To what extent do gender quotas solve the problem of women’s underrepresentation?
Gender quotas within the political sphere are defined by Bacchi, as “a form of affirmative action, aimed at increasing women’s representation in elected legislative bodies” (2006, 32). The three most popular types of quota used are voluntary party quotas, legislated candidate quotas and legislated reserved seats (IDEA, 2013). Voluntary party quotas refer to certain political parties setting up a quota to “guarantee the nomination of a certain number or proportion of women” (Chen, 2010), as seen in countries such as Sweden or the UK. This differs to the likes of legislated candidate quotas in which the constitution or party law governs the minimum percentage of women candidates, as seen in the case of Ireland, Belgium or France. Lastly, legislated reserved seats, which directly refer to the number of seats which women are to take up within a parliament; although it is the least common type of quota used, 36 countries adopt this system and range from the likes of Tanzania to Rwanda to Pakistan (IDEA, 2013).
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It is undeniable that the use of quotas has increased significantly since the Fourth World Conference for Women in Beijing in 1995; which aimed to tackle the disparities in women’s access to political decision making within power structures (Dahlerup & Friedanvall, 2008). However, the question as to whether they solve the problem of underrepresentation still remains. Representation itself can be defined in descriptive terms, referencing the overall proportion of women in the political sphere; or it could be substantive, referring to women politicians acting explicitly for women’s interests. In most cases, quotas are seen to be “measures that target gender bias in the candidate selection process, with the goal of increasing women’s descriptive representation” (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008). The assumption being that these women will act in the interests of women. However, it must be noted that the descriptive representation of women in Parliaments does not necessarily translate into substantive representation or even effective descriptive representation; often there are a wide variety of factors which influence representation outside of quotas. This can be in the form of institutional factors such as the electoral system that is already in place. In addition to this, socio-cultural values regarding the place of women in society, and contradictory issues such as the mandate effect or the label effect all impact on how quota women are perceived, thereby limiting their effectiveness. As well as this, design and implementation factors are massively influential in determining the success of quotas and how they merge with the current electoral system; this can be seen through the differences between PR and majoritarian system as well as the effectiveness of enforcement methods used for non-complying parties. As a result of this, the extent of which quotas solve the problem of women’s underrepresentation is limited, as their success is largely reliant on additional factors; proving that the use of quotas alone is not enough to solve problems surrounding underrepresentation, both in descriptive and substantive terms.
The increased use of quotas is a response to the UN Fourth Women’s Conference in Beijing in 1995, which highlighted that at the time, only 10% of seats in national legislatures were being held by women, with a lower percentage holding ministerial seats (UN, 1995). Quotas are now targeted to improving the descriptive representation of women within politics (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008). This refers to improving the numbers of women in Parliaments in the hope that this will evolve into a ‘critical mass’ which will help to determine public policy outcomes. This is highlighted by the likes of Lovenduski who argued that “when a group reaches a certain size, critical mass theory suggests that there will be a qualitative change in the nature of group interactions, as the minority starts to assert itself and thereby transform the institutional culture, norms and values.” (2005, 142) Therefore, by improving the descriptive representation of women in politics, it will automatically translate into a change of attitudes, culture and policy outcomes, which will assist in an increase in policy outcomes benefitting women, therefore positively increasing substantive representation. However, whilst quotas are often successful in improving the descriptive representation of women as seen in Latin America, in which Mexico, Nicaragua, Argentina and Bolivia are all in the top twenty countries for women’s representation in Parliament (IPU,2017). This descriptive representation has not translated into effective substantive representation, in which women policy makers will act in such a way that will benefit women constituents. An interesting case study from this perspective is Argentina, which despite its strong descriptive representation at 38.9% (IPU, 2017) lacks a strong substantive representation, in which many of the bills that have been introduced which positively impact women are not passed. Henceforth, despite the fact that women within government are trying to act on the substantive interests of women, on the basis that the introduction of bills surrounding sexual harassment and reproductive rights increased cumulatively as descriptive representation increased (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008). It must be noted that