Electoral Quotas and Women’s Rights

  • Claire McGingEmail author
Reference work entry
Part of the International Human Rights book series (IHR)


Electoral gender quotas, which aim to increase either the proportion of women candidates or political representatives, are currently used in over a hundred countries around the world. In most cases quota measures have been adopted over the past two decades. This chapter shows that the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action fundamentally changed the international discourse on the diagnosis of women’s underrepresentation in politics and thus the solutions to it. As opposed to waiting for women to incrementally “catch up” with men, quotas represent a fast-track approach to increasing women’s representation in politics. Significantly, the use of electoral gender quotas means that the Global South has now overtaken the Global North as world leaders in women’s parliamentary representation. This is a rapid turnaround on the situation just 20 years ago where the Scandinavian countries and the Netherlands were at the top of the world rankings for women’s representation.

Despite there being resistance to their adoption and full implementation in most contexts, this chapter argues that electoral gender quotas have significantly advanced women’s access to parliamentary politics at a global level. The use of proportional representation (PR) continues to progress women’s representation to a much greater extent than plurality/majoritarian systems, and PR systems are generally more facilitating of quota implementation. Voluntary party quotas can be as effective as legal quotas if the right institutional and ideological factors are present. When properly implemented, quotas obstruct highly male-dominated recruitment patterns by encouraging or requiring parties to select increased numbers of women candidates or representatives.


Electoral gender quotas Women in politics Descriptive representation Political parties Candidate recruitment Electoral systems Substantive representation 


Ever since the achievement of women’s suffrage, women politicians have had to adjust to political institutions. With the adoption of gender quotas […] crucial structural changes are for the first time being made to and by the political institutions in order to facilitate the inclusion of women. This is new – and highly controversial.

– Dahlerlup (2018, 58)

Gender quotas are now a global phenomenon and are employed in a variety of sectors in political, public, and economic life. Quotas are a form of affirmative action or positive discrimination aimed at increasing the presence of women in decision-making structures (Lovenduski 2005). Put simply, they are about numbers and percentages (Dahlerup 2018).

This chapter differentiates between electoral gender quotas, which target either the proportion of women candidates or representatives in politics, and other quota systems such as quotas for internal political party positions and corporate boards in the private sector. No one could have predicted the rapid spread of electoral gender quotas in all global regions over the last two decades, particularly since the Beijing World Conference on Women in 1995 (Krook 2015). This growth has occurred despite the controversy often ensued by the discussion, adoption, and implementation of electoral gender quotas (Krook et al. 2009). Significantly, electoral gender quotas have been introduced by many parliaments across the world with majority male representation, raising questions as to why male political elites support measures that could dilute their own power as a group.

This chapter builds on earlier quota research (e.g., Dahlerup 2007; Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005) to offer a fresh take on the “state of play” in relation to the adoption, implementation, and effectiveness of electoral gender quotas at a global level. Firstly it outlines the international human rights framework concerning women’s participation and representation in politics. As we will see, the right of women to be included in political decision-making on equal terms with men is enshrined in international declarations and conventions and is also endorsed by regional organizations concerned with human rights. Following a discussion on women’s descriptive representation (numerical representation) in parliaments across the world and also why the political underrepresentation of women is a “democratic deficit” that needs to be remedied (Dahlerup 2018), the chapter considers the various types of electoral gender quotas and lists which models are most predominant in different global regions. We will consider the discourse around the adoption of gender quotas and assess why quotas in politics are controversial. The effectiveness of electoral gender quotas will be considered, before the chapter concludes with a short discussion and suggests areas for further research.

Since the lower house of parliament yields more power than the upper house in nearly all bicameral systems, and given that lower/single house representatives are directly elected while membership of the upper house may be by appointment, hereditary handover, indirect election, or election via a limited constituency, this chapter focuses mainly on the use of electoral gender quotas in lower/single houses of parliament. This is also the standard measure used to track women’s political representation around the world, including the UN Millennium Development Goals.

Gender Quotas and Women’s Rights: The Human Rights Framework

The right of women to participate in public and political life on equal terms with men is recognized in international human rights law. One of the first tasks of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) was to write the 1952 Convention on the Political Rights of Women. The convention requires parties to ensure that women have the right to vote and run for election on the same terms as men. When the convention was written, women in many countries in Asia, Africa, and Central/South America were mobilizing for enfranchisement, and, in states where women did have the right to stand for office, the percentage they comprised of parliaments was in single digits.

The Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), adopted in 1979 and ratified by 189 states, guarantees the right of women to vote in elections and to participate in public life. Significantly, Article 4 directs parties to implement “temporary special measures” to accelerate gender equality (UNGA 1979, 3). The convention stresses that the operation of these measures should cease when the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved.

As the UN Decade for Women drew to a close in 1985, the Nairobi Forward-Looking Strategies for the Advancement of Women (UN 1985) encouraged member states to take more concrete steps to advance women’s political representation (Krook 2015). The report states that political parties and other organizations should “institute measures to activate women’s constitutional and legal guarantees of the right to be elected and appointed by selecting candidates” (UN 1985).

Krook (2015, 2) notes the significance of the UN’s CEDAW Committee specification in 1988 that the term “temporary special measures” in Article 4 of CEDAW referred to “positive action, preferential treatment, or quota systems to advance women’s integration into education, the economy, politics, and employment.” Over the years, the UN CEDAW Committee has criticized many countries for low numbers of women in politics and urged them to make more use of temporary special measures.

The issue of women’s access to politics and decision-making is dealt with extensively by the 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action (FWCW 1995). Although the promotion of special measures by transnational human rights actors was not new and domestic campaigns for gender quotas were already underway in many countries, mainly in Central and South America, Beijing is regarded as a pivotal moment in the global diffusion of electoral gender quotas (Dahlerup 2018). Women’s descriptive representation globally at the time of the conference was at just 10%. Significantly, the declaration fundamentally changed the international discourse on the diagnosis of women’s underrepresentation (a point we will return to later). Instead of placing emphasis on women’s supposed lack of knowledge, interest, or qualifications for office, the declaration outlines “discriminatory attitudes and practices” and “unequal power relations” as barriers to equal participation (FWCW 1995, 79). The wording of the declaration is somewhat contradictory, however, as it moves between achieving a “critical mass” of women decision-makers (which is usually taken to mean 30%) and the “equitable distribution of power” between women and men (Dahlerup 2018, 40). Although the word “quota” is never actually used (it was presumably too controversial at the time), the declaration instructs member states to consider “positive action” if necessary in addition to other “soft” measures to increase women’s inclusion in politics (FWCW 1995, 81). The UN reiterated this point in its 2005 and 2015 reviews of the declaration.

Beijing provided an important catalyst for domestic women’s movements and their allies to campaign for quotas, who were aided by information sharing through transnational women’s networks and NGOs. The declaration legitimized their demands. Interestingly, electoral gender quotas were finally brought “over the line” in Costa Rica, Brazil, and Peru after many years of debate as a result of the publicity created by the Beijing Conference (Krook 2006).

At a regional level, the African Union advocates that member states should achieve “gender parity” in politics (Dahlerup 2018), while European institutions including the Council of Europe, European Commission, and the European Parliament have also been to the forefront in calling for political parties and countries to implement gender mechanisms for politics.

Women’s Descriptive Representation

Women’s descriptive representation in single/lower houses of parliament globally has risen from just 11.7% in 1997 to 23.6% in early 2018. Today, women hold at least 30% of parliamentary seats in 50 countries and, in 13 of these, account for at least 40% of parliamentarians which is now the internationally recognized measure of “gender balance” in decision-making bodies (60:40 representation of either sex). These figures are historic highs, and the rate of growth over the past two decades has been impressive, but women’s voices remain marginalized in parliamentary politics (Lovenduski 2005). The level of growth also appears to have stagnated in recent years with women’s representation increasing by just 0.1% between 2016 and 2017. Women’s underrepresentation as parliamentarians also has implications for their ability to “crack the glass ceiling” at senior leadership levels. In 2017, women’s participation at the ministerial level stood at just 18.3%, although there has been an increase in the number of jurisdictions with a woman Head of State or Head of Government. 

While all regions have reported progress in relation to women’s descriptive representation, a geographical analysis shows considerable regional variations (see Table 1 below). The Nordic region stands out as the only one to have achieved over 40% women’s representation and has been leading the way on this issue for quite some time, reaching 35% female representation two decades ago, but progress has stalled considerably. Indeed, Denmark, Iceland, and Sweden all saw women’s representation fall in their most recent parliamentary elections (Dahlerup 2018).
Table 1

Women’s representation in single/lower houses: regional averages (%), 1997 and 2018




Nordic countries



Europe – OSCE member countries (including Nordic countries)









Europe – OSCE member countries (not including Nordic countries)



Sub-Saharan Africa






Arab states






Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (n.d.)

