The Politics    Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Merit, bias and female MPs

By Sean Kelly

It’s time for quotas

Sometimes the world seems to be pushing you in a certain direction.

I started off today wanting to write about quotas for women MPs in the Liberal party. Liberal MP Sharman Stone had some great stuff to say about this, which I thought was worth discussion. Then I came across this piece, which is about algorithms, and I wanted to write about that, because it was so interesting.

If you have time, read it, but in essence it’s about the way companies are increasingly making decisions about people – whether to give somebody a mortgage, whether to promote somebody, whether to hire them in the first place – based on algorithms.

For example, a company that gives loans to subprime borrowers uses “nonstandard data signals” to determine who is a reasonable risk. One factor they look at is whether somebody has ever given up a prepaid wireless phone number – because if they have it may be a sign they tried to go off the radar at one point, which is not a good sign.

In other words, the company is trying to burrow down to who people are. As the founder said: “‘Character’ is a loaded term, but there is an important difference between ability to pay and willingness to pay. If all you look at is financial transactions, it’s hard to say much about willingness.”

That sounds a little frightening – computers deciding who we are and what we deserve – but on the other hand we’ve always made those decisions about people, and perhaps we are now simply making them more accurately. The same man said: “We’re always judging people in all sorts of ways, but without data we do it with a selection bias. We base it on stuff we know about people, but that usually means favouring people who are most like ourselves.”

That in turn reminded me of the famous orchestra selection revolution. Before the 1980s, orchestras were selected via simple auditions. A musician would come along and play before a panel of watching selectors. And orchestras were dominated by men. So what, right? But, at some point during that decade, screens were put in place between the selectors and the performers, meaning that musicians were judged only by their playing. Since then, women have come to hold the majority of positions in orchestras.

In other words, the selectors thought they were making their choices on the basis of musical talent – or merit. As it turned out, they had been making their choices partly on talent, and to a significant extent on gender.

Last night, Liberal minister Christopher Pyne said he thought the Liberal party needed more women: “I don’t believe in quotas and I don’t believe in targets but I do believe in people being elected on the basis of merit. But of course, if merit isn’t achieving the outcome that you want, then other measures need to be looked at to ensure we are attracting women to parliament.”

The merit argument is often howled down these days, and rightly so. The problem with merit isn’t just its sexist assertion that women in the Liberal party aren’t currently up to scratch. The problem is that definitions of “merit” are in the eye of the beholder – and the beholder in this case, being someone with influence over party preselections, is frequently a man.

Merit is commonly seen has having two aspects. The first is experience. This, of course, is tediously circular: the same barriers that prevent women entering parliament prevent them getting either brilliant experience in other political arenas or in business, at least to the same extent as men.

The second is a perceived ability to do the job. But again: who here is doing the perceiving? Again, men, who are more likely to value typically male traits.

(There are also signs that talking about “merit” perversely leads to even more biased outcomes – I recommend this piece.)

Stone took aim at parliament today, saying “We need women in the place who will say: ‘Enough of time-wasting.’ The public is over it. They look at parliament, they see it as time-wasting, totally confrontational, men versus men screaming at each other to see who can get thrown out the quickest.”

Stone reminds us that we are often led to think that a good parliamentarian must be a strong performer in a weird, artificially aggressive environment that perhaps says very little about the ability of our leaders to run the country, but does happen to favour certain advantages men have (louder voices being the most obvious).

Now that’s a longer conversation – there are some arguments that could be made here about the necessity of strong communication under fierce opposition – but it’s a conversation we should have.

For that discussion to take place, it’s likely we’ll need a lot more women in parliament. And realistically that is not going to happen without quotas, for the same reason orchestras were stuffed with men – until they weren’t.

I mentioned in conversation the other day that it was good the ALP were moving to a 50% quota by 2025. “Well, I’m glad you’re glad we’ll get equality in another ten years”, a female friend replied.

Fair cop. It should happen as soon as possible. In every party. I’ll leave the last words to Stone:

We’ve tried the old women just breaking through the glass ceiling by some miracle. We’ve tried that for generations in the Liberal party. Now we’ve got to join most of the developed world. I get sad whenever a woman comes to me and says Oh, but we don’t want to be there because we’re part of a quota. Well, I’m sorry, I want women to be there in the first instance. If that’s the only way they’re going to get there, by quota, let them then prove they are not only as good as but can be better than some of the blokes who are there.


Today’s links

Sean Kelly

Sean Kelly is a columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, and was an adviser to Labor prime ministers Julia Gillard and Kevin Rudd.


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