procedures. Yet even it can't get above 40% of its MPs being female.

Finally, this gender imbalance seems impervious to any suggested solution of "finding more better qualified women to stand". Every political party tries (and has tried) to do, to little discernable effect. So saying that parties just need to "try harder" or "make more of an effort" is like telling a colour blind man to be more determined when it comes to distinguishing red from green. There's something else going on that means the best efforts of parties (while desirable and praiseworthy) just aren't going to be enough to produce the desired outcome.

So given that basic fact, there are only two available explanations for the persistent, ongoing gender gap in representation: 

  1. Women are less competent or of lower quality than men, full stop; or,
  2.  The apparently clear and unbiased metrics of competence or quality are not, in fact, neutral when applied by parties in candidate selections. Meaning that the sorts of things that get recognised as making a "good" candidate are things that men (on the whole, in the main) are more likely to display than women. Meaning that the people who get elected to Parliament disproportionately display qualities that, in fact, don't represent more than half of the country's population.

Therefore, if (2) is the preferred explanation (because I assume no-one is going to go with (1), at least not in the open), then there are three choices.

(1) Shrug, and say "whatevs". Life ain't fair, and if women can't get into Parliament to represent the people, at least they can be nurses.

(2) Say "gosh - we must try even harder to recognise our unconcious biases and make sure that our ideas of 'competence' and 'quality' really are blind to gender." Which is, of course, a form of "discrimination", in that we are going to "skew" the selection criteria from what it was (i.e. favourable to male candidates) to something new (i.e. equally favourable to female candidates) in order to produce a desired outcome. But also note how hard this is to accomplish - as Tim Watkin has pointed out, Labour has tried its damndest to create selection processes that treat men and women the same ... yet the representation gap continues.

(3) Say "well, despite our best efforts, we just can't come up with a selection process that treats individual women equally to individual men. So we'll tie our own hands by forcing ourselves to do so, through mandating that the MPs who represent our party actually reflect the population of the country as a whole." To which the response no doubt will be "but those mandated candidates will be of lower competence and quality" ... at which point the whole circle begins again.

So ... there we go. I feel a bit better now. Thanks.

Comments (26)

by Raymond A Francis on July 05, 2013
Raymond A Francis

Why don't they (political parties and in this case Labour) just use the List to bring about the equality they desire

by Pete George on July 05, 2013
Pete George

My second response is derived from my reply in that previous post's comment thread to one Pete George (who sees fit to lecture the Labour Party on what a party's candidate selection processes ought to look like

I haven't done anything like that.

And as I responded on that post I think the biggest problem is not "Women are less competent or of lower quality than men" or selection processes.

A far greater problem is attracting good potential candidates in the first place (and a subplot there is that in some cases they don't want to attract anyone, they want to install their own favoured candidate with as little competition as possible).

And as I also said on the previous post, the time involved and the cost involved deter people from considering being an MP.

And one of the biggest deterrents is that most people - and probably more so women than men - simply won't consider putting themselves under the level of public scrutiny and nasty attack that seen as normal for MPs.

If parties really want to attract moe female candidates then they have to present a much much better workplace environment.

It's much simpler to try and impose a quota system. But it won't fix the biggest problems.

by Keir on July 05, 2013
Raymond, the problem is that in that case, you'd end up with a list that's 3/4 female. Am sure that the reasons that's not ideal are pretty clear: ghettoizing, patronizing, fails to fix deeper problems, means the list can't be used as flexibly, etc. Instead, why not make some small changes to promote female electorate MPs?
by Richard on July 05, 2013

Well said Andrew, I agree absolutely.

If a party claims to represent women, and women are (at least) equally competent as men, then the party arranging it's selection process to ensure that women are actually equally represented amongst candidates is a fantastic idea.

Pete George, what makes you think that women need Parliament's "workplace environment" to be specially improved for their delicate sensibilities? Do you think that women would stand if there were more pink furnishings, and a bit more lace?

If women have any special problem with Parliament's "workplace environment" then that is a product of the current male MPs. Arranging for more women MPs should therefore solve that problem. Of course, many of the current problematic MPs are National ones, so there is only so much that Labour can do about that. But I'm sure that Labour will do their best to improve the "workplace environment" of the next Parliament by minimising the number of National MPs!

by Kyle Matthews on July 05, 2013
Kyle Matthews

The solution seems to be one to deal with the problem of not enough female electorate MPs, rather than not enough female MPs. Not enough female MPs could easily be fixed by having every second person on the list be female, or three out of every block of six etc. You'd end up out in minor ways with people lower down or not on the list who win electorates, but probably close enough.

