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About Quotas

This website reveals that the use of electoral quotas for women is much more widespread than is commonly held. An increasing number of countries are currently introducing various types of gender quotas for public elections: In fact, half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral quota for their parliament.

Today women constitute 20.4% of the members of parliaments around the world. Recently, Rwanda superseded Sweden at the number one in the world in terms of women’s parliamentary representation — 56.3% women against Sweden’s 47.3%. Rwanda is an example of the new trend to use electoral gender quotas as a fast track to gender balance in politics. Other parliaments, however, still have very few women elected.

Given the slow speed by which the number of women in politics is growing, there are increased calls for more efficient methods reach a gender balance in political institutions. Quotas present one such mechanism. The introduction of quota systems for women represents a qualitative jump into a policy of exact goals and means. Because of its relative efficiency, the hope for a dramatic increase in women's representation by using this system is strong. At the same time quotas raise serious questions and, in some cases, strong resistance. What are quotas and in what way can quotas contribute to the political empowerment of women? Are electoral gender quotas a violation of the principles of liberal democracy? Or are gender quotas in fact a contribution to processes of democratization, since quotas ensure the inclusion of women into political assemblies, and furthermore, because electoral gender quotas at best open up "the secret garden of nominations" by making the recruitment process mote transparent and formalized. It is important to note that there are many different types of quota systems, and that a quota system that does not match the electoral system in the country may be merely symbolic.

What are Quotas?

The core idea behind quota systems is to recruit women into political positions and to ensure that women are not only a few tokens in political life.

This web site distinguishes between three types of gender quotas used in politics:

  1. Reserved seats (constitutional and/or legislative)
  2. Legal candidate quotas (constitutional and/or legislative)
  3. Political party quotas (voluntary)

These are the main quota types in use today. While reserved seats regulate the number of women elected, the other two forms set a minimum for the share of women on the candidate lists, either as a legal requirement (no. 2) or a measure written into the statutes of individual political parties (no. 3). Our statistics are based on these three categories. There are however many more types, as will be discussed below. Important is also, whether the rank order of the candidates on the lists is regulated, so that women candidates are not just placed at the bottom of the lists. Sanctions for non-compliance are also important to look at.

In some countries quotas apply to minorities based on regional, ethnic, linguistic or religious cleavages. Almost all political systems apply some kind of geographical quotas to ensure a minimum representation for densely populated areas, islands and the like. However this database focuses on gender quotas - that is quotas that apply to women for elective office.

Quota systems aim at ensuring that women constitute at least a "critical minority" of 30 or 40%.

Quotas for women entail that women must constitute a certain number or percentage of the members of a body, whether it is a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly, a committee, or a government. The quota system places the burden of recruitment not on the individual woman, but on those who control the recruitment process. The core idea behind this system is to recruit women into political positions and to ensure that women are not only a token few in political life. Previous notions of having reserved seats for only one or for very few women, representing a vague and all-embracing category of "women", are no longer considered sufficient. Today, quota systems aim at ensuring that women constitute a large minority of 20, 30 or 40%, or even to ensure true gender balance of 50-50%. In some countries quotas are applied as a temporary measure, that is to say, until the barriers for women's entry into politics are removed, but most countries with quotas have not limited their use of quotas in time.

Most quotas aim at increasing women's representation, because the problem to be addressed usually is the under-representation of women - this is particularly relevant since women usually constitute 50% of the population in any given country. An electoral gender quota regulation may, for example, require that at least 40% of the candidates on the electoral lists are women. A minimum requirement for women implies a maximum set for the representation of men. Since women are the underrepresented group in political institutions everywhere, most regulations aim at securing women a minimum of seats.

Some quota systems are, however, constructed as gender-neutral, which means that they aim to correct the under-representation of both women and men or at any rate set up a maximum for both sexes. In this case, the requirement may be that neither gender should occupy more than 60% and no less that 40% of the seats.

A fifty-fifty quota is in its nature gender neutral, and it also sets a maximum for women's representation, which a minimum requirement for women in fact does not.

The concept of "double quota" is sometimes used about a quota system that not only requires a certain percentage of women on the electoral list, but also prevents that the women candidates are just placed on the bottom of the list with little chance to be elected. Argentina and Belgium are examples of countries with legal requirement of double quotas. "Placement mandates" or rules about the rank order of candidates, especially at the top of the list, are other terms for the same phenomena.

