Sat | Nov 27, 2021

Not looking for a free pass

Published:Sunday | June 8, 2014 | 12:00 AM

Imani Duncan-Price, Guest Columnist

Readers are aware of the public debate taking place under the broader umbrella of gender equality at the highest levels of decision-making in political leadership and the private sector. This first of three articles is to expand on the debate by sharing perspectives on the barriers to political leadership as expressed by some women actually in the Jamaican political process, and is confirmed by barriers noted globally in the political space. These barriers are the direct reason for the recommended solutions of temporary special measures, including the controversial gender quotas.

Is there a problem?

Yes, there is. As we carry out this analysis, let's proceed from an evidence-based perspective. It's true that there have been significant strides by some women in the political sphere in Jamaica. For example, Jamaica is proud that it has produced its first female prime minister, Portia Simpson Miller. The evidence, however, shows that the majority of women as a group continue to show up in persistently low numbers across political leadership.

Data from the Electoral Office of Jamaica (EOJ) indicate that of the 362 persons elected to Parliament in the 70 years since 1944, only 35 have been females - 10 per cent. According to the data for 2014, women now represent a mere 12.7 per cent of members of parliament, 20 per cent of the Cabinet, 28.6 per cent of the Senate, and 16.6 per cent of councillors. The highest ever achieved for the MPs was 15%, and that was in 1997. All this, even as women make up just over 50% of the population. Is this good enough?

Inclusive Democracy

Jamaica needs smart economics. The World Bank, in analysing the performance of various countries, concluded that "gender equality is smart economics", which means our best resources, men and women together, must be optimally engaged to establish and strengthen the base for growth in our economy. This is not good enough, especially when Jamaica needs to deepen its democracy.

As Susan Williams, in Equality, Representation, and Challenge to Hierarchy, notes, "If women's experiences - many and varied though they be - are nonetheless systematically different from men's, then the absence of women in the legislature means that this set of experiences is likely to be ignored or misunderstood. As a result, government policy is likely to be less effective in promoting the common good, and the dialogue is likely to be more skewed and limited than it would be if these experiences and perspectives had been considered."

The 2013 publication by Linnette Vassell, Gender Politics and Political Parties, captured the barriers to moving forward in politics, as articulated by a group of grass-roots women in politics. Some of the barriers identified are:

Identification and association of politics and the public sphere as a male domain.

Women's burden of care and family responsibilities - lack of public and family support systems.

Challenges for women to mobilise finances to run political campaigns, linked to their lower economic status and lack of support for their candidacy by power brokers, traditionally males.

Negative political culture (women apprehensive to be associated with political system).

Male-dominated party structures and systems of candidate selection that do not create a level playing field for male and female candidates, despite women's critical and predominant role in the organisational work of the parties and in electoral campaigns.

These are not structural barriers - these are systemic and cultural barriers that have limited the 'equality of results' in the political sphere in Jamaica.

At the current rate, women will get nowhere fast in political leadership - which runs counter to deepening democracy. Given the range of barriers, and the urgent need for smart economics for Jamaica, there are a range of possible solutions - temporary special measures or affirmative-action measures - to complement the implementation of the National Policy on Gender Equality (2012) that has the support of both political parties.

Affirmative action is defined as taking measures to counteract structural or systemic discrimination. As such, these temporary measures in themselves are not discriminatory or unconstitutional when they seek to address persistent situations of inequality - as is the case globally with women in political leadership, as they face deeply held prejudices and stereotypes.


The key is to design measures that can work within Jamaica's culture and system to achieve the objectives of gender parity in politics. A 2012 UN Women Leadership and Governance document states, inter alia, that temporary measures could include:

1 Reform within political parties such as the formalisation of nomination processes and candidate criteria and internal party quotas for internal leadership positions.

2 Targeted public campaign-financing mechanism in support of female and youth candidates.

3 Customised leadership training for women interested in becoming political candidates (designed in light of the role that women typically play in the family unit to enable a win-win).

4 Gender-neutral quotas for appointed and elected positions - i.e., no more than 60 per cent or 40 per cent of either gender in national political leadership or local government political leadership. Quotas are the most efficient way to increase the numbers of women in political leadership.

With regards to the latter measure, the document also notes that by women and men actually seeing women in leadership positions, exercising their views and leadership styles in different ways, more women stepped forward. In addition, voters became accustomed to such diversity that they continued to vote for women even after the quota had been removed. The patriarchal system of male dominance breaks, and perhaps in pursuing that, it will also contribute to the needed shift in the political culture.

The question then remains: Why wouldn't we design the most effective and efficient ways to enable smart economics and a more inclusive democracy for Jamaica, especially at the decision-making level? Think about it.

Imani Duncan-Price is a government senator. Email feedback to