No other world region has of yet reached 30%. The Americas and Europe (excluding the Nordic countries) have experienced similar rates of growth since 1997, and women currently account for 28.6% of parliamentarians in the former and 26% in the latter. Much of the change in the Americas has been the result of the implementation of legislative candidate quotas in Latin American parliaments. The sub-Saharan African region is close behind with 23.7% women’s representation, up from just 10.8% in 1997, and the region has seen some historic gains for women in politics.

Women currently hold less than one-fifth of seats in Asia (19.5%) and the Arab States (18.5%), although rates of increase in these regions have been significant especially in the Arab States considering women held less than 4% of seats 20 years ago. By contrast women remain significantly underrepresented in parliamentary politics in the Pacific where cultural barriers to the political participation of women remain particularly strong (Zeitlin 2014). Just 15.5% of seats in the region are held by women, well below the global average, and there has been minimal change since 1997.

Why Does Women’s Descriptive Representation Matter?

There is a well-rehearsed literature examining why the descriptive representation of women in global politics matters. The arguments can be summarized under three broad themes: justice arguments, difference arguments, and pragmatic arguments (Lovenduski 2005).

Influenced largely by liberal feminism and the stress it places on achieving equal political and legal rights between women and men, arguments from justice are the most powerful. In essence, those of this view argue that it is simply unfair for men to be disproportionally represented in politics. The underrepresentation of women results from direct or indirect discrimination and not because, as was once assumed, men have some biological advantage over women that makes them more superior politicians. This perspective does not presume that women will make any difference to the political process – it is about descriptive representation – but argues that gendered barriers must be dismantled in the name of equal opportunity. The equal representation of women, the “politics of presence,” is an end in itself. Phillips (1995, 65) concludes that: “There is no argument from justice that can defend the current state of affairs. […] [but] there is an argument for parity between women and men.” Furthermore, as discussed, the right of women to participate in representational democracy is recognized internationally as a human right.

Different arguments are more contentious and linked to the substantive representation of women: the representation of women’s interests in parliament, by women representatives (Phillips 1995). Drawing on Kanter’s foundational study (Kanter 1977) of women in male-dominated corporate environments, early research in this area focused on the theory of “critical mass” which asserts that women’s seat holding in parliament must reach a certain threshold – usually 30%, sometimes 15% – to enable them to “make a difference” to policy. The theory assumes that a few “token” women are unlikely to make an impact until they grow into a considerable minority and can better assert themselves; an explicit link is thus made between women’s descriptive and substantive representation. In more recent years, however, critical mass has come under scrutiny, and newer research in this area is more sensitive to both institutional and gender dynamics (Lovenduski 2005). The ability of (gendered) political actors to make a substantive impact on policy for women has to be considered, as they may be limited by party affiliation and ideology, how long they have served in parliament, and whether or not they hold positions of power in relation to policy making, for example, as chair of a parliamentary committee or member of cabinet (Wangnerud 2009). Having said that, we should not assume that women representatives are necessarily committed to feminism and gender equality or that all women share common interests or perspectives as women – critical mass theory has been charged as positing essentialist portrayals of women and men (Childs and Krook 2006).

Newer research on substantive representation therefore disputes the linear assumptions of critical mass theory – it is impossible to identity a “tipping point” after which policy is automatically more favorable to women. However, numerous empirical studies do conclude that women representatives, in varying numbers, are more inclined than men to substantively represent what they regard as “women’s issues” and that they give a higher priority to policies relating to education, health, and social affairs (policy areas that are often of disproportionate concern to women), but this cannot be taken for granted (Wangnerud 2009). Rather than focus on critical mass, other scholars focus on “critical actors” for women (Childs and Krook 2006). These are representatives who initiate women-friendly policies on their own and encourage others to substantively represent women. They may do so even when women comprise a minority of parliamentarians, and, importantly, critical actors can be men. “Their common feature is their relatively low threshold for political action” (Childs and Krook 2006, 528).

In an intersectional world, scholars are also increasingly questioning the nature of “women’s interests.” Most studies frame the substantive representation of women through a feminist lens, but Celis and Childs’s (2012) work on conservative women suggests that nonfeminist and antifeminist women representatives also “act for” women in a substantive way. “Good” substantive representation involves recognizing the diversity and ideological conflict of women’s interests.

Despite scholarly reservations about the “predictions” of critical mass, the theory remains important for feminist campaigners globally as an argument for increasing women’s descriptive representation through the use of quotas and, as discussed, is referenced in the Beijing Declaration. The concept is even used by women politicians themselves in response to criticism that they are not making enough of a “difference” for women (Dahlerup 2018). Critical mass is now as significant a mobilizing tool for increasing women’s descriptive representation as it is an academic theory regarding the substantive impact of this increase.

