Do Quotas Actually Help Women in Politics?

Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security executive director and Ambassador Melanne Verveer this week judged a New York Times debate at the World Economic Forum in Davos on the efficacy of gender quotas in politics and the private sector.

It’s a complicated topic, but the scholarly evidence is overwhelming clear: Electoral quotas are important to increasing women’s representation in politics.

a woman holds a sign reading WORLD LEADERS AND PARLIAMENTS: 50-50 NOW!

Research shows that quotas are good for women candidates—and that their election benefits the wider society. (UN Women / Creative Commons)

There are quite a few types of gender quota systems—country-level mandates regarding the descriptive (numerical) inclusion of women. Some are legally mandated by a country’s constitution and/or electoral laws; others are voluntary party quotas. Some are implemented at the candidate stage, and others during elections. Some have severe penalties for non-compliance, and others have little to no sanctions.

Research shows that quotas are good for women candidates—and that their election benefits the wider society. Scholars find that states that elect more women are likely to have better pediatric outcomes, spend more on social welfare and empower women; upcoming research from GIWPS also indicates that gender quotas may be beneficial to women’s civil liberties and access to justice.

States that have implemented gender quotas are extraordinarily diverse with regard to their regime type, region, socio-religious mores, conflict status and economic development. There is also important temporal variation—the implementation of quotas has increased rapidly over time, particularly since the 1990s, likely a byproduct of increasing international norms regarding the inclusion of women. (Scholars have also indicated that quotas implemented more recently are relatively more effective.)

Researchers have found that conflict itself can be a significant force in bringing women to office. Conflicts can restructure institutions as well as existing gender norms, opening up space for women in government, and social and political distress have also been identified as important variables in bringing women heads of government to office. In upcoming GIWPS work, we examine the variegate effects of quotas across different types of conflicts including revolutions and civil wars.

Policy-makers have different priorities and incentives to introduce electoral gender quotas. These can be tied to broader liberalization efforts, a response to domestic pressure, an act of virtue signaling or an attempt to bargain for foreign aid. In most cases, it is a combination of these variables, rather than one that motivates states.

There is no hard and fast rule about which type of quota works best; it truly depends on the context. Intuitively, we would expect reserved seats to be more effective than voluntary quotas, especially those with strong sanctions—but an examination of states with these different systems reveals that those with voluntary quotas produce better outcomes.

There are, however, significant selection issues affecting these results: States that implement reserved seats are comparatively less stable and democratic than those that implement voluntary quotas. While this seemingly less aggressive quota system appears as though it is having a stronger effect, this is likely the result of other factors.

We still don’t know, either, how long it takes for a gender quota to produce positive results. If some of the effects of women in office are things like symbolic power, we should expect a lag, perhaps as long as a generation, in inspired women running for office. Alternatively, we might expect other legislative reforms regarding inclusion more immediately.

Of course, numbers are not everything. While democracy alone hasn’t been shown to affect the implementation of gender quotas, it will of course affect the substantive representation of women. Women might be descriptively well represented in the national legislature in an autocratic state, but their ability to govern will be hamstrung.

Political arguments against quotas often emphasize that they are violate the spirit of meritocracy and free choice—that someone should not get a seat at the table just because they are a woman. (I am not going to adjudicate that debate, although I would contend that this conception of meritocracy is based on a very privileged understanding of power.) But the research tells us that quotas are the strongest predictor of women’s participation in national legislatures—and that women’s political participation has benefits for the entire population.

With few exceptions, all states that have succeeded in electing more than 30 percent of women to the national legislature have some sort of quota system. The exact parameters of quotas, and the time of adoption and conditions within the state, affect their efficacy. But this much we know: Quotas work.

Georgetown University’s Institute for Women, Peace & Security seeks to promote a more stable, peaceful and just world by focusing on the important role women play in preventing conflict and building peace, growing economies and addressing global threats like climate change and violent extremism. We engage in rigorous research, host global convenings, advance strategic partnerships and nurture the next generation of leaders.

Madison Schramm is a Hillary Rodham Clinton Research Fellow at the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security. She is also a PhD Candidate in International Relations at Georgetown University.

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