Quotas Are Only Half Of The Answer

Quotas for female representation in parliament are a very popular notion at the moment.  They are being touted as a means to greater respect for women and more balanced consideration of women’s issues in policy development.  I agree that increasing the number of women in decision-making roles can redress the gender imbalance over time.  However, there is a greater issue at play here. One can corrupt any good intentions and subvert the desired outcomes.  It is the issue of power.

Photo by Aditya Joshi on Unsplash

Power – the possession of control, authority, or influence over others.

Let me explain by providing two opposing notions of power, which I add are not new concepts.  They were developed by Mary Parker Follett way back in the 1930s[1] and are the ideas of:

  1. Power Over versus
  2. Power With.

Power Over

This is probably the most familiar version of power we see playing out in our parliament and more broadly in society.  It is where one person or group uses the other’s vulnerability as a source of dominance.  Power Over is a stance of opposites, where one party is right, the other is wrong.  One is the hero, and the other the villain, where one party is not to be trusted and must be treated with contempt.

In Power Over, influence is gained through coercion in its many forms (physical, emotional or reputational). I have very little experience in our government system. Still, I have watched enough question time to see this is exactly the model being used on the parliament floor, and I also suspect behind party room doors.  Here are two distinct and very recent examples I have seen of Power Over being used by our own Prime Minister:

  • In response to a journalist’s difficult question, Scott Morrison mentioned a supposed sexual abuse allegation in the journalists own organisation.  This was a blatant attempt to put the journalist in his place, subtly pressure the questioner to back off, and therefore to maintain the power balance between him and the media.[2]
  • Scott Morrison’s ‘statement’ in response to the March 4 Justice protests, that protesters in other parts of the world were being “met with bullets”, was on the surface a statement of fact.  But read between the lines, and it appears more like a veiled threat.  It makes it clear that the government of the day decides how citizens are to be treated. Therefore, by inference, being the head of the government that day, he also has the power to decide how the protesters outside were to be treated.[3]

The way that I see it, using the Power Over approach is a loud and clear signal of insecurity and a reaction to fear. 

Insecurity: the state of being open to threat.

Just like our animal ancestors, when we feel like we are under attack, we have three possible responses: freeze, flight or fight.  The statements above, while they may have been subconscious, are in the nature of an attack.  They are intended to put the opposition on the back foot and to assert authority. In my mind, they show fear of losing status, power and position.  They are a reaction that aims to force the other party to concede.


Photo by Photoholgic on Unsplash

Note though that the Power Over approach is not confined to politics, business, or cyber-space relations.  Look at how our western civilisation treats our environment.  We dig, dam, and destroy Mother Nature.  Why?  Because we can, and ultimately we must consider our comfort and advancement more important than the trees, the koalas and the fish.  We have the power over our environment, so why shouldn’t we use it to make our lives better?

Power With

The opposite to Power Over, as suggested by Mary Parker Follet, is Power With.  In this relationship, each party’s intrinsic power is used to co-create and make each other and the community as a whole stronger.  It is not a forced relationship but evolves from a deep respect for the gifts that the other brings.  Instead of insecurity, Power With comes from a place of courage. It is born of open collaboration and honest compassion for the plight of the other.

Courage –  “To speak one’s mind by telling all one’s heart.”

Power With does not seek to use or abuse vulnerability for righteous and selfish aims but seeks to care for it.  Where Power Over relies on brute force and duress to maintain its position, Power With is self-sustaining. It grows stronger the more it is used.  As both parties build upon each other’s strengths and care for each other’s weaknesses, trust is formed. And from this trust, a space for real communication and change is created.

“Trust is the glue of life. It’s the most essential ingredient in effective communication. It’s the foundational principle that holds all relationships.” ~ Stephen Covey

It is interesting to note that the lack of trust in government is at an all-time low.  In every four people, three expressed no confidence in their political leaders and institutions.  I do wonder whether this is a function of the proliferation of Power Over politics?

Concerning the environment, Power With looks like renewable energy sources and calling on our First Nation’s people’s wisdom. It does not seek to coerce the land but to work with it, care for it, and to appreciate the spiritual nature of the land we inhabit.

Gender vs Culture

So, here’s the thing.  The choice to use either Power Over or Power With is not gender-specific.  While you could argue that females’ more nurturing, altruistic characteristics would lend them to Power With principles, it is not a given.  In my working life, I have seen so many women use power to harm, destroy, subjugate and scar other women and men.  Do the words uttered by Minister Linda Reynolds –  “she’s a lying cow” – reinforce this point? And I have seen men do the same amount of damage to both genders. 