Finally, pragmatic arguments relate to the more widely accepted advantages of increasing the number of women representatives. Political parties, even those who are less ideologically inclined to advocate for gender equality, may run more women candidates in an attempt to “court” women voters or to appear more modern (Lovenduski 2005). Alternatively, arguments from pragmatism can refer to the benefits that women bring to the conduct of parliamentary politics and link to arguments about difference. Women politicians are perceived to be less adversarial and more consensual in political debate (Mackay 2001). While often charged as an essentialist view, a number of empirical studies conclude that “changes in political style, discourse, and decision-making” are associated with higher numbers of women representatives (Lovenduski 2005, 23). Others in this vein advocate for the importance of women’s symbolic representation. Women (and other underrepresented social groups) feel better represented when they see more individuals in office who share descriptive characteristics with them, while an increase in the number of representatives with these characteristics acts to socially legitimize their presence especially among overrepresented groups, for example, men who are mostly middle-class, able-bodied, and heterosexual (Mansbridge 1999). A related argument is that women politicians serve as role models to other women and encourage them to become politically active. Wolbrecht and Campbell’s (2007) cross-national study concludes that the presence of more women parliamentarians heightens political discussion and participation among women, particularly adolescent girls.

Explaining Women’s Underrepresentation

Phillips (1991, 79) adequately concludes that explanations for the underrepresentation of women in politics “lack the drama of the singular cause.” A substantial “women and politics” literature shows the complex interaction between cultural and institutional factors in influencing gender representation. The culture of masculinity deeply embedded in political parties and parliaments, especially but not exclusively in older institutions where the norms, conventions, and rules of recruitment and representation were set by men in favor of male lifestyles, creates barriers for women aspiring to enter politics and continuing difficulties for those who do manage to be selected and elected (Lovenduski 2005). The persistent gender division of labor in all societies means that women continue to undertake more family and other caring responsibilities than men. As a result, women have fewer resources like time, finance, confidence, and local networks to build up a political career (Norris and Lovenduski 1995).

However, there is an increasing awareness that “supply” problems do not fully account for women’s underrepresentation and research is increasingly examining demand-side explanations on the part of political parties, who are the main “gatekeepers” to public office (Kenny 2013). Political parties may discriminate against aspiring women candidates in different ways. For example, particular criteria about what makes a “good candidate” for election are typically gendered – it is based on the status quo – and thus privilege men and masculinity. Relatedly, parties may be reluctant to select women because they fear that voters will react negatively to them. The near-automatic reselection of incumbents, who are mostly (white, middle-class, able-bodied, and heterosexual) men, further restricts opportunities for women to come through the system (McGing 2013). Some studies also conclude more direct forms of discrimination against aspirant women, such as sexist questions being asked of women aspirants in the selection process (Shepard-Robinson and Lovenduski 2002). Importantly, supply- and demand-side factors interact with each other at each stage of political recruitment. For instance, women may hesitate to come forward for selection if they perceive discrimination in the process. As the demand for women candidates increases, supply will increase. Fundamental change must come from political parties (Lovenduski 2005).

Research shows that these gendered individual and party-level factors interact with, and are also influenced by, macro-level variables (themselves highly gendered) such as the electoral system, levels of socioeconomic development, and societal cultural norms to impact on the proportion of women in each national parliament (Norris and Lovenduski 1995; Reynolds 1999).

In terms of electoral systems, numerous studies observe that the proportion of women in parliament increases as the examination moves from plurality/majority systems to those based on PR rules (e.g., Norris 2004; Reynolds 1999). This is largely because of district magnitude, the number of seats per constituency. In most plurality/majority systems, there is only one candidate in each constituency, and the “winner takes all.” By contrast, PR systems have multimember constituencies although the number of seats varies considerably in different countries; in Israel and the Netherlands, the whole country constitutes one national constituency, while parliamentary constituencies in the Republic of Ireland elect between just three and five representatives (Farrell 2011). Multimember constituencies give parties more room to select women candidates without having to displace the (male) incumbent or worry about a negative reaction from voters if the only candidate is a woman – the higher the number of seats, the greater the impact should be, although this is mediated by the behavior and strategies of individual parties (McGing 2013). Incumbency effects are also slightly weaker in PR systems (Lovenduski 2005).

