Political Quotas for Women: What Needs to Change

Quotas; they’re a hard nut to crack. Quotas are currently the favored tool to bring women into the political realm. Yet there always seems to be a question mark behind the use of quotas. Are these really an efficient tool for disrupting male-dominated politics? Should the Western world keep championing quotas even though they themselves have in some cases failed to impose them within their own borders?  The answers are not simple, but quotas are currently the best available practice in many cases. However, quotas must be accompanied by a strong women’s movement in order to succeed. The Scandinavian model for quota implementation needs to stop being the goal, as it is unattainable due to structural reasons, and now outdated. Quota policies need to aim for achievable goals, as their usefulness generally depends on the wanted impact. Rather than questioning and complaining about quota policies, they should be streamlined and employed more tactically to ensure justice for women and all of society.

Over 100 countries currently have quotas in place for women’s political representation. This rise in popularity has taken place within the last 20 years, not only because of an increasing rate of women’s movements worldwide, but also because of foreign intervention. Women are now being educated at higher rates than men but due to the patriarchal nature of politics, women very rarely gain political power. Quotas are a way to ensure women are present in politics. Quotas can really be viewed as the solution to the “failure of gradual efforts to change the masculine culture of politics.”[1] Quotas are therefore necessary, as “institutionalized inequalities require institutionalized counter measures”[2]. Quotas work to undermine stereotypes, and reduce the domination of men in politics. They can however also have negative consequences, such as attacking merit, discrediting all female politicians and not consistently increasing women’s representation. Although perhaps not the ideal solution, they are currently the best method available, and are now so widely used they are likely not going anywhere.

Image courtesy of Kena Lorenzini and Museum of Memory and Human Rights, ©2010, some rights reserved.
Image courtesy of Kena Lorenzini and Museum of Memory and Human Rights, ©2010, some rights reserved.

Quotas are now being adopted by developing countries largely due to international pressure. They aren’t an organic process from within; rather an outside force usually imposes them. Western governments are increasingly putting pressure on developing countries, most often those emerging from conflict, to put in place ‘democratic’ goals such as quotas. They are often instituted in liberalizing peace operations, or by leaders to signal their commitment to democracy.[3] The lack of an internal process does little to carve out space or remove the male dominated structural barriers women entering politics face. The double standard of Western countries such as the US imposing quotas, but then themselves having poor female representation is also glaring. A lack of women in politics runs completely counter to Western ideals of democracy and ‘equality’. However, Western countries rarely hold themselves to their own standards. In fact, thanks to quotas, Rwanda has the highest number of women as a percentage of a national legislature.

Three different forms of quotas exist: reserved seats, party quotas and legislative quotas. Reserved seats are mainly a phenomenon in the Middle East, Asia and Africa, and mandate a certain number of women may be present. These usually become a veil of democracy, with women having little political input. These women are also not a part of the electoral process. Party quotas are a Western European phenomenon, adopted voluntarily by parties, usually wanting to be gender equal, and often left-leaning. Legislative quotas, which are legal and constitutional reforms, are most common in developing countries, especially in post conflict societies. This is where the current boom is.

Many look to the Scandinavian model of quota adoption for guidance, as this is debatably the most successful example of quota implementation in the world. Norway, Sweden and Denmark have party quotas in place, and now also have mandatory quotas on corporate boards and in the private sector. These three countries also rank highly on the gender inequality index, presented by the UNDP. They are Numbers 1, 10 and 12 respectively,[4] meaning they exhibit some of the highest ratios of gender equality. The ‘Scandinavian model’ of quota adoption, however talked up it is, is ‘outdated’ nowadays but it was implemented under very different conditions. This essentially means that the new models for quotas are aiming for an unattainable goal, making it no wonder that quotas are perceived so skeptically.

The Scandinavian model started with women’s political participation, and a large women’s movement, which then resulted in legislative quotas to ensure this movement continued. This is viewed as the ‘incremental track’ as women are incrementally engaged, minimizing backlash. Current examples of countries adopting quotas however have completely different starting points; they usually start with minimal political participation for women, and weak national women’s movements.[5] More often than not, they are also emerging from conflict. Quotas are then seen as the Band-Aid for both of these problems, rather than as a way to continue encouraging women to become active in political life. This is the ‘fast track’, and largely explains why quota programs are facing much backlash, are far less effective, and will never yield the same results.

Quota adoption should be incremental, and accompany a strong women’s movement. If not, it will become a ‘just add women’ approach, or be forced to play by the ‘old rules’ and viewed simply as token participants. Quota policies need to be develop from simply getting women into politics.  Quotas must empower women to become integral parts of politics and contribute to lasting changes. Rather than bashing the only policy in place, energy should be spent on restructuring this.  Quotas along with more effective methods will rightfully ensure women’s political representation and presence.


[1] Baldez, L. 2006. “The Pros and Cons of Gender Quota Laws.” Politics & Gender, Vol.2 (1): 102–109.

[2] Dhanda, M. 2000 Representation for Women: Should Feminists Support Quotas? Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 35 (33) pg. 2969

[3] Bush, S.S. 2011. “International Politics and the Spread of Quotas for Women in Legislatures” International Organization. Vol 65 (1): 105

[4] https://data.undp.org/dataset/Table-4-Gender-Inequality-Index/ku9i-8fxp?

[5] Dahlerup, D. and Freidenvall, L. 2005. “Quotas as a ‘fast track’ to equal representation for women” International Feminist Journal of Politics, Vol 7 (1): 27

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