Sunday, November 17, 2013

I am woman, hear me roar (or else)

Last week, a law, proposed by MK Yifat Kariv of Yesh Atid and which would penalize any party running for a local council that did not have a woman on at least every third spot on its list (Hebrew text here), passed its first reading in Knesset. Any party which is in violation will see a reduction in 15% in the amount of money they are given by the government.

The law comes to address the dismally small representation of women in municipal councils (as if men can't adequately represent women, especially when women do about half of the voting) by forcing parties to include them. (This is nothing like a parent or teacher forcing a bunch of kids play with a kid who feels left out, so don't even think about it.) Instead of coming up with creative ways of encouraging women to participate and excel in the political process, MK Kariv thought it better to jam her weltanschauung down the throats of local parties (figuratively speaking, although I'd pay good money to see someone literally jam a Weltanschauung down someone's throat).

Predictably, the Chareidi parties were against this, and MK Moshe Gafni attacked it (again, not exactly a galloping shock), saying that if this bill becomes law, people will henceforth assume that any woman given a slot on a list for a local election was not put their based on her own merit, but merely to fulfill a quota.

While Gafni may or may not be right, it's a bit of a childish argument; true, according to his logic, the result of the law could be somewhat ironic, but that's not a reason to oppose it. Notwithstanding, this is a bad bill, and would make a bad law, for several reasons (in no particular order, but the last one is my favorite). What follows is pretty long, but that's just how bad I think this bill is.
  • It's sexist. The most obvious problem - the bill is biased in favor of women. It doesn't require that of every three candidates, at least one has to be of each gender. In theory, a party can discriminate against men, and not be in violation. This is more than just a hypothetical - such a party ran in the most recent elections in Elad. The bill seeks to penalize all-men's parties, but not all-women's ones. This is just asking for it to be struck down by the courts.
  • Compliance could see women bumped down the list. The bill doesn't require that slots 1-3 need to have one woman, as do slots 4-6, 7-9, etc., but that every three consecutive slots have at least one woman ("בכל שלישיית מועמדים ברצף"; emphasis mine). In other words, you can't have more than two consecutive slots filled by men. Thus, slots 1-3 need to have a woman, as do slots 2-4, 3-6, 4-7, etc. A party which identifies five people, 4 men and 1 woman (as we'll see later, this is not an unlikely scenario), which it wants to run in its top five slots has only one option - to place the woman in the third slot. Placing her in either the first or second would require the party to place another woman, even one less qualified, in either the fourth or fifth slot, respectively, in order avoid having more than two consecutive slots filled by men. The bill thus creates an incentive to bump women from the first two slots on a list, in order to have more flexibility in slots 4 and 5. Similarly, if there are two highly qualified women, the bill makes it hard for a party to justify placing them both in the first three slots, since there's no allowance for having a lot of men lower down on the ticket if the top of the ticket has more women than required.
The really sad thing is that these twp issues could have been easily sidestepped had the bill been written better. The silver lining is that this could still be corrected, although I doubt that it will. But wait, there's more...
  • It's de facto discriminatory, and seeks to weaken Chareidi parties. Well-established parties tend to give slots on their lists based on such factors as experience, seniority, and/or accomplishment. The ranks of Chareidi parties are full of men who are qualified based on the usual norms; not so much with suitable women. Whatever one thinks of this situation (the Chareidi party line is that their constituent women are not, by and large, interested in politics; their detractors find this line of reasoning to be cynical, patronizing, etc.), the fact remains that if the proposal becomes law, Chareidi parties will be at a particular disadvantage, as they will have to fill their slates with people who are less qualified (based on the usual norms) than they would like. Thus, this bill seeks to use the Knesset plenum to handicap certain parties in municipal elections. Not cool.
  • It doesn't accomplish its stated goals (1). In the explanatory section of the bill, it states that women constitute 51% of the population, and in order to give them significant representation at the decision-making level, they need to be better represented in local councils. If that's the case, the bill should require that every second position be filled by a woman, and not just every third. To those who would argue that such a requirement would make a mockery of the electoral process, I say it's just a question of degree (or, as Churchill probably never said, "now we are haggling about the price").
  • It doesn't accomplish its stated goals (2). In the explanatory section of the bill, it further states that it comes to address discrimination against people for reasons other than gender, for example because of religion, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, etc. You might think that there'd be some explanation as to how a bill which would increase the amount of women in municipal positions would also increase the amount of members of other discriminatory classes in such positions. If you think this, get used to disappointment. We're left to figure it out by ourselves, or, as I prefer, understand that the bill doesn't address this issue at all, and these other kinds of discrimination were mentioned for other reasons. Pure populism, maybe, or possible just the result of an automatic left-wing reflex. I think the intention is for us to use our imaginations on this one.
  • It's (possibly) unnecessary government interference. The explanatory section of the law points to the low percentage of women in municipal government, but without a word of context. Is this figure higher or lower than it was after the last elections five years ago? What about 10, 15, or 20 years ago? What kind of trend do the numbers indicate? If it's one of increased participation of women, then this bill is not necessary at this point, since society is naturally going that way anyway. (For fans of big government, of course, this is not something against the bill; I'm just putting it out there for those who prefer small government.) There's even some anecdotal evidence that this particular "glass mechitza" is being broken in Chareidi society - for the first time, a Chareidi woman was elected to city council in Tzfat, and the Chareidi town of Elad saw the (very-late-in-the-game) formation of an all-woman's party.
  • It's based on a mathematically flawed premise. According to the bill, there are 257 local councils. Let's say there are 1000 party lists (which would average between three and four parties running for each council in each municipality - this estimate is probably fairly low, but 1000 is a nice round number to work with). If each list would people based solely on their suitability for a position on their local council, with no regard to gender whatsoever, we would expect that 125 lists* would be in violation of the law. In fact, we would expect that about 15 parties would have lists with no women in the top 6 spots, by which point the law would require two women to have been given slots on a party's list. Of course, since there are far more than 1000 lists for municipal elections, we'd expect far more than 125 lists to be in violation of the law, just merely by chance. Besides being a strike against the bill, it's an indictment against the mathematical education the bill's backers received.
* A little mathematical explanation for those who need it on how I got to 125. You can either read it or take my word for it: 50% of parties would, just be chance, have a man in the first spot. Of those, 50% would have a man in the second spot, for 25% of lists having men in the first two spots. Of those, 50% would have a man in the third spot, for 12.5% of lists having men in the first three spots, just by chance.