PR systems tend to facilitate more centralized recruitment (Farrell 2011). This gives the party leadership more control over the selection process and gives them the opportunity to increase the proportion of women candidates, if they are ideologically and pragmatically inclined to do so. In decentralized systems where selection is determined by local/regional delegates, or increasingly by individual party members in geographical constituencies through the process of one member/one vote, it is considerably more difficult for party leaders to manage the social diversity of candidate tickets (Hazan and Rahat 2010).

The benefit of PR rules is further illustrated by countries that have a mixed electoral system which combine the principles of plurality/majority and proportionality. In Germany and New Zealand, the proportion of women selected and elected tends to be lower in the single seat constituencies than on the party list (Tremblay 2008).

As discussed below list PR systems are favorable for the implementation of quotas because, unlike other forms of PR that give voters more control over influencing the composition of parliaments, parties operating under such systems can, and in some jurisdictions are mandated to, alternate their national or regional lists of candidates by gender along with meeting a gender threshold for candidates (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005).

Although a small number of countries using plurality/majority systems in combination with quotas have surpassed 30% women’s representation including Uganda and France, electoral systems remain a good overall indicator of women’s representation levels. By contrast socioeconomic and cultural variables, such as women’s participation in the workforce, a developed welfare state, a high Human Development Index, a postindustrial society, the dominant religion, and years lapsed since women’s enfranchisement, are becoming less stable as explanatory factors (Tremblay 2008). There are two important points here. Firstly, largely as a result of electoral gender quotas, countries of the Global South are now overtaking the Global North in electing women to parliament. At present, the top six ranked countries in the world for women’s parliamentary representation are all non-OECD countries: Rwanda, Bolivia, Cuba, Namibia, Nicaragua, and Costa Rica. Secondly, feminist scholars focusing on single case studies as opposed to large N studies show that gender differences between parties within the same jurisdiction are just as significant as they between different countries (Dahlerup 2018). Party ideologies, structures, and cultures that support gender equality can act to negate socioeconomic and cultural variables that work against women’s representation at a national level. Left-wing and Green parties have tended to be more inclusive of women’s participation and more favorable of quota measures than conservative and anti-immigration/xenophobic parties (Dahlerup 2018). The left–right gender divide is becoming less pronounced in established democracies, as right-wing parties seek to feminize their image and some have been led by women (Dahlerup and Leyenaar 2013).

Defining Electoral Gender Quotas

Recent and rapid increases in women’s descriptive representation are largely attributable to the adoption of electoral gender quotas (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Gender quotas for lower houses of parliament and unicameral parliaments are currently used in over a hundred countries around the world. In bicameral systems a number of these countries also employ quotas for upper house elections/appointments, while quotas are also used at subnational levels of politics. One of the earliest examples of quotas dates back to Pakistan in 1956 where ten parliamentary seats were set aside for women, followed by Bangladesh in the 1970s, which used a similar model (Lovenduski 2005). The explosion of gender quotas has occurred over the past 30 years, particularly from the 1990s onwards. Quotas are found in semi- and nondemocratic systems as well as democracies (Dahlerup 2007). They are most commonly found in PR systems because they are easier to implement in multiseat constituencies with multiple candidates from the same party, but quotas have also been adopted in plurality/majority and mixed electoral systems.

Broadly speaking, there are three “types” of gender quotas in politics: party quotas, legal candidate quotas, and reserved seats (Krook 2006). Party quotas are implemented on a voluntary basis by parties – first by left-wing and Green parties largely in response to the pressures exerted by women party activists and the external women’s movement – and operate at the selection stage of party recruitment or more rarely at the shortlisting stage. An example of the latter is the British Labour Party’s use of all-women shortlists in certain vacant seats for parliament. In this case the quota targets the composition of aspirants for selection. Party quotas usually prescribe that a certain proportion of candidates should be women. This type of quota is currently used in at least 54 countries by at least 1 party with parliamentary representation.

Legal candidate quotas operate in a similar way to party quotas in that they both focus on achieving “equality of opportunity” by enhancing the selection of women candidates, but there are important distinctions between the two models. Legislative quotas are mandated by legal or constitutional reform and thus apply to all political parties contesting elections in the jurisdiction. Additionally, most legal candidate quotas include enforcement mechanisms involving either financial penalties for parties or, more effectively, the rejection of the party’s candidate list by electoral authorities (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Financial penalties may not have the desired effect if larger parties are prepared to accept the fine instead of fully implementing the quota, as happened in France (Lovenduski 2005). Nonetheless, the Republic of Ireland shows that well-designed, punitive monetary sanctions can be highly effective in encouraging parties to comply fully with the law (Buckley et al. 2016).