Different Quota Systems

There is however, some confusion about what constitutes different quota regimes. In the book, Women, Quotas and Politics (Dahlerup, ed. 2006, p.19-21), a distinction is made between two separate dimensions in the definition of quota systems: The first dimension covers the questions who has mandated the quota system, while the second dimension indicates what part of the selection and nomination process that the quota targets.

"If the leading party in a country uses a quota this may have a significant impact on the overall rate of female representation."

As for the mandating, legal gender quotas are mandated either by the constitution (like in Burkina Faso, Nepal, the Philippines and Uganda), or by the electoral law (as in many parts of Latin America, as well as, for example, in Belgium, Bosnia—Herzegovina, Slovenia and France. But quotas may also be decided for voluntarily by political parties themselves, voluntary party quotas. In some countries, including Germany, Norway and Sweden, a number of political parties have introduced quotas for their own lists. In many others, though, only one or two parties have opted to use quotas. However, if the leading party in a country uses a quota, such as the ANC in South Africa, this may have a significant impact on the overall rate of female representation. Yet, even if gender quotas are increasingly popular, most of the world’s political parties do not employ voluntary gender quota at all.

Concerning the second dimension, quotas may target the first stage of the selection process, the stage of finding aspirants, e.g. those willingly to be considered for nomination, either by a primary or by the nominations committee and other parts of the party organization. Gender quotas at this stage are rules that demand a certain number or percentage of women or either sex be represented in the pool of candidates that are up for discussion. This has been used in countries with plurality-majority electoral systems, like the controversial ‘all-women short lists’ used for some elections by the British Labour Party. In general, it is rather complicated to construct a gender quota system that matches a majority system, but it is possible (as for instance in India and Bangladesh at the local level and elections for the new Scottish parliament).

The second stage is the actual nomination of candidates to be placed on the ballot by the party. This frequently used quota system implies that a rule (legal or voluntary) is installed according to which for instance 20, 30, 40 or even 50% of the candidates must be women. This may as mentioned above be formulated in a gender-neutral way, stating that no sex should have not less than for instance 40% and no more than 60.

At the third stage, those elected, we find quotas as reserved seats. Here it is decided that a certain percentage or number among those elected must be women. Increasingly, gender quotas are being introduced using reserved seat systems, and increasingly women elected on reserved seats quota systems are not appointed, but elected like in Jordan, Uganda and Rwanda.

Figure 1 shows variation in quota types when these two dimensions are combined, that is, firstly the questions of mandating and secondly the question of where in the nomination process quotas are placed.

Figure 1. Types of Electoral Quotas

At What Level?
Mandated by Aspirants Candidates Elected
Legal quotas
(Constitutional or electoral law)
PrimariesCandidate quotas Reserved seats
Voluntary party quotasAspirant quotas
(Short lists)
Candidate quotas Reserved seats a

a Agreements among political parties reserving a certain number of seats for women like in the case of Morocco.

Source: Dahlerup (ed.): Women, Quotas and Politics. London: Routledge 2006, p.21, updated.

"The crucial question is, whether the nominated women are placed in a position with a real chance of election."

This web site will reveal that certain types of quotas are more frequent in some parts of the world, why other quota regime are preferred on other continents (for an overview, se Dahlerup, ed. 2006, table 14.1, p. 294).

Even if constitutional amendments and new electoral laws providing gender quotas may seem more commanding, it is not at all evident that these methods are more efficient than political party quotas when it comes to increasing the number of women in parliament. It all depends on the actual rules and the possible sanctions for non-compliance, as well as on the general opportunities that exist for quotas within the country. Concerning rules for nomination, the crucial issue is whether there are any rules concerning the rank order on the list. A requirement of say 40% may not result in any women elected, if all women candidates are placed at the bottom of the list. The crucial question is, whether the nominated women are placed in a position with a real chance of election.

Gender quotas may be introduced at any level of the political system: federal, national, regional or local. Examples of strong quota regimes at the local level are the 50% quotas at the local level in France and the 20-33% gender quota for the local councils in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. In India, this gender quota system is combined with the older system of quotas for the scheduled castes.

Quotas work differently under different electoral systems. Quotas are most easily introduced in proportional representation (PR) systems. However, quotas have also been implemented in some majority systems as this web site demonstrates. But even in PR-systems, some political parties and parties in some constituencies may have difficulties in implementing quotas because the quota may be viewed as interference in the usual prerogatives of the local party organization to select their own candidates.