But I don't understand how it will work as a bottom up process. The local electorate committee requests permission to have a female only selection process. How do they know one is needed? And if not enough request it... or none, how does the Labour Party respond - do they reject some and say "you five are having females"?

And if the central party can't do that, are things likely to change much?

by Andrew Geddis on July 05, 2013
Andrew Geddis


Danyl Mclauchlan raised similar questions on the previous comment thread. Short answer is, I don't know.

I get the theory - a 50/50 list (like, say, the Greens have) won't work to achieve equal representation where you have a bunch of predominently male electorate MPs skewing the stats. So if you want to use the list alone, you'll have to have an almost exclusively female list - which raises problems regarding other forms of diversity in the party. And if you want to address the fact that local electorate selections seem to result in male candidates over female, then you have to have all-women shortlists for at least some electorates.

But you're right in questioning how that last bit is to be triggered. As Danyl asked, why would an LEC that systematically picks male candidates suddenly decide "OK - time that we had a woman, so we'll ask to have an all-women short list this time around"? Because if there is some sort of systemic, unconscious bias in the selection process, then won't it manifest in the decision as to what the selection process should look like? So there's implementation issues that I don't know have been thought about ... or, if they have, then what Labour sees the answer as being.

But anyway - like I say, it's not my party and so not really my problem ... I'm more interested in the principles involved (as well as a bit pissed off at the coverage the issue has had).

by BeShakey on July 05, 2013

Not having thought this through to much (but the internet is for poorly thought through comments right?) wouldn't the electorates most likely to opt for women only lists be the least desirable ones.

I can't imagine a LEC is going to opt for a female only list with a sitting candidate who is male and, by definition, the turnover of MPs in the safest seats is relatively low, so chances of a safe seat with no incumbent are low. So the most likely LECs are those with a sitting female MP (in which case there wouldn't be any positive benefit in terms of the number of females in parliament), or those in electorates with no local Labour MP (i.e. no local on the list either, because it'd be fairly controversial to have a local list MP who is a male and forbid them from competing to become the local MP). Electorates with no local Labour MP are basically the ones that are very safe seats for someone else.

I'm not saying LECs in the most desirable electorates will never request female only lists, but the most likely LECs to do so are those in the electorates a candidate is least likely to win.

by Toby on July 05, 2013


It could make a considerable difference in candidate selections where the incumbent is retiring/deceased. It recent times there have been such selections in Ikaroa-Rawhiti, Dunedin North, Mana, Mt Albert, Te Atatu, Christchurch East (shortly) and probably more that don't imediately come to mind... alll reasonably safe Labour seats.

by Andrew Geddis on July 05, 2013
Andrew Geddis


Agreed. But which, if any, of those LEC's would/should ask for a all-women short list, and why? And I suspect that this may be where the proposal falls to pieces.

by Toby on July 05, 2013


Yeah, I think I've come to a similar position to you, in that I'm in favour of them doing something, but I'm not so sure how this measure would work in practice. I was also initially a bit apprehensive about the potential for abuse, where the electoral committee might not be keen on a male front-runner to be candidate, and so decide that it was time to do something about the gender imbalance. 

by BeShakey on July 05, 2013


I wonder how typical that is (I'm sure someone could figure out), but it also raises another point. In some of those the successful candidate has been a list MP, so the new addition to parliament is actually the next person on the list. So there'll be cases (e.g. when a male and female list MP are competing for a spot) where it won't matter to the gender composition of parliament which one of them wins. Just an extra complication that suggests the problem is pretty complicated.

by Toby on July 05, 2013

Yeah, I suppose these 'safe seats' coming up has been a generational thing to some extent - the retirement/death of a bunch of long serving MPs (clark, hodgson, laban, Horomia, Dalziel) who have been long serving MPs in part because the were in safe seats.

Just been having a bit more of a think about Andrews point about the circumstance in whcih this would actually be used...so as I understand it, the panel that selects Labour candidates is made up of representatives of the NZ council, the local (labour) electoral council, and a representative and general ballot of the party members present at the meeting. In what circumstances would the LEC request that the candidate be selected on a female-only basis, except for when there is a candidate essentially being forced on them by the central council...in which case, why would the  council agree to the candidate selection being female-only?

by Chris de Lisle on July 05, 2013
Chris de Lisle

I was talking to someone distantly connected with the formulation of the policy today, who was disappointed at the public response to this measure.