In list PR electoral systems, both party and legislative quotas can include “rank order rules” to enhance their effectiveness. Even if women account for 30% of candidates, there may be no increase in women’s descriptive representation if they are placed in low positions on the party list. This practice first started in Sweden in the early 1990s when the Social Democratic Party, under pressure from feminists threatening to establish a women’s party, introduced the “zipper method,” which is the practice of alternating party candidate lists by gender. This practice was later adopted by a number of other Swedish parties in a “contagion effect” (Freidenvall 2003) and is today used by many progressive parties on a voluntary basis. There are other types of rank order rules. There may be a more modest requirement that, for every three candidates on the party list, one must be a woman, a requirement that the top two candidates are not the same gender, or a 60:40 rule for the top five placed candidates. Some form of rank order rule is legislated for in a number of countries, including Argentina, Belgium, Ecuador, Mexico, and Tunisia. This is called a “double quota.”

Studies have shown that the most effective electoral gender quotas include both rank order rules and enforcement mechanisms (Schwindt-Bayer 2009) – without them, quotas may be purely symbolic (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Interestingly, we are now witnessing a global wave of legal quota revisions, most of which strengthen quota rules by increasing the proportion of women candidates to be selected, by adopting rules for rank ordering or by strengthening enforcement mechanisms (Dahlerup 2018). Lawmakers are increasingly recognizing that rules about the proportion of women candidates, while well-intentioned, do not necessarily guarantee an increase in women’s representation if parties do not act “in the spirit” of the law and continue to run men in electable positions. Mexico has strengthened its quota law a number of times, and the effect of this has been significant (Dahlerup 2018). Between the 2003 and 2015 parliamentary elections, women’s seat holding increased from 22.6% to 42.6%.

Previous research by Dahlerup (2007) illustrates regional clustering in relation to the types of electoral gender quotas employed around the world. Legislative candidate quotas were predominant in Central/South America – Argentina was the first country in the world to legislate for candidate quotas in 1991 and started a contagion effect in the region – while party quotas were the most common measure employed in Western Europe. An updated regional analysis of quotas for this chapter shows little change to these patterns in 2018, apart from Europe where an increasing number of parliaments have legislated for candidate quotas. The European Union “pioneers” of legislative candidate quotas – France, Belgium, Portugal, Slovenia, Spain, and Croatia – have in more recent years been followed by Poland, the Republic of Ireland, Greece, and Luxembourg (in order of their adoption). Italy had a legislative quota for elections to the lower house in 1994, but the law was declared unconstitutional in 1995. Legal quotas are, however, used today for elections in 12 of Italy’s 20 regional governments and also for European elections. The legislation of candidate quotas by a number of postcommunist/socialist countries in Central and Eastern Europe is particularly significant as historically there was heavy resistance to quota measures in these contexts. They served as a reminder of “forced emancipation” of Soviet rule (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005, 34). However, it is a myth that most communist countries had a 30% quota for women’s political representation. Gender quota laws for candidates are now in place in Albania, Poland, and the seven independent states that were formerly part of Yugoslavia (Dahlerup and Antić Gaber 2017).

Reserved seats are mandated by legal or constitutional change in 23 countries. They can take a number of different forms, but they all reserve a certain number of seats for women (and sometimes for other social groups such as youth or ethno-religious groups) either in specially designated constituencies or regular constituencies. Reserved seat quotas are thus focused on achieving “equality of results” rather than “equality of opportunity.” Dahlerup (2007) shows that reserved seats are found almost exclusively in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East (but other quota types are also used in these areas). Increasingly women are being elected as opposed to appointed to reserved seats. Countries where women are elected to reserved seats include Jordan, Uganda, Morocco, and Rwanda. Reserved seats can act to encourage women’s descriptive representation in strongly patriarchal cultures – depending on the number of seats reserved for women which generally range from 10% to 30% when converted to percentages – and they have also been employed as part of a country’s reconciliation process and transition to democracy, such as Iraq (Dahlerup 2007).

Different types of quotas can be in operation in one country. In Rwanda, for example, two women per province are elected by a special electorate comprised of women’s organizations and local councilors. These reserved seats are used in conjunction with a legal candidate quota for district elections, which specifies that at least 30% of candidates on the party list must be women (Dahlerup 2018). Rwanda has the highest proportion of women parliamentarians in the world (61.3%) largely as a result of these combined measures.

