Saturday 7 November 2009

A critique of "Women's Political Representation in the European Union" by Johanna Kantola

Those of you who follow this blog and my tweets know how much importance I put in women's representation in EU institutions - the latest article on Tarja Halonen or an earlier post on the gender gap in the Commission staff are just two examples.

So with interest I noticed the recent issue (December 2009) of the "Journal of Legislative Studies" and in particular the article "Women's Political Representation in the European Union" by Johanna Kantola.

I was hoping for new insights that go beyond the obvious - women are underrepresented both in the member states and in the EU institutions - something that explains more in detail the dynamics that keep women out of the relevant EU jobs.

But the article is about nothing but the obvious: It mostly presents already existing descriptive statistics, it summarises some of the existing scientific literature on why women are underrepresented in political institutions and it lists some possible reasons why one might be interested in changing this.

This article has no added value in a debate, its just telling what we all already know. It doesn't explain anything, it strings together figures that aren't really new, just newly assembled. And it doesn't even have the intent to do more:
"The contributions of the article are empirical and consist of an account of the EU policy on gender-balanced decision-making and numerical presentation of new data on women in political decision-making in different EU institutions."
Looking at where we are in the debates today - bloggers and Twitterers lobbying for women in top EU jobs while Barroso asks governments to nominate women Commissioners - this article sounds light-years behind.

It should have answered why, despite the impression that there is pressure for more women candidates, in the end there are no women brought forward at the crucial stages of selection processes (like Milliband and Van Rompuy now looking to be the only two real candidates for EU "Foreign Minister" and European Council President).

A scientific analyses would be of added value if it could show why women who are official or unofficial candidates for some time disappear from the shortlists later on. Is it because in complex political and regional balances of posts the male majority is not able to fit in qualified women candidates or is it because they think the women candidates are not qualified? Is it because women in power - apart from Margot Wallström - don't support women candidates or because women candidates are never presented by man?

Kantola even takes a short look at women's representation in COREPER I and II, but finding out that women are underrepresented there just tells us that there are probably too few women climbing up to the top diplomatic ranks. By knowing this we haven't learnt anything about the mechanisms that lead to this imbalance. So why aren't women in the upper diplomatic ranks or, if they are there, why aren't they promoted to COREPER I or COREPER II?

What are the real mechanisms? How do they differ between the different institutional settings? Can the same institutional design lead to different representation of women in EU institutions? Do positive dynamics in one member state influence the dynamics in a second member state through personal relations developed in the Council? So many questions, so few answers given by fellow political scientists. Nothing about real mechanisms, just numbers and wild guesses.

This would be my pleading:

Social scientists, political scientists, students of feminist and gender studies, tell us more about the real mechanisms, show in comparative perspective how one could advance gender balance within EU institutions, reprocess unlikely success stories and stories where likely female candidates are dropped. Because those of us in favour of gender balanced power distribution need to know where to "attack", which small or large wheels we need to turn, which level of the hierarchy we need to go to to get the results we want.

But writing descriptive articles about known facts - no matter if the data is presented as "new" - doesn't help at all, it just lowers the interest in the subject, and the next time I will see at title like "Women's Political Representation in the European Union" I might think twice before spending time reading it.