One of their points was that internationally, quotas are the only measure that has been showen to bring women's representation up to near equal levels - in other circumstances representation tends to stall at or below 40% (as it has here). 

Their other point was that it isn't a matter of quotas OR "addressing root causes" a policy can (and in their opinion should) do both. And so it is in the current proposal - the quota is, I'm told, only one of several proposed measures to increase women's representation.

(Incidentally, why does, e.g. nzherald.co.nz, run a story (several stories) on something like this and not include a link to the full proposal so that people can read it for themselves if they are so inclined - what century do they live in?)

by Keir on July 06, 2013
Toby, if an LEC doesn't like the male frontrunner enough to ask for a women only shortlist, then they could simply not select them. If NZ Council is on board enough to agree to a women only selection, then said male frontrunner would never have been selected, anyway. I don't think it's a huge problem.

Also, it is possible optional women only shortlists won't do enough. That's why there's the 50% target and the requirement to revisit if progress isn't made.

by Chuan-Zheng Lee on July 06, 2013
Chuan-Zheng Lee

There is a third possible explanation for the gender gap: That competence is at least partly built over time, and that women are unfairly not getting the opportunities to build that competence (or experience) earlier in their political careers to be on an equal footing with men when it comes to parliamentary candidate selections. If true, this would be consistent with both the criteria at the final "gate" being neutral, and men and women having equal "natural" (i.e. pre-training) competence.

The extent to which that's empirically true I don't know, but if it is true, one could hold that a quota at the parliamentary candidate selections would not address that cause.

by Pete George on July 06, 2013
Pete George

Unlike Andrew I've asked women if they would consider being an election candidate and potentially becoming an MP, and I have talked to women weighing up whether to stand or not.

And I asked a woman for her views on it considering the current "manban" controversy. This is only one view but I suspect it won't be uncommon. 

A woman’s perspective of why many women don’t want to stand for parliament

I have always been very interested in politics; love to discuss how to make the world a better place. In my younger years I have been actively involved to bring about changes.  Now that I am more mature, have grown up children I still have the same convictions of making the world a better place but with the difference that these days I leave it to others to make this happen.

There are many reasons the main one being I want to live in peace and quiet out of the public’s eye.  Politics, especially in parliament often seems like a kindergarten not a place where mature adults our representatives find the best way to help govern our country. Why would I want to subject myself to insults, taunts, personal attacks, manipulative old hands and the like.  I feel that I have fought my battles with bringing up my children and also in my career.

As we all know this is not the half of it.  There is the press – always fishing for a so called “good story”.  For me that would mean to be always on guard with what I say.  Since I and many women I know have an impulsive personality this would be very difficult.

Women are being doubly judged, once for their looks and secondly for their ability.  It doesn’t matter what their appearance is, they cop it from all quarters often particularly harshly by their fellow females, men and the press.

If a woman looks great she gets dissed for it (everything is easy for her because she’s got the look) also is she just an airhead, or is there a man behind her to help?  On the other hand if she is not blessed with a great appearance she gets flack for that such as (she looks like crap people find it difficult to concentrate on what she actually says).  Off course one could say that may apply to men also and it does no doubt but sadly is seems to apply more to women and plays a big factor in not wanting to stand for parliament.

by stuart munro on July 07, 2013
stuart munro

The strategic thing to do with this issue would have been to put out comparisons of other parties, most of whom are nowhere near Labour's position in terms of gender equality. This would encourage better gender balance across parliament without creating the issues that positive discrimination invariably raises.

Opposition parties would in turn keep the pressure on Labour to improve their existing performance. More nuanced quota-like measures could be generated in response, without creating the perception of a misanthropic gender warrior party elite.

by Chris de Lisle on July 07, 2013
Chris de Lisle

But this is a measure being pushed by party membership rather than party leadership. To what extent is it realistic to expect the membership to subordinate ideological interests to strategic ones?.

by Tim Watkin on July 08, 2013
Tim Watkin

We're not going to agree on this one. If we go with the 'quotas work' argument, my next question would be to ask what other quotas should be implemented, because Labour's seriously lacking candidates/talent from the working class, outside academia and the unions, Asians, the provinces... But that's an aside, really.

I really wanted to question your two point either-or. It's either women less competent or the measures are skewed, you say. At least two other reasons come to mind – Lee's point that the sexism goes much further back and stops women getting to the point of standing. Or, more than that, many competent women just aren't attracted by the job. In short, they don't want to be MPs. They don't want the conflict, the hours, the tribalism, the exposure and all the other down sides. Isn't that at least as likely?