Of course, this last point assumes that as many women as men want to be involved with local government. The numbers say otherwise. According to the bill, only 11% of positions on local councils are filled by women. But this number is country-wide, and includes local councils in heavily Chareidi towns. Looking at some large liberal cities (pretty much a random sampling of a few large ones, with Beersheva included for regional balance, and Modiin included since it's my hometown, plus it was designed as a secular city, with even the religious population being fairly politically liberal), the numbers are better, but only slightly (none of these figures include the male mayor):
  • In Tel Aviv, 9 out of 30 municipal seats are filled by women.
  • In Haifa, it's 5 out of 30.
  • Rishon Letzion, which prides itself as being the first city with a female mayor, is about even with the national average with 3 out of 26.
  • Beersheva is a bit better with 5 out of 26.
  • Modiin, which has no Chareidi party in its local council, has 5 women out of 18 spots (the only religious party, Habayit Hayehudi, ran a woman in its second slot, and she made it to town council). In fact, the liberal anti-religious "Modiin Chofshit" party only managed to place 3 women on its slot of 10 candidates.
For these cities, only a hair above 20% of municipal council seats are held by women, which is almost twice the national average, but still paltry. Is this because an equal number of men and women vie for spots on municipal council, but the women are discriminated against one way or another at the party level? In places like Bnei Brak, Elad, or even Jerusalem, I could buy such an argument. But Tel Aviv? Modiin? Ridiculous.

For whatever reason, women as a group seem to be far less interested in running for municipal council than men are. (Side note - it's not just local councils - there are only 27 women serving in Knesset. Even discounting the 21 seats held by Chareidi parties, it's not much more than 25%.) So assuming that male office-seekers outnumber their female counterparts by 4 to 1, we'd expect that more than half of all parties would be in violation of the law if they chose candidates purely on their merits while completely ignoring gender. More than a quarter still wouldn't have a woman by the sixth slot, when the law would require them to have two. (If you don't want to trust me on the math, substitute 80% (0.8) for 50% in the little note above.) The law pushes parties to recruit people who are either under-qualified, under-motivated (which is worse, in my opinion), or both. Seriously not cool.

While I'm sure MK Kariv has her heart in the right place, she proposed a liberal bill that's sexist, discriminatory, misses its stated purpose, may smack of big government (which may be a plus for some people), and is based on ignorance of how to use numbers (which is hard to overlook in a bill which imposes a numerical regime on party-formation). Well done.