Forbes: The Power of Jamaica’s 51 Percent

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Above: Dr Leith Dunn (UWI Gender Studies), Mrs. Judith Wedderburn (Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, FES), Her Excellency Mathu Joyini, High Commissioner, South África, Mrs. Lorna Green, founding member, Women Business Owners, Jamaica.

By Marcia Forbes, PhD

“The 51 Percent Coalition – Development and Empowerment through Equity,” a campaign to increase the participation of women in politics and on boards through a 60/40 quota system, was launched on Tuesday, Nov. 22.

The organizers were interviewed on several radio programmes in Jamaica the day before the launch and on the actual launch day. Listeners wanted to know what it was all about. Why 51 percent? Did it mean women now wanted more than a half of everything? At the launch the room was full — mostly women but a few vocal men. The men were concerned, as, too were some women. Why quotas? Why not just wait for things to happen naturally?

The 51 percent represents the percentage of the Jamaican population that is comprised of women. Incidentally, that’s the percentage of women in the global population as well. The coalition is a coming together of women (and enlightenment men) to seek equity as a route for the development of the country and the empowerment of more than half of its population — women. Low-lying fruits such as participation on Government Boards and ramping up female senators to at least 40 percent are the immediate targets. The aim is for no gender to have more than 60 percent or less than 40 percent of seats in the senate or on boards.

Admittedly, many women are afraid and have self-doubt about their ability to serve, whether on a board of directors or as a political candidate. The 2008 study regarding women on boards, conducted by the Women’s Resource and Outreach Centre, revealed that “in spite of empirical evidence that women have much to contribute in the area of corporate governance, there is some indication that women remain reticent to take the lead. This disinclination can in some instances be attributed to fear of the reaction of others to their ‘assertiveness’ as well as challenges to their ‘right’ to lead.” Although women are highly qualified, as perusal of any of the figures from the universities will show, they know there are systemic blocks to them “sitting at the table.”

Yet research from many countries demonstrates the value of having women participate, not as tokens, but in representative numbers in key decision-making areas. A study of women on boards in the UK conducted by a committee led by a former Minister for Trade revealed that companies with more women on their board of directors outperformed their rivals in many important ways.
Here are a few:

1) 66 percent higher return on Invested Capital – They make more on investment!

2) 53 percent higher return on Equity – Shareholders benefit more!

3) 42 percent higher return in sales – They sell more!

The South African Ambassador to Jamaica, Mathu Joyini, keynote speaker at the launch of The 51 Percent Coalition, explained how the ANC in its struggled against apartheid came to realize the importance of including women as political representatives and in other key decision-making positions in that country. She noted that “generations to come will look back and thank us for this decision.”

The campaign in Jamaica comes against a backdrop of anaemic growth in the number of women in key decision-making positions. The rate of female Members of Parliament is 13.3 percent, with only 11 percent at the Cabinet level. At the local government level, only 16 percent of councillors are women. The Senate fares best with 23.8 percent of senators being women, however the National Gender Policy calls for 30 percent.

These “gains” have been long in the making and can only too easily be reversed, as has been the case within the People’s National Party, where the number of female candidates has fallen to a mere 5 percent, albeit that the head of that party is a woman [Portia Simpson Miller]. Legislative quotas will help to consolidate gains and prevent reversal.

“The 51 Percent Coalition – Development and Empowerment through Equity” represents a chance for half of Jamaica’s population, its women, to pull this country out of its challenges. Women bring different perspectives from men — after all, their life experiences are different. With a mix of women and men, companies and countries perform better.

Dr Marcia Forbes is a media specialist, the co-owner of multimedia production company Phase 3 Productions, Ltd and former Permanent Secretary in Jamaica’s Ministry of Mining and Telecommunications and later the Ministry of Energy and Mining. She is the author of Music, Media & Adolescent Sexuality in Jamaica.

Note: the opinions expressed in Caribbean Journal op-eds are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Caribbean Journal.