I don't want to bang on about it, but that goes back to one of my points from the earlier thread... that Labour can have all the quotas they want, it doesn't mean more competent women are suddenly going to putting their hand up.


by Keir on July 09, 2013

Frustratingly, Tim, there is very strong evidence that this ("it doesn't mean more competent women are suddenly going to putting their hand up") is a rather empirically embarassed statement. There's a Hansard Society publication (http://hansardsociety.org.uk/blogs/publications/archive/2007/10/01/Women-at-the-Top-2005.aspx) that deals with this in excruciating detail, and it really is worth a read.

by Andrew Geddis on July 09, 2013
Andrew Geddis

I don't want to bang on about it, but that goes back to one of my points from the earlier thread... that Labour can have all the quotas they want, it doesn't mean more competent women are suddenly going to putting their hand up.

The Greens have a candidate selection policy that explicitly mandates a measure of gender-balance in its caucus. This has resulted in eight of its present fourteen MPs being female ... the only party ever in NZ history to have a majority female caucus. If you want to argue that this selection policy has resulted in a situation where the Greens' female MPs as a group are "less competent" or worse at their jobs than the male MPs, then go ahead.

Otherwise, if you accept that there's no discernable difference in competence between the Greens' female MPs and their male MPs, then what does this mean for your argument that "quotas can't work" (or, rather, that quotas will lead to bad consequences)? Because, as I explained and Keir's link substantiates, there's good reason to believe that if you have "quotas" (or equivalent conscious means of promoting female candidates) then you will actually give competent women candidates the confidence to come forwards. Or, to quote Kevin Costner, "build it and they will come."

by Pete George on July 09, 2013
Pete George

It has worked for the Greens for sure. But that doesn't mean the same will work across all parties who all have different attractions to the Greens. Others have quite different party cultures.

Both National and Labour both began in and evolved through very different times to when the Greens established their ideals. They have old traditions and MPs to shed to adapt to our modern political scene.

National doesn't seem to be a party that attracts a lot of women to stand for them, or doesn't select those who do, or more likely a bit of both.

Labour's culture in the House, led by Mallard and Cosgrove with a lesser role from Shearer, is hardly a great advertisment to up and coming politically minded females (or males). The party is widely seen to be dysfunctional, leaderless and directionless. Installing a target or quota for females is not likely to suddenly attract new talent. 

Labour have much more pressing needs than bumping up their female numbers a bit.

by Andrew Geddis on July 09, 2013
Andrew Geddis


Others have quite different party cultures.

Shorter version: others are OK with sexism.

by Pete George on July 09, 2013
Pete George

Pretty much. But what if the majority of the voters (female included) support that level of sexism? if the Green model was universally popular shouldn't they be doing better than 11%?

by Andrew Geddis on July 10, 2013
Andrew Geddis

I'm pretty sure the set of women who think "I like the Greens' policies, but the fact that National has a 75% male caucus is more important to me and so I'll vote for them" is not a large one.

by Peggy Klimenko on July 11, 2013
Peggy Klimenko

@ Andrew Geddis: On behalf of NZ women, I thank you for your posts on the issue of redressing the gender imbalance in Parliament, and your spirited defence of it.

I suspect that many women here don't see as misogynist the negative reaction to the Labour party proposal. But it is; it may be less crude and offensive than what happened to Gillard, but that's all that can be said about it. Although I don't doubt that much of the commentary in the dim corners of the right-wing blogosphere will be as egregious as anything published in Australia. However, I have better things to do than go look at that stuff.

@ Pete George: for a small party, the Greens are doing rather well in the polls. If their ratings aren't higher, it's more likely to be down to their policies than to the gender makeup of their caucus. I'll take a punt that much of the electorate has no idea how many of their MPs are female.

You refer to the current culture of the Parliamentary Labour party as scarcely being attractive to female MPS. Your point is unfortunately reinforced by the publication in today's DomPost of Shane Jones' grossly offensive comments.

I've been infuriated by Shearer's abject failure to call Jones on his comments, or to mount any defence at all of the original idea. In my view, the Labour party needs a "man ban" all right: starting with Jones himself, and extending to John Tamihere, whose return as an MP I believe the party is considering. There are a few others who, as Shipley famously said, have made their contribution and should be retired. A few more female MP could only improve the culture, but probably won't happen until there's been a cleanout of the blokes' brigade.

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