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Frequently Asked Questions

Typology

What are quotas?

Quotas in politics involve setting up a percentage or number for the representation of a certain group, here women, most often in the form of a minimum percentage, for instance 20, 30 or 40 percent. Quotas are used as a measure to increase the representation of historically excluded or under-represented groups in politics.

Quota regulations may target women or may be gender neutral, e.g. ‘no more than 60% of either sex'.

What types of quotas are there?

This website differentiates between two types of quotas:

  1. Legal quotas: Quotas which are mandated in a country's constitution or by law, usually in the electoral law. Legal quotas regulate the proceedings of all political parties in a country and may also prescribe sanctions in case of non-compliance.
  2. Voluntary party quotas: Quotas which are voluntarily decided by one or more political parties in a country. In such cases some political parties may have quotas, while other parties reject them.

Different types of quotas target different levels in the nomination process. Quotas usually target one of three levels in the nomination process:

  1. the pool of potential candidates (aspirants)
  2. the candidates that stand for election (candidates)
  3. the elected (MPs or equivalent)

The women's short lists in the UK are an example of a type of quota system targeting the first level. At this level, the aim of quotas is to enlarge the pool of aspirants willing to pursue a political career. These quotas are thus decided upon by the political parties themselves. Thus, women's short lists could be seen as an example of voluntary party quotas, where political parties adopt a quotas for the number of women it will send forward as party nominees to contest the election.

Candidate quotas for party lists are an example of a type of quota system targeting the second level. Candidate quotas apply to the nomination of candidates, eg. where a political party must ensure that 30 percent of the candidates it nominates for election are women. These may be mandated either by the parties themselves (party quotas) or by the constitution or law (legal quotas). The crucial issue is whether there are any rules concerning the rank order on the list of the party. A requirement of say 40 percent may not result in any women elected, if all women candidates are placed at the bottom of the list. Thus, candidate quotas can be seen as an example of either legal quotas or voluntary party quotas, pending on where they are mandated.

Reserved seats are an example of a quota system targeting the third level. At this level, the aim of quotas is to guarantee that a certain number or percentage of seats in parliament is set aside to women. Women are guaranteed to have these seats. These quotas are usually mandated by the constitution and/or law, and can thus be seen as an example of legal quotas.

For further reading, see “About Quotas”.

Which quota type is the most efficient one?

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 in 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 exit for quotas within a country.

How do different quota types match different electoral systems?

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 the web site demonstrates. But even in PR-systems, some political 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.

Adoption of quotas

Quotas are spreading all over the world. Where and when did this trend start?

Gender quotas have been introduced in quite a number of countries around the world, countries of various political and socio-economical backgrounds. The idea of introducing quotas has usually travelled between countries in the same region. In Latin American, for example, Argentina was the forerunner with its introduction of legal candidate quotas in 1991. Since then this type of quotas has spread all over the Latin-American region. In Africa, South Africa has inspired other countries in the region to adopt voluntary party quotas, while Uganda has led concerning reserved seats. In South Asia gender quotas at the local level have been introduced in recent years in Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, even if these three countries do not openly refer to experience made by their neighbours.

How many countries have introduced gender quotas?

It is difficult to give an exact figure, since it is changing continuously. However, as of 2006, around 40 countries have introduced gender quotas in elections to national parliaments, either by means of constitutional amendment or by changing the electoral laws (legal quotas). In more than 50 countries major political parties have voluntarily set out quota provisions in their own statues (party quotas). See ‘Types of quotas’.

Why is not the United States listed in the countries you can choose? Or New Zealand?

Only countries that have electoral gender quotas are included in this database. Neither the United States nor New Zealand applies quotas.

How come some countries decided to legislate on gender quotas? How did women manage to get this reform through in countries where women traditionally have no power?

The introduction of quotas has been promoted by several factors. There has been pressure both from below (from local women's organizations) and from above (from the international community such as the UN). In the Balkans, this strategy is referred to as the sandwich strategy. Also, in a globalized world, the image of a country is important. A high representation of women in politics has come to be seen as a sign of democracy in a country. However, in order for the reforms to succeed, it is important that the quota systems rest on the grass root mobilization of women and the active participation of women's organizations. We do not know what will happen in countries such as Afghanistan and Iraq where the local support is limited. For further reading, see for instance Dahlerup ed. (2006), Women, Quotas and Politics. London: Routledge.

To what extent does the political and electoral system of a country effect the introduction of a specific quota type?

