Political institutions, structural factors, and social norms have repeatedly been shown to be relevant in explaining political attitudes besides individualistic interest-based explanations. Public policies alter the opportunity structures of citizens and thus influence their demand for governmental redistribution and intervention, as well as their political behaviour (Ferrarini 2006; Mau 2003; Svallfors 2007). Furthermore, individuals’ opinions are shaped by ‘exposure’ to different social groups and diverging ideas (Bolzendahl and Myers 2004). Consent to state interventions to foster gender equality in economic decision-making will therefore not only be dependent on a person’s individual situation and self-interest, but also on equality norms represented by the institutional and political context as well as individuals’ perception of the status quo in society, whether they believe the current situation to be fair or just.
Previous research points towards an ambiguous relationship of institutions and citizens’ policy preferences (Koster and Kaminska 2012). On the one hand, institutions have a norm-shaping function on public opinion: citizens’ attitudes reflect the redistribution and equality principles embedded in the intuitional framework of a country (Ferrarini 2006; Svallfors 2007). Institutions therefore can influence the way citizens perceive the rights and obligations shared by members of their political community (Mau 2003). On the other hand, public opinion may also mirror dissatisfaction with the status quo and be in opposition to existing policies, functioning as a thermostat (Wlezien 1995; Soroka and Wlezien 2005). Consequently, the level of support for more governmental intervention might diminish when high levels of equality are achieved in society. Vice versa, government intervention may be accepted the more, the lower the actual level of equality in a country is.
When we transfer this dichotomy to the explanation of support of gender quotas, two contrary assumptions can be derived. In line with the argument of norm-shaping, these policies may create less opposition in societies that already have high levels of gender equality in their political, social, and economic affairs. Following the thermostat argument, in contrast, in more equal societies (further) implementation of affirmative action may create stronger opposition if citizens perceive current levels of intervention as too high and hold further measures as unnecessary. Hence, the level of support for gender quotas might be low when high levels of gender equality are achieved in society. Based on this dichotomy, we will in the following review country-level determinants of the support for gender quotas, focusing on three areas: (1) institutions and politics; (2) economic and social structure; (3) public opinion.
The general level of support for a boardroom quota
Political institutions can influence citizens’ attitudes in various ways. First, the introduction of public policies may alter the opportunity structures for citizens in terms of the incentives, possibilities and constrains they produce (Svallfors 2007). Besides affecting citizens’ behaviour, public policies may also shape citizens’ perceptions, orientations, and norms: the implementation of specific public policies can influence the visibility of social phenomena and can have a signalling role in pointing to the behaviours that are considered appropriate (Sjöberg 2004). Consequently, the existence of a gender quota law will have an impact on citizens’ acceptance of such quotas.
As the field of politics constitutes a societal arena in which leaders and representatives are highly visible, the female representation in politics and public offices positions may further induce higher acceptance of women in leading positions in general (e.g. Kunze and Miller 2014). Moreover, it has been argued that women in politics can act as gatekeepers to push for more gender equality and better living conditions for women in society (Ferrarini 2006; Westfall and Chantiles 2016). Empirical evidence on the possible spill-over effects of political legislative gender quotas shows that beyond increasing women’s formal representation, quotas have led to an increase in the gender consciousness and some forms of political activism among women (Beauregard 2017; Krook 2006).
The degree of gender equality in society and economics shapes the everyday experiences of citizens. Exposure to women at work has shown to reduce bias against female leaders among men (e.g. Finseraas et al. 2016). Moreover, non-target group members who witness the unequal treatment of target group members are more likely to acknowledge the existence of inequality (Bolzendahl and Myers 2004), and thus, to become more supportive of policies aimed at improving equal opportunities. Therefore, high gender equality on the labour market, for example a low sectoral gender segregation, may reduce prejudice against women in leading positions, and in consequence go along with higher levels of support for quotas.
In line with the norm-shaping function of institutions, we assume that institutions, policies, and the conditions in society and economy have formative influences on citizens’ attitudes, leading individuals’ attitudes to conform with the normative principles embedded in institutions and promoted in society. Consequently, we expect a positive relationship between contextual factors representing gender equality and citizens’ support for gender quotas.