However, I have also seen men care for and foster their people in a spirit of growth and love.  And I have seen women allow their motherly instincts to shine through and create a workplace that feels like a family. It is not the person that necessarily decides which model they will use.  It is the context and culture in which they operate that dictates convention.  And it is the leaders that are both responsible and accountable for the creation of an organisation’s culture.

“There’s really no such thing as internal culture any more. Your culture is always public, and it’s your most powerful, public-facing asset or liability.” ~ David Mattin, TrendWatching

Yes, we can have many more women in parliament.  We can legislate for equal participation on private sector boards and public sector leadership roles.  BUT if the women are forced to operate from Power Over, what is the use?  We will just reinforce a culture of winners and losers, of those who have and those who have not.  We will just be solidifying the view that to have the privilege of shaping this nation, you must oppose, argue, protect and attack. We will continue to proliferate leadership that is closed-minded and cold-hearted. 

All that will be achieved is the transformation of more women into the likeness of men.

In this way, it is no different if we were to impose quotas for our First Nations people.  Shrouding the ancient wisdom, the spirituality, and the deep grief in superficial party politics would be a similar insult and an intense disrespect to the qualities we should be seeking to treasure.


Photo by Micheile Henderson on Unsplash

The Risk – Adding Insult to Injury

There is a real risk in moving forward with quotas, and this is if the bigger picture of the Power Over culture is not also addressed.  The great potential for bringing an understanding, respect and care between the genders would be lost in need to maintain power positions.  Women’s ability to express their true nature and therefore make a real impact in the lives of many would-be subverted by the structures and behaviours expected by their parties and, dare I say it, also by the media. 

After centuries of subjugation, being put in positions of power but not being able to act freely, and feel empowered to be women, would be a perverse and perhaps the cruellest of insults.

While respect and decency are always required, we do need to understand and allow men to be men and women to be women and to celebrate the amazing and different qualities that each brings to the table.  Our societies will not be served by one seeking to overwhelm the other, to blame, demeanour to prove superiority over the other.  Our communities and our environment will only be healed when we decide to be courageous enough to love each other for what we are and deeply respect each other’s characteristics.

The Catch

So, how do you create a parliament that has at its heart ultimate and equal respect for both genders?  How do you establish a government that has compassion and co-creation at its core?    It sounds so easy.  But there is a catch.

If we take the notion of Power With to its fullest expression, then we would also be challenging the nature of party politics.  Just as Power With enables deep respect for each gender, it will also facilitate deep respect for the other political parties.  It would open the doors for collaboration across the parties for the benefit of the nation.  It would allow recognition of positive policies no matter who the instigator is and potentially blur party lines.  Operating from the Power With approach would slowly dilute the rules of the political game. The identities of the political parties could be lost.  What would they stand for?  How would they differentiate themselves if they were working ‘with’ instead of ‘against the other party? How would they ‘win’ the next election and retain power if they could not prove they were better than the other parties? 

Is Now The Time?

I want to think that Alfred Deakin was just a man ahead of his time.  Deakin did not care for the party brand but only in building consensus to deliver beneficial policy outcomes.  He put the interests of the nation before the interests of the party. I want to think that now is the time for such courage and true, selfless leadership. However, the cynical side of me says that any Prime Minister seeking consensus and collaboration across party lines would still today be accused of being a weak leader and ousted pretty quickly. 

That’s right, the roots of the Power Over model go deep and cannot be extricated easily.  They have grown over many centuries, and now, realistically, they may take many centuries and much commitment to dissolve.  The good news is that this feat is possible if our leaders, both men and women, have the courage and skill to achieve Power With (instead of over) each other. 

“The skilful leader . . . does not rely on personal force; he controls his group not by dominating but by expressing it. He stimulates what is best in us; he unifies and concentrates what we feel only gropingly and scatteringly, but he never gets away from the current of which we and he are both an integral part.” ~ Mary Parker Follett

Despite all I have seen, I remain optimistic.

But cautiously so until I see discussions address not only quotas but also the role of power and how it is used in politics.

For I believe Power Over does us all a disservice.

Power With is the door to true equity.


Photo by Hannes Richter on Unsplash

If you have enjoyed this article you may also like: Why Are We Surrounded By Underwhelming Politicians?


[1] Mary P. Follett. “Dynamic Administration: The Collected Papers of Mary Parker Follett”, ed. by E. M. Fox and L. Urwick (London: Pitman Publishing, 1940)

[2] https://www.9news.com.au/national/news-corp-denies-prime-minister-scott-morrisons-harassment-complaint-claim/a9d8fc44-467a-4054-badf-24d203bd0cf5

[3] https://www.9news.com.au/national/scott-morrison-march-4-justice-pm-heckled-as-he-addresses-womens-protests/103ffc53-a91c-4e8a-bb70-24bac3ae9ec3

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