Today, women remain largely under-represented in parliaments all over the world.1 Gender quotas are a way to overcome this. Opinions on the use of gender quotas are divided, but this does not mean that everybody fully understand what they are. This article aims to shed more insights in the existing types of gender quotas, their practical implementation and impacts on society. (Featured Image © Brooklyn Museum)
Quotas in politics are used as an affirmative action measure, to establish a percentage or number for the representation of a specific group, such as women, usually in the form of a minimum requirement, for instance 30 or 50 per cent.2 Gender quotas aim to close the gap between women’s presence at the bottom and their representation at the top.3 Activists argue that democracy, equality, fairness, and justice demand that women participate in decision-making on equal terms with men.4 They maintain that historically as well as in contemporary society the opportunities are never truly equal for women, with male standards being the norms for most competitions, and therefore affirmative action is needed5.
Gender quotas aim to close the gap between women’s presence at the bottom and their representation at the top.
Recommendations and declarations of a wide range of international bodies, led primarily by the United Nations (UN), highlight women’s access to decision-making and urge member states to achieve a minimum of 30% women in all elected positions.6 Gender quotas have gained legitimacy and have been implemented widely, particularly after the 1995 United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing which suggested that the target of 30% might only be achieved through greater use of positive action in candidate selection.7 Several studies show how since the beginning of the 21st century the use of gender quotas have become a new trend in world politics.8 The Quota Project, a global database of quotas for women, keeps track of the current state of gender quotas around the world.9
Types of gender quotas
Drude Dahlerup, a pioneer in research on gender quotas, explains that academics predominantly define three different types of gender quotas based on the distinction between reserved seats, legislative (or statutory) quotas, and voluntary party quotas. A broad range of quota systems and subsystems can be discerned based on two dimensions: the mandate (legal or voluntary) and the tier of the electoral process that the quota regulations target.10 The first type of quota we can discern is the aspirant quota, affecting the step from eligible to aspirant and meant to guarantee at least some women are among the candidates a party considers when it selects its nominees. Aspirant quotas only deal with the very first step of the recruitment process and are established voluntarily by individual parties through party rules.11
A broad range of quota systems and subsystems can be discerned based on two dimensions: the mandate (legal or voluntary) and the level of the electoral process that the quota regulations target.
The second type of quota Dahlerup defines is the candidate quota, operating on the step from aspirant to candidate, which requires a party’s list to include a certain female proportion. These can be either legal or voluntary party quotas. As opposed to voluntary party quotas, legal quotas force political parties to use the quota and make it possible to issue sanctions in case of non-compliance. Furthermore, legal quotas are difficult to modify whereas voluntary party quotas are often up for discussion during each election cycle.12
Concerning the category of reserved seats, Dahlerup explains that this type of quota indicates the step from candidate to Member of Parliament and guarantees representation by requiring a certain number of seats in parliament to be held by women.13 These quota are to be constitutionalised or written into electoral law rather than have its basis in party rules.14 By the end of 2012, among the more than sixty countries that had adopted gender quotas into law or constitution for their parliamentary elections, almost twenty had done so in the form of reserved seats.15 Reserved seats are less common than legal candidate quotas which appeared for the first time in the 1990s and are found primarily in developing countries, in Latin America in particular.16
Gender quotas have had a great impact on world rankings of women’s representation. In 2003, Rwanda surpassed Sweden as the first country in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation.17 This happened because of the introduction of legislated candidate quota requiring at least 30% of posts in decision-making structures go to women, as we can see in the International IDEA, the Inter-Parliamentary Union and Stockholm University global database of quotas for women.18 Rwanda’s 2008 parliamentary elections even resulted in the world’s first national legislative body with a female majority.19
In 2003, Sweden was surpassed by Rwanda as the first country in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation.
The fast track versus the incremental track
Many different countries have similarly attempted to rapidly change women’s historical underrepresentation in political institutions through the use of gender quotas. This can be an effective way to increase women’s numbers in decision-making structures yet we should be aware of the limitations of these rapid changes. Dahlerup emphasises that these quotas may lead to unprecedented historical leaps in women’s representation without simultaneous changes in women’s socio-economic position. She distinguishes between ’the fast track’ and ‘the incremental track’ to equal representation of women and men in politics.20
The incremental track refers to the way equal political representation was established in for example the Nordic countries, where it took several decades of gradual improvement in women’s representation together with the general development of society to reach the 30% threshold.21 The incremental track discourse problematises that women do not have the same political resources as men and while there is prejudice against women, this will disappear as society develops.22
The fast track rejects this idea of gradualism according to which gender balance will come about by itself, and uses gender quotas to quickly increase the number of women in politics. This discourse assumes that even when there is an increase in women’s political resources, this might not automatically lead to equal representation. Exclusion and discrimination are considered the core problems, and affirmative action as an adequate solution. The fast track has its advantages in terms of the speed of the changes, but it can also create problems. The top-down assigning of political positions could turn female representatives into tokens and leave them relatively powerless, unless the initiative is backed by massive capacity-building, critique, and support of the newcomers by women’s organisations. It is clear that fast track quotas do not automatically lead to the empowerment of women.23
The fast track rejects this idea of gradualism according to which gender balance will come about by itself, and uses gender quotas to quickly increase the number of women in politics.
Quotas facilitate historical leaps in women’s representation and potentially change the links that were established in electoral studies between women’s position in parliaments and their socio-economic position, together with the political structures such as the electoral system. Summarised by Dahlerup, these studies found that a high level of political representation for women is correlated with a high level of gainful employment among women, a high level of education among women compared to men, secularisation, a longer period of time since enfranchisement and, not least, an electoral system based on proportional representation rather than plurality-majority systems. It is clear that those links will change with the introduction of gender quotas. Dahlerup points for example to the link between women’s representation and secularisation when Muslim countries or the Roman-Catholic countries of Latin-America introduce gender quotas.24
Numerical and substantive representation
This brings us to a difference Dahlerup makes between two kinds of women’s representation, numerical or descriptive representation of women on the one hand, substantive representation on the other. Numerical representation refers to women’s share of the representatives, for example only addressing their number of seats in parliament. By contrast, substantive representation refers to the attention to women’s interests. The difference between numerical and substantive representation of women raises the crucial question as to what extent increasing numbers of women in politics will help produce gender-sensitive politics and better political accountability to women.25
On the one hand, various empirical studies show that female representatives attach importance to representing women’s interests, but on the other it has also been established that the impact depends on the institutional and party-political environment, and the identities of the women involved.26 Quotas may help women to get elected, however even then it can still be difficult to make a difference for women in society. Or as Manon Tremblay, another academic expert on gender quotas, puts it: the capacity of political women to represent women depends more on their ideas than on their sex.27 Furthermore, instead of promoting women’s interests, quotas may actually serve a variety of strategic purposes for political elites, doing little to alter existing patterns of inequality and sometimes even reinforcing patronage politics.28 This is for example the case when seats are assigned to token-women who serve the pre-existing political elite.
Instead of promoting women’s interests, quotas may actually serve a variety of strategic purposes for political elites, doing little to alter existing patterns of inequality and sometimes even reinforcing patronage politics.
Such strategic use of gender quotas may lead to quota scepticism. Nevertheless, once installed, quotas give legitimacy to the continuing claims for gender balance in politics.29 Although gender quota may be initially applied for the wrong reasons and only have a formal effect on the improvement of gender equality,it could still prove to be the first step toward equality.