The Adoption of Electoral Gender Quotas

Electoral gender quotas represent an instrumental or fast-track approach to increasing women’s descriptive representation (Dahlerup 2018), as opposed to an incremental approach. The incremental view is that the proportion of women candidates will gradually increase in line with other advances for women in society, such as their access to education and participation in the workforce. Soft “equality promotion” strategies, like training and mentoring for aspiring women candidates, financial assistance for campaigning women, or the setting of aspirational targets, may also be emphasized as part of the incremental track to facilitate women to “catch up” with men in politics (Lovenduski 2005).

It is often wrongly assumed that women’s representation in Scandinavia reached record highs as a result of the early implementation of gender quotas by political parties. In fact, the Scandinavian story is more accurately characterized as an incremental strategy (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Significant activism on the part of the women’s movement, the early expansion of the welfare state, increases in women’s socioeconomic opportunities and the use of List PR all fostered a more amenable environment for women’s candidacy relative to other countries in Western Europe, at an earlier point in time. A number of political parties in Denmark, Sweden, and Norway introduced voluntary gender quotas in the 1980s when women already accounted for 20–30% of parliamentarians, which at that point was a global high (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). A large minority of women parliamentarians, supported by the wider women’s movement, mobilized their parties to implement voluntary quotas to consolidate women’s descriptive representation. As Matland (2004, 64) concludes: “In the Scandinavian case, quotas may not lead to significant representation, but rather, significant representation may lead to quotas.” Competition on the issue of women’s representation by different political parties within the three jurisdictions but also across the wider Nordic cluster further encouraged parties to act, particularly on the ideological left (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Not all parties introduced voluntary quotas for public elections, for example, the Center Party in Norway. Scandinavia is often held up as “the model” by those advocating for increases in women’s descriptive representation, but “it would not be easy to transplant the Scandinavian institutions in other countries and assume they will function in a similar manner” (Matland 2004, 64).

In shifting the discourse from an incremental to an instrumental approach, the diagnosis of women’s underrepresentation changes. Even though the document also makes reference to softer measures to assist women in politics, Beijing in 1995 firmly shifted the global discourse on women’s representation from an incremental approach to an instrumental one. Quotas firmly place the burden of change on political parties as the “gatekeepers” to elective office, recognizing that the gendered privileging of individual men and cultural masculinity in party institutions suppresses the demand for women candidates, despite increases in the supply of individual women candidates as women become more active in parties (Kenny 2013). The focus is on achieving rapid results – fix the culture, instead of “fixing” the women.

As Dahlerup and Freidenvall (2005, 27) argue in relation to the Scandinavian experience: “It took approximately 60 years for Denmark, Norway and Sweden to cross the 20% threshold, and 70 years to reach 30%. Today, women’s movements are unwilling to wait so long.” The Republic of Ireland, for example, proves a cautionary tale for advocates of the incremental approach in historically conservative cultures. The rapid expansion of economic and social opportunities available to Irish women during the “Celtic Tiger” era of the 1990s and early 2000s, in addition to the use of soft measures by all major parties, did not lead to more women entering parliament (McGing 2013). Only the introduction of legal candidate gender quotas in 2012 by a parliament with 85% male representation would act to finally dismantle the monopoly of men in Irish politics and increase women’s parliamentary representation from just 15% to 22% in one electoral cycle (Buckley et al. 2016).

The increasing adoption of quotas by male-dominated parties and parliaments, in all types of societies, is a significant phenomenon in the latest “wave” of quotas. This is mainly because of mobilization by domestic women’s movements and women in political parties for quotas, complemented by international and regional pressures, but pragmatic considerations are also important as discussed above: the representation of women is electorally and politically attractive (Lovenduski 2005).

Electoral gender quotas, despite their rapid global spread and increasing support from male party elites, remain controversial in most societies for a number of reasons (Lovenduski 2005). It is the “fast-track” nature of quotas that causes much of the controversy, the assumption being that women selected, elected, or appointed as a result of quota rules are being promoted over more qualified men. Quotas are seen in this vein as a threat to the “meritocratic” principles of politics, as unfair to men, and this discourse is particularly prominent in liberal models of citizenship which focuses on the (presumed gender-neutral) individual, for example, the USA and the UK (Krook et al. 2009). There is no objective criteria to define what “merit” means in politics, however, and the concept is highly gendered in the first place considering that the norms of candidate selection were set by men who never have their credentials for politics scrutinized (Murray 2014). Empirical studies on the educational and political profiles of candidates in quota systems dispute the argument that quotas result in “unqualified” candidates, when measured by these variables. Women politicians in Argentina generally have the same level of education as men (Franceschet and Piscopo 2012), and in some Asian quota systems, women actually have a higher level of education (Dahlerup 2018). Nugent and Krook (2016) show that women MPs selected under all-women shortlists in the British Labour Party have more electoral experience overall than their women and men party colleagues and also Conservative Party MPs.