There are clear links between the political system, the electoral system and the preferred quota type. For instance, in Latin America the most preferred type is legal candidate quotas, while reserved seats are the most used gender quota type in the Arab region, in South Asia and partly in Africa. Voluntary party quotas are the preferred type in the Western world, including the Nordic countries. These are also used in Africa, see Dahlerup ed. (2006), Women, Quotas and Politics. London: Routledge, table 14.1, p.294.

What are the main arguments used for and against electoral gender quotas?

Various arguments have been set forth for and against quotas as a means to increase the political presence of women. Some of the arguments 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 are undemocratic, because party members should be able to decide who is selected to represent the party on party lists
  • 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.

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.

Why use quotas? Would not the ideal be to increase the number of women without quotas?

Even if quota provisions are often controversial, the use of the quota tool facilitates historical leaps or jump starts in women's political representation. For instance, the introduction of gender quotas in Costa Rica made the number of women in parliament increase from 19 to 35 percent in one election. Also 30 percent women were elected in the very first democratic parliamentary election in South Africa.

Many see electoral gender quotas as a compensation for structural discrimination and barriers against women in politics. Quotas may be considered a permanent or a temporary measure.

Are quotas for women in non-democratic countries without competitive elections worth working for?

In many Arab and African countries, this is exactly what women's movements are requiring. In patronage systems, the means of women's access seem to be very important for legitimacy and effectiveness. To reject any relevance of such a project is to deny that there might be a link between the exclusion of women and the lack of democratic development as well as development in general. In newer development discourses equality between the sexes is not just seen as something that will gradually evolve from development. Rather, the emancipation of women and women's active involvement is perceived as a prerequisite for social and economic development.

Implementation of quotas

To what extent have quota regulations actually been implemented? Can you give us some good/bad examples?

The introduction of gender quotas has not resulted in uniform increases in the numbers of women parliamentarians worldwide. 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 countries or parties, it is not possible to make conclusions about the connection between types of quota provisions and women's representation – other than many quota provisions are not properly implemented. Costa Rica and Belgium (legal quotas), South Africa and Sweden (voluntary party quotas) as well as Uganda and Rwanda (reserved seats) are successful examples. For further reading, see Dahlerup ed. (2006) Women, Quotas and Politics. London: Routledge.

Effects

Quotas are designed to achieve a numerical gender balance in public decision-making. But have quotas actually increased the number of women in parliaments?

In terms of number, electoral gender quotas can be a very efficient tool to rapidly increase women's representation in politics, or to start a process of inclusion of women in male-dominated political institutions. A comparison between countries with and without quotas shows that the number of women in parliaments is higher in countries with quotas. However, if the quota rules are unclear and do not match the electoral system in place, and if there are no sanctions for non-compliance and no rules about the ranking on the list, quotas may lead to minimal or no numerical increase in women's political representation.

Quotas lead to a numerical gender balance in public decision-making. But do the elected female politicians really get more power?

This web site covers the introduction of quotas and different quota types, and not the substantive representation of women politicians. However, research shows that once elected many barriers still block women's ability to make use of their positions as elected representatives in the way they wish. Quotas do not remove such barriers like the double standards women politicians face in politics, the lack of campaign funding, the negotiations between family responsibilities and politics.

Information on women's political representation

Where can I find information on research on gender quotas in a specific country?

Please click on the link to “resources” and then select the region or country of interest. Note that only countries with quotas are listed. On that page, see also the box “Papers and Conferences”. Here you find links to information on IDEA publications, Stockholm University working papers and other contributions.

Where can I find information on the number of women in national parliaments?

Data regarding the number of women represented in parliaments around the world can be found at the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Why does one find different figures on women's parliamentary representation?

This web site gives figures on women's representation in national parliaments from the last election. Other web sites sometimes give figures on the present situation, including changes since last election, for instance the result of by-elections.

Where can I find information on women's autonomous groups?

This database does not have any material that can assist you. You might want to consult UNIFEM webpages.

How do I find out the type of electoral system that a country is using?

Information on electoral systems can be found on IDEA's website at www.idea.int

Can I link a paper on quotas to the quota database?

Yes you may. Please send your paper/case study to us, and we will publish it under “Papers & Conferences” and in the section “Other Contributions”. This is a service provided by IDEA and Stockholm University to encourage sharing of information on issues related to quotas. Please note that these papers are posted as received from the authors. IDEA, nor Stockholm University, is responsible for the content of these papers.