Pink Taxis, Quotas, and Global Gender Equality

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Two items in the International Herald Tribune this past week caught my eye. I was thinking about the best strategies to engage young people in initiatives to promote gender equality, which is open of the major issues of my political life.

A fleet of 35 bright pink taxis debuted in Puebla, Mexico, a colonial city halfway between Mexico City and Veracruz. These taxis are driven only by women, and they do not stop for male passengers. They also come equipped with little beauty its inside. The female drivers are motivated by the fact that male taxi drivers are a relentlessly sexist lot, harassing female riders, leering at them, propositioning them every time they get into a taxi.

This may strike one as the sisters doin' it for themselves, but I find it a pretty strange way to generate social change. Yes, it may offer women a temporary vacation from male harassment, a respite from sexist behavior. But by running a parallel course, it leaves the men's behaviors unchanged, and their sense of entitlement to harass women unchallenged.

Vianeth Rojas, of the Network for Sexual and Reproductive Rights in Puebla, seems to agree: "We are in the 21st century, and they are saying women have continued worrying about beauty and nothing more...They are absolutely not helping eradicate violence against women."

Contrast this with the day's proclamation by Jens Stoltenberg, the Prime Minister of Norway, that henceforth, half of all Cabinet positions - 10 out of 20 - will be filled by women. This follows on the heels of last year's law, now in place, that women be appointed to 40% of all boards of directors of all private companies in Norway.

I know, I know, we don't like quotas here in the United States. And Norway's plan is an unapologetic quota. Despite dire predictions, Norway's private companies have not fallen off a cliff with their new female board members; indeed, the country is weathering the current recession at least as well as, if not better than, any in Europe.

Norway's policy acknowledges that the only ways to transform social institutions is to enact strong laws and then have the courage to enforce them. Such formal changes - okay, let's call them quotas - acknowledge that what keeps gender inequality in place is not so much for formal institutional structure, which may have all sorts of claims about gender neutrality, but the informal organizational culture, the sense of tradition, and the long-established tradition that those who are changed with hiring the "best" most often hire those who most resemble those doing the hiring.

It turns out that gender neutral isn't neutral; it ends up reproducing the very mechanisms for which a true meritocracy would have been a remedy. Quotas have the desired effect of neutralizing the uneven playing field, so that the informal cultures of institutions cannot undo what the formal gender neutral rules attempt to accomplish.

We can see how such policies work in real life in the World Economic Forum's rankings of the world's countries on gender equality, an annual survey. Every year, the WEF ranks countries on a host of variables clustered around four general areas: (1) economic participation and opportunity; (2) educational attainment; (3) health and survival; and (4) political empowerment.

This year, Norway slipped from first to third place, though it has ranked in the top three for the past five years. The top four slots were held by Scandinavian countries: Iceland, Finland, Norway, and Sweden - countries where gender equality is mandated by law, and government policies put large amounts of money to support it. (For the curious, the United States ranked 31st, a drop of four slots since 2008. Right between Lithuania at 30th and Namibia at 32nd. While first in the world in education, the U.S. ranks 40th in health and 61st in political empowerment.)

Mexico ranks 99th, two spots lower than it did in 2008. Maybe such small symbolic steps are necessary to prime the pumps. But it seems to me that the way to eliminate taxi harassment is to increase penalties for lecherous drivers, install cameras or tape recorders to provide evidentiary documentation, and to encourage women to file complaints and grievances that would lead to harsher penalties for the drivers - loss of license, suspension, and the like. Hiring more women as "regular" taxi drivers wouldn't hurt either.

Until then, I'm afraid the women of Puebla they're just going to be driven to distraction. Even if they are driving themselves there --and in pink cars no less.