The higher the level of gender equality in institutions, in politics, and on the labour market, the greater will be the support for gender quotas among citizens.
A high degree of gender diversity in the labour market and an already high proportion of women in positions of leadership might also entail a lower awareness of remaining inequalities and lead to the perception that further regulations are unnecessary (Terjesen and Singh 2008). As a consequence, support for introducing (further) positive action might be diminished. One example for this is the discussion around the quota in Sweden where a bill by the left-wing government to introduce fines for companies that fail to accomplish a 40% female share in their executive boards was first rejected in parliament in early 2017. In a resubmission, the proposal was finally accepted in 2018 (The Guardian 2017).
Research on political quotas shows that while they indeed enhance formal equality, informal institutions and networks within parties sustain male dominance (Verge and de la Fuente 2014). Furthermore, a higher number of female representatives in political decision-making does neither necessarily increase the substantive representation of women (Celis 2009), nor follow a linear, self-reinforcing process leading to parity (Kroeber et al. 2018). Consequently, a society with high formal equality in some spheres may still embrace conservative norms and lag behind in increasing gender equality in other forms or areas. In contrast, quotas might be more welcomed by citizens in countries that in fact suffer from high inequality. This is supported by previous research that investigates impact factors of female representation on corporate boards and finds a negative relationship between a long tradition of women’s political representation and women’s share in company boards. Instead rather countries which are latecomers in women’s political empowerment have been faster in women’s business leadership representation (Terjesen and Singh 2008).
Furthermore, regulative measures as positive action may in addition cause resentment among citizens who reject state intervention in the economy. This possibly negative relationship might hold true especially for a gender quota for boardroom positions: previous research on welfare state attitudes has frequently shown that targeted measures focusing on specific groups have difficulties in achieving popularity with the general public (Kitschelt 2000; Pierson 2001). Hence, positive action benefitting a minor fraction of women should be rather unpopular. Therefore, in line with the thermostat argument, we formulate a second contrary hypothesis:
The higher the level of gender equality in institutions, in politics, and on the labour market, the lower will be the level of support for gender quotas among citizens.
Previous research has repeatedly shown that individuals’ attitudes are influenced not only by institutions and structural conditions, but also by ideology, i.e. the surrounding public opinion and values. Individuals’ socialisation in a society’s normative framework shapes their perceptions and attitudes towards conformity with existing social norms (Inglehart 1977). Moreover, previous research has shown that gender ideology in a country matters for women’s political representation (Paxton and Kunovich 2003). For citizens’ support for gender quotas in economic decision-making, two forms of attitudinal factors are relevant: norms of gender equality and the acceptance of state intervention which both will provide a favourable climate for affirmative action policies. Besides general social values, also political parties shape public opinion as they belong to the most prominent actors in the public and media debates. Political parties’ endorsement of libertarian values and of an interventionist role of the state are likely to influence citizens’ support for affirmative action policies. Therefore, we formulate the following two hypotheses:
The more public opinion is in favour of gender equality and state intervention, the greater is the support for a gender quota.
The more parties endorse libertarian or interventionist positions, the greater is the support for a gender quota.
The gender gap in support for a boardroom quota
Besides cross-national differences in the overall support levels for gender quotas, Fig. 1 also shows considerable variation in the gender gap of support, i.e. the difference between the mean levels of support among men and among women. Up to now, we have provided theoretical explanations for the overall level of support. However, country-level characteristics may also influence the gap in support between women and men. From a self-interest perspective, women are assumed to be generally more supportive of affirmative action policies in their favour than men. Moreover, previous research has shown that the perception of inequality against the own group is related to larger support (Tougas and Veilleux 1988). Following this argument, women as target group members might show greater sensitivity for existing gender inequalities in their society than men. The more women believe their group position in society to be disadvantaged and the less they feel their group interests to be represented in the political process, the more they will support policies enhancing their position. Therefore, we formulate the following two hypotheses on the gender gap in support:
Women as the target group of gender quotas are more susceptible to contextual factors than men.
The lower the institutional, political, and societal support for gender equality and the more disadvantaged the actual position of women in a country, the larger will be the gender gap in support for affirmative action policies.