New & Now:

Enforcing Equity

If handled properly, gender-based quotas can ensure greater political participation for women.

Illustration by Bob Dob showing a traffic cop holding up cars with a female icon while letting cars with a male icon through.

For even the most ambitious women around the world, barriers to electoral success can seem insurmountable. Prejudice, cultural baggage and an entrenched status quo all conspire to stifle the sound of female voices in the corridors of power.

One increasingly common, if controversial, remedy involves imposing some degree of gender equity. According to the tally of one recent study published in the journal Comparative Political Studies, “as of 2006 more than 84 countries have some form of quota to improve the selection of female candidates running for office. Many other countries have discussions underway over whether to implement quotas.”

When successfully administered, says Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, an assistant professor of political science at MU, quotas are a great way to fast-track women’s participation in the electoral process, a result that almost inevitably leads to female candidates increasing their share of seats in policymaking bodies.

Trouble is, Schwindt-Bayer says, quotas too often lack the teeth to break down the deep-seated cultural biases that made the laws necessary in the first place.

“Quotas’ effectiveness depends on their designs,” she says. “Women’s representation will not increase unless political parties are required to place women in electable positions on the ballot and unless the law requires parties to abide by the quota.”

In a new study, Schwindt-Bayer compared elements of quota laws in 26 countries. She examined what percentage of candidates must be female, whether laws include “placement mandates” requiring that parties place women into ballot positions where they have a legitimate shot at winning, and quota-enforcement mechanisms designed to punish political parties that refuse to comply with quota laws.

The results showed that the effects of electoral interventions are decidedly less than uniform. Though all quotas, she wrote, “are intended to increase women’s representation, the extent to which they do so varies significantly across countries.”

Some nations, Argentina, Belgium and Costa Rica for example, have used quota laws to achieve real gains. In this regard Argentina is a particular stand-out. “In the 1993 election,” Schwindt-Bayer writes in her study, “the first after the quota law went into effect, women won 14.4 percent of the seats in the [national legislature’s lower house], compared to only 5 percent in the 1991 election. By 2001, Argentina’s Chamber of Deputies was 31 percent female and ranked ninth in the world in terms of women’s representation in national parliaments.”

Those nations that fared less well, among them Honduras, Nepal and Indonesia, tended to be countries with quota laws that were less than proactive in all of the three categories she examined; that is, nominating a high percentage of women candidates, demanding parties give women favorable placements on ballots and prescribing penalties for parties not playing by the rules. In short, she found, “it is not simply having a quota that increases women’s representation, but how that quota rule is designed that matters.”

The numbers are stark: “Without placement and enforcement, significantly fewer women get elected—the percentage of women in office is only one-third of what the quota size requires for party ballots,” Schwindt-Bayer wrote.

“A 30 percent quota without placement and enforcement yields only 10 percent of its legislature being female, on average. A comparison of Argentina and Indonesia illustrates this point nicely. Argentina’s 30 percent quota with placement mandates and enforcement mechanisms has led to an average proportion of seats held by women of 27.6 percent in the post-quota period. Only 11 percent of Indonesia’s legislature is composed of women, despite a 30 percent quota that lacks placement mandates and sanctions for noncompliance.”

Of course, she adds, quotas are not the only means to increase the election of women. Cultural, socioeconomic and institutional reforms are also important, particularly those that boost the number of women qualified to run for office and promote a women-friendly political climate.

The study, Making Quotas Work: The Effect of Gender Quota Laws on the Election of Women, was published in the February issue of Legislative Studies Quarterly.

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