The Effectiveness of Electoral Gender Quotas

What impact have electoral gender quotas had on women’s descriptive representation in politics? Table 2 (below) shows the top 15 countries in the world for women’s seat holding in early 2018. All bar two countries employ some form of quota: eight have legal candidate quotas, and in five countries, at least one party with parliamentary representation uses party quotas. Only Cuba (a one-party state) and Finland, with 48.9% and 42% women’s representation, respectively, do not have any quotas.
Table 2

Women’s representation in single/lower houses: top-ranking countries (%), 2018


% Women in parliament

Election year


Electoral system

1. Rwanda



Legal quota and reserved seats


2. Bolivia



Legal quota


3. Cuba




One party

4. Namibia



Party quota


5. Nicaragua



Legal quota


6. Costa Rica



Legal quota


7. Sweden



Party quota


8. Mexico



Legal quota


9. South Africa



Party quota


10. Finland





11. Senegal



Legal quota


12. Norway



Party quota


13. Mozambique



Party quota


14. Spain



Legal quota


15. France



Legal quota


Source: Inter-Parliamentary Union (n.d.)

The global picture shows that electoral gender quotas have significantly advanced women’s access to parliamentary politics, despite there being resistance to their full implementation in some countries (Krook 2016). Interestingly, the data suggests that party quotas can have a considerable effect on gender representation even though they have no sanctions for noncompliance. Party quotas have had an impact in left-wing and Green parties where there is a greater ideological willingness to advance gender equality. In older democracies like Germany, Sweden, and the UK, women’s representation in social democratic and labor parties has remained stable or increased since the adoption of party quotas in the 1980s and 1990s (Dahlerup 2018). Centralized candidate selection systems and the presence of women’s party activists who can push for quota implementation are also important factors for the success of party quotas (Davidson-Schmich 2006).

PR electoral systems and PR lists in mixed systems continue to advance women’s candidacy and representation to a much greater extent than plurality/majority systems. As discussed, quotas are easier to adopt and implement in PR systems, especially those that facilitate rules regarding the rank ordering of candidates. Electoral gender quotas are most effective when there is a good “fit” with wider institutional structures, and it is important that policy makers design them with this in mind.

Most significantly, as already discussed, the use of electoral gender quotas means that many Global South parliaments are now overtaking the Global North as world leaders in women’s descriptive representation. No longer is it the case that wealthier countries elect more women to parliament. This is a rapid turnaround on the situation just 20 years ago when the majority of the top countries were in the Global North, with Sweden, Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, and Finland emerging at the very top (in that order). The Scandinavian model is no longer the model for improving women’s descriptive representation – or at least the only model that other states aspiring to increase women’s descriptive representation have to follow.


This research has shown that electoral gender quotas are most effective when they combine with wider institutional structures and cultural norms, particularly PR, party ideologies that support gender equality, and the presence of women party activists both within and outside of parties. Importantly, voluntary party quotas can be as effective as legal quotas if the right institutional and ideological factors are present. The rapid increase in women’s descriptive representation in many regions in the Global South is particularly significant and further questions the incremental approach to women’s representation. Despite repeated discussion about the “Scandinavian model” – a region where progress has stalled considerably – the Global South has showcased how to grow women’s representation at a much more rapid pace.

Of course, electoral gender quotas do not correct all of the institutional and cultural barriers that prevent women’s equal access to politics and soft measures like the training and the financial resourcing of women candidates may also be required alongside quotas for maximum effect. Nor do quotas solve the various difficulties that women face once elected to office, for instance, combining motherhood with parliamentary duties. However, when properly implemented, quotas do obstruct highly male-dominated recruitment patterns by actively encouraging parties to select increased numbers of women candidates or representatives (Dahlerup and Freidenvall 2005). Further research should consider the adoption and implementation of gender quotas at other levels of politics, including quotas for internal party positions and for subnational elections. Women’s descriptive representation at lower levels is important in itself, but it also facilitates them to build up the experience and resources to contest national elections.


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Law and Cases

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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2019

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Social Sciences Institute and Department of GeographyMaynooth UniversityMaynoothIreland

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