South Pasadena’s new mayor recently appointed 18 people to voluntary local commissions in the San Gabriel Valley city.

Routine? Yes, except for one thing. All 18 appointees were women.

Mayor Marina Khubesrian’s appointments were a small-town stroke for gender parity. Before the appointments about one-third of all commission appointees in South Pasadena were women; after, more than half of all commissioners were women, just like the population of the city itself.

But the move inspired critical media coverage and public grievance from men claiming discrimination. The mayor, seeking to de-escalate the situation, later added three men to her list of appointees.

I live in South Pasadena, and wonder if the directness of this approach to sex balance might hold a larger lesson. While California faces many hard-to-solve challenges, achieving true parity between women and men among our government representatives doesn’t have to be difficult.

It certainly shouldn’t require a dramatic gesture like the mayor’s appointments. In a state that prides itself on being progressive, such parity can and should be automatic, a legal requirement that is baked into our governing systems. And what better time than now—with the country celebrating the 100th anniversary of women’s suffrage in 2020—to make it so?

The approach would be simple for voluntary government boards or commissions: a 50-50 mandate. For paid gigs that make appointees public employees, it might require more extensive legal changes that make explicit that gender parity conforms with our state’s non-discrimination laws.

But gender parity shouldn’t stop with appointments. It should also apply to elected bodies. And here is the good news: the changes necessary to produce a 50-50 male-female split among electeds would make California more democratic in ways well beyond gender balance.

In other democracies, equity in elected representation starts with adopting the election system known as proportional representation. That means people don’t vote for a single person to represent a legislative district—the American style—but rather for party slates of candidates in districts with multiple elected representatives. Parties get a number of representatives roughly equal to their percentage of the vote.

The party slates make gender parity possible. In countries that want equal representation, parties are either legally required or heavily incentivized politically to offer slates with equal numbers of men and women. Eight countries, most recently Greece and Ireland, have adopted such requirements for gender parity in party slates. The results: big increases in the number of women in office.

Proportional elections with party slates have other virtues that would benefit California because they eliminate the winner-take-all problem of our current system.  When it comes to party affiliation, proportional elections produce more representative elected bodies, since a party’s share of representatives is tied to the actual number of votes each party receives.

Even better, party-based proportional representation elections could replace California’s non-partisan local elections, which attract scandalously low numbers of voters. Party-based elections like these inspire more participation than non-partisan elections, political scientists have shown.  

By this point, many readers may be screaming: You’re talking about quotas! Here are three answers to that objection.

First, our existing system keeps producing male-dominated, out-of-touch government bodies, including our legislature (70 percent men) and the Los Angeles City Council (where 13 out of 15 members are men).

Second, the arguments for gender parity are numerous and powerful: women deserve to be represented in numbers equal to their percentage of the population; women bring different experiences and have different interests; and organizations with a critical mass of women decision-makers tend to perform better.

Third, gender quotas work in other fields in California. A 2018 state law requires every public company that is incorporated or based in California to have at least one woman board member by the end of this year. In 2021, the requirement will rise to three women board members (if the board has six or more people). California is a leader in this; no other state has mandated female board representation.

Critics of that law, and of proposals like mine, often claim that such requirements violate the state constitution’s prohibitions against sex discrimination. Fine. Let the critics argue in court that policies of equal representation between men and women somehow violate principles of equality. And if they find judges foolish enough to agree with them, Californians could use the ballot initiative to change the constitution to permit gender parity measures.

Indeed, there would be gender justice in amending our famously long and dysfunctional constitution—or even rewriting it wholesale. After all, California’s governing document was framed in an 1879 convention that included 152 delegates, all of them men.

A modern convention, where at least half of the delegates are women, could surely do better.

BIO: Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.