Quotas: Pros and Cons

Quotas are a controversial measure. Various arguments have been set forth for and against the introduction of quotas as a means to increase the political presence of women. Some of the pros and cons include:

Cons

  • Quotas are against the principle of equal opportunity for all, since women are given preference over men.
  • Quotas are undemocratic, because voters should be able to decide who is elected.
  • Quotas imply that politicians are elected because of their gender, not because of their qualifications and that more qualified candidates are pushed aside.
  • Many women do not want to get elected just because they are women.
  • Introducing quotas creates significant conflicts within the party organization.
  • Quotas violate the principles of liberal democracy.

Pros

  • Quotas for women do not discriminate, but compensate for actual barriers that prevent women from their fair share of the political seats.
  • Quotas imply that there are several women together in a committee or assembly, thus minimizing the stress often experienced by the token women.
  • Women have the right as citizens to equal representation.
  • Women's experiences are needed in political life.
  • Election is about representation, not educational qualifications.
  • Women are just as qualified as men, but women's qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a male-dominated political system.
  • It is in fact the political parties that control the nominations, not primarily the voters who decide who gets elected; therefore quotas are not violations of voters' rights.
  • Introducing quotas may cause conflicts, but may be only temporarily.
  • Quotas can contribute to a process of democratisation by making the nomination process more transparent and formalised.

Two Concepts of Equality

"Real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and hidden barriers prevent women from getting their share of political influence."

In general, quotas for women represent a shift from one concept of equality to another. The classic liberal notion of equality was a notion of "equal opportunity" or "competitive equality". Removing the formal barriers, for example, giving women voting rights, was considered sufficient. The rest was up to the individual women.

Following strong feminist pressure in the last few decades, as expressed for instance in the Beijing "Platform for Action" of 1995, a second concept of equality is gaining increasing relevance and support: the notion of "equality of result". The argument is that real equal opportunity does not exist just because formal barriers are removed. Direct discrimination and a complex pattern of hidden barriers prevent women from being selected as candidates and getting their share of political influence. Quotas and other forms of positive measures are thus a means towards equality of result. The argument is based on the experience that equality as a goal cannot be reached by formal equal treatment as a means. If barriers exist, it is argued, compensatory measures must be introduced as a means to reach equality of result. From this perspective, quotas are not discrimination (against men), but compensation for structural barriers that women meet in the electoral process.

Do quotas work?

"And yet, women's representation might increase as a result of the very debate about introducing quotas. But further research is needed about the implementation of quotas."

From this website it is possible to see how many countries have adopted reserved seats quotas, legislated candidate quotas and political party quotas. However, from the figures of women’s actual political representation, the website does illustrate that quota requirements are not actually always implemented. The web site reveals discrepancies between quota requirements and actual representation. Since the website only gives information about quotas rules that have been adopted, and not about the compliance in practice in individual parties, it is not possible to make conclusions about the connection between types of quota provisions and women's representation — other than that many quota provisions are not properly implemented. And yet, women's representation might increase as a result of the very debate about introducing quotas. But further research is needed about the implementation of quotas.

The result of introducing quotas should be studied quantitatively as well as qualitatively. Electoral statistics on the country pages show the number of women elected at the last election. Unfortunately, official electoral statistics in many countries do not provide details of the candidates nominated for election by sex, which then must be provided through other channels, including through political parties. The effect of quotas should also be studied in qualitative terms, looking into the intended (empowerment) as well as the unintended consequences (e.g. stigmatization, glass ceilings that may prevent women from increasing their numbers above the specified quota requirement or unintended fractions between different groups of women).

The use of quotas is increasingly influenced by international recommendations and from cross-country inspiration. It seems important, however, that quotas are not just imposed from above, but rest on grass root mobilization of women and the active participation of women’s organizations. Quotas in themselves do not remove all the other barriers for women's full citizenship. But under certain conditions electoral gender quotas can lead to historical leaps in women’s political representation.


Written by Drude Dahlerup, professor of Political Science, Stockholm University, Sweden.

This piece is based on Drude Dahlerup: "Increasing Women’s Political Representation: New Trends in Gender Quotas", in Ballington and Karam, eds. International IDEA. 2005: Women in Parliament. Beyond Numbers (revised edition) and Drude Dahlerup, ed., Women, Quotas and Politics. Routledge 2006. This is the first world-wide, comparative study of the use of different gender quota systems, written by researchers from all major regions of the world. The project was financial supported by the Swedish Research Council. For a taxonomy of gender quota systems, see Drude Dahlerup & Lenita Freidenvall, "Gender Quotas in politics — A Constitutional Challenge", in Susan H. Williams, ed., Constituting Equality. Gender Equality and Comparative Constitutional Law. Cambridge University Press 2009.

Copyright 2009 International IDEA and Stockholm University