Today women still only hold less than one in four seats in the world’s parliaments and senates. And a new Council of Europe report found that only two out of 46 European countries – Finland and Sweden – reached the 40% minimum target for women’s participation in parliament in 2016.
You might think that there is an obvious, if contentious, quick fix: gender quotas.
Many governments clearly do. Legal quotas mandating certain numbers of women candidates or reserving certain numbers of seats for women are in place in 60 countries, including Belgium, Spain, and the world’s number one for female representation, Rwanda.
When you add voluntary political party quotas – like those of the Social Democrats in Sweden and the Labour Party in the UK – that number adds up to over 90.
And numbers are growing year on year. “In our 2005 report, there were five countries [in Europe] with gender quota legislation or a parity system for legislative power. In the 2016 report, there were 17,” said Carolina Lasen Diaz, Head of the Gender Equality Unit at the Council of Europe.
While these quotas have sparked controversy the world over, the debate usually centres on whether they are democratic and fair.
When parliamentary gender quotas were proposed in the UK, former minister Ann Widdecombe said: “The concept of merit is going out of the window. I don’t care whether an MP is male or female, black or white, rich or poor, old or young.”
This year, Maltese MP Marlene Farrugia came out against proposed quotas, saying: “They want to get us elected through quotas, as though we were tuna.”
But, beyond this debate, there is a much more fundamental question to be answered: do quotas actually get more women elected?
Two neighbours, two different stories
Brazil is a classic example of how quotas can fail to achieve their ultimate goal of making politics representative.
Since the 1990s, 30% of candidates up for election to the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies have legally had to be women. But far fewer than that are really elected: women’s representation today lingers at a paltry one in ten seats. And this is at a time when women are voting more than ever: at the last election, women made up more than half of the 143 million Brazilians who went to the polls.
Yet, just next door in Bolivia, quotas have had a dramatic impact. In the first election after a constitutional amendment in 2010 required half of all candidates to be women, female representation in the Chamber of Deputies jumped from 25% to 53%. Since then, women have remained in the majority.
The difference can’t be explained by Bolivia having a much more gender-equal society. Both countries have near-identical levels of female labour force participation, similar gender pay gaps, and women on average earn very similar incomes.
So the puzzle remains: why have quotas worked for one neighbour and not the other?
To make quotas work, design them better
Some countries, mainly Middle Eastern and African states, guarantee women certain numbers of seats, no matter how many votes they actually manage to secure. But in most Western-style democracies with legal gender quotas, the quotas apply to the numbers of women candidates parties put forward, not to the proportion of seats eventually allocated.
Even with quotas in place, women may therefore not secure any seats – they have to win enough votes, just like men. This means that whether or not candidate quotas are effective in getting more women elected actually depends, above all, on how they are set up.
“How quotas are designed is very important. If they are strong – if they require a high percentage, if they include a ranking system, and if there are strong sanctions – then they work. If it’s only lip service, then obviously they don’t have a lot of impact,” said Lasen Diaz.
In proportional representation (PR) electoral systems – such as in Sweden or Israel – parties’ seats in parliament are allocated based on the percentage of total votes they get. So, for example, if the Greens get 10% of votes nationally, the top 10% of Green candidates put forward get elected.
Under PR, the crucial element of quota design is whether there are any rules about where female candidates are ranked by parties on the priority list to be offered seats after votes are counted. As the percentage of a party’s cote increases, more and more candidates down the list will actually get elected. If women candidates are placed at the bottom of the list, they will have no chance.
In Brazil, no such rules about the ordering of lists exist. All female candidates can be placed at the bottom of the list, meaning that even with a 30% candidate quota, a party could win seats for up to 70% of all its proposed candidates without even one woman getting elected.
On the other hand, Bolivia’s quota has the most radical ranking requirements. Parties’ candidate lists must be drawn up by alternating by gender – the so-called “zipper system”. This means that one in every two candidates that end up winning seats has to be a woman.
But in UK-style electoral systems, everything works differently. The candidate who receives the most votes in a local district wins a seat. There are no lists or zippers.
Instead, the important factor is whether female candidates are assigned choice districts that they have a chance of winning. If all the women candidates are given unwinnable districts for that party, then no women will be elected, even with a gender quota for candidates in place.
Somewhere this pitfall has been avoided is within the UK Labour party. Since 1997, it has used all-women shortlists for UK general elections, requiring that at least half of all “winnable” Labour seats are only open to women candidates. The party has since taken the UK lead in female representation: today Labour has 45% female MPs, compared to one third for the Lib Dems and SNP, and just a fifth for the Conservatives.
Why not break the rules?
If parties abide by the rules, the rigorous “zipper” is among the most effective mechanisms to ensure that quotas get more women elected. It has been voluntarily adopted by Sweden’s largest party, the Social Democrats, and is also used by the Greens in Germany.
However the “if” is crucial. No matter what the rules are, no quota will guarantee more women get elected if parties just ignore them. So another vital element of quota design is enforcement.
The Brazil-Bolivia case provides more good evidence here. In Brazil, sanctions for breaking the quota are very minimal, so incentives for parties to abide by them are low.
Fines are one punishment option, used in countries like France, but if parties can afford to pay them, then they also have a way to squirm out of the quota. On the other hand, in Bolivia, candidate lists that breach the quota or zipper rule will be literally rejected, meaning the party’s whole list of candidates can no longer stand for election.
Still want more women?
So, do quotas work? The short answer: not always. For quotas to be an effective way to get more women elected, they need to be carefully and stringently designed so that the goal can realistically be reached.
Strict sanctions and rules making sure female candidates are placed in choice seats or at the top of the list are no doubt ways to further put off the quota sceptics. But without them, legal quotas can end up being both ineffective and insincere.
(Picture credit: Flickr/European Parliament)