In Europe's Halls of Power, Debate on Quotas for Gender Parity ; Supporters View Them as Crucial, While Others See Democracy Suffering

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The number of women holding political office has grown slowly, and that change has been accompanied by heated debates over affirmative action measures used to get more women elected.

Speculation about Hillary Rodham Clinton running for president in 2016 has focused attention on the possibility of a woman breaking one of the highest-profile barriers in politics.

In Europe, as in the United States, the number of women holding political office has grown in a slow and patchy manner. In many European countries, that change has been accompanied by heated debates over the use of affirmative action measures to get more women elected.

Angela Merkel's re-election in September to a third term as German chancellor confirmed her role as one of Europe's most powerful leaders, but she is often a lone female figure at international gatherings.

Beyond Ms. Merkel, women head governments in Denmark, Norway and Slovenia. Their numbers vary in the parliaments of Europe, from nearly 45 percent of lawmakers in Sweden to fewer than 9 percent in Hungary. Legislatures in the Nordic countries generally have the highest representation, around 40 percent. Many countries hover around the 25 percent to 30 percent range.

"I work in a place where four out of five of my colleagues are men," said Stella Creasy, a Labour Party lawmaker in the British House of Commons, which is 22.5 percent female.

In 2011, a year after becoming a member of Parliament, she had a run-in likely to sound familiar to many female politicians.

"I got into a lift with a male M.P. who proceeded to berate both myself and the other woman in the lift that we couldn't possibly be M.P.'s because it was an M.P.'s-only lift," she said in a telephone interview. "I put him right, politely."

There are many theories as to why women remain under-represented among elected officials. The theories range from the effect of strong male control of parties' candidate selection mechanisms to a perceived lack of confidence on women's part. There are also issues of how family responsibilities rest differently on men and women.

Unlike in the United States, Europe's discussion about bolstering women's representation in politics turns quickly to quotas, which exist in varying forms across the Continent. They often succeed in increasing women's numbers, but they are highly controversial. While supporters feel that quotas are crucial to increasing women's representation, others say they are at odds with the democratic process. Some can argue that both are true.

"Quotas are very popular because they work, and quotas are very controversial because they work," said Drude Dahlerup, a political science professor at Stockholm University. "It's a very simple answer to a very complex question, that of women's historic under- representation."

France, Belgium, Spain, Portugal, Greece, Slovenia, Poland and Ireland have written quotas into law, said Ms. Dahlerup, an expert on affirmative action. In other nations, some political parties use them voluntarily.

In Britain, 34 years after Margaret Thatcher became one of the West's first female leaders, the debate remains heated. Prime Minister David Cameron was criticized in October when a government shakeup left only four women in his cabinet of 22.

The opposition Labour Party uses a system called all-women shortlists to compel some local party organizations to choose female candidates. Ahead of the 2010 election, the Conservatives employed a more voluntary approach, but they have since abandoned it.

"I believe that every woman in Parliament has the right to look every man in the eye and know she's got there on the same basis he has," said Ann Widdecombe, a retired Conservative lawmaker. "You get in there on merit and merit alone, and everybody should compete on the same playing field."

Ms. Widdecombe dismissed concerns about women's under- representation in office.

"What we've got now is a situation where everybody on earth is obsessed with the numbers," she said. …