there is a difference between the introduction of bills and the policy outcomes as these bills were very rarely followed through. This is because outside factors are hugely influential in determining the policies that are passed in the Argentinian government. Some of these factors are reflected in informal institutional practices such as work times, location of strategy meetings and most importantly, the attitudes towards women attending meetings. This highlights an innate double standard, observed by Franceschet and Piscopo who reported that ‘If they (women) skip the meeting, they are treated as uncommitted to their work and thus lose professional respect. If they attend, however, they are considered more sexually freewheeling, and thus lose personal respect.” (2008). Because of these factors, women parliamentarians find it increasingly difficult to establish a substantive presence. These misunderstandings regarding the impact that descriptive representation has on substantive representation is also seen in Uganda. Although women hold a critical minority in Parliament at 34% (World Bank, 2017), there are a wide variety of outside factors which deter substantive representation greatly. One of the most important factors is party patronisation, which “divides women and hinders their ability to strengthen their substantive representation” (Barenzi, 2014). In addition to this, many women feel that they are motivated more by party loyalties than through the promotion of women’s interests with one MP stating: “we are not strong enough on the ground because we are also still learning and therefore you feel right at the back of the political party, therefore you must follow all the do’s and don’ts” (Barenzi, 2014). This links back to the issues surrounding critical mass theory and quotas, as despite the ‘critical mass’ figure being met, women don’t feel as if they can fully represent the interests of women without further stigmatisation, proving that additional factors are extremely influential in helping or hindering women’s representation despite the use of quotas. Thereby demonstrating that the extent of which quotas are successful at solving the problem of representation is limited. Furthering this, Uganda also has very poor public education campaigns and a substantial media bias against women. This has been explicitly demonstrated regarding the advancement of the Marriage and Divorce Bill in the 9th Parliament (Barenzi, 2014) in which woman still find it extremely difficult to gain a divorce. Consequently, the quota system within Uganda has been described as “a legal quota system that accelerated descriptive representation, yet explicitly disrupts substantive representation” (Barenzi, 2014). This could be a result of the ‘label’ effect, in which women are often the result of negative labelling and stereotyped as being ‘unqualified’. Indeed, this argument has been highlighted by Clayton, who found that a potential backlash of quotas can result in ‘women’s issues becoming a less salient or less prestigious agenda’ (2016). This weakens initiatives for substantive representation as women must comply to the status quo in order to be taken seriously; this is something that quotas are unable to tackle as this is a result of institutional or cultural barriers (Krook, 2010). This presents clear evidence of the shortcomings of quota systems, especially when they are implemented from the ‘top down’, as whilst it may raise the number of women in Parliaments, they are limited in guaranteeing effective substantive representation in Parliaments, because both formal and informal institutional practices limit the effect that women can have for women in Parliament; thereby limiting their effectiveness in solving problems regarding women’s underrepresentation.
In addition to this, quotas also are limiting in solving the problem of women’s underrepresentation on the basis that they are unable to govern the type of woman put forward in candidate lists. This is important on the basis that it will not prevent corruption, nepotism and elitism within the political process which is central in obtaining an effective representative democracy. For example, in Argentina, quotas are ineffective in preventing ‘mujeres de’, literally translating to ‘women of’, in this case referring to political parties placing “wives or relatives of male party leaders”; with one commenter observing that the ‘mujeres de’ were “silent women who never spoke or acted until instructed by party bosses” (Franceschet & Piscopo, 2008). Therefore, although quotas may improve the overall descriptive representation of women in parliaments, they do little to ensure that the women who are placed for candidacy aren’t merely replacing their male relatives (Franceschet and Piscopo, 2008); thereby implying that women are mere tokens within the political system. Argentina is not an isolated case regarding quotas not representing the wider public, as the the AWS system in Britain tended to favour more ‘elite women’, elite in this sense is defined as ‘Oxbridge’ graduates (Nugent & Krook, 2015) and found that AWS women were more ‘elite’ than their Labour counterparts. This has been emphasised by Owen Jones who stated, “AWS have been successful in expanding the career options of a tiny elite of professional, university educated women” (Nugent & Krook, 2015). This obviously is not a clear representation of the British population who are not university educated at this level. This demonstrates that whilst quotas are capable in improving descriptive representation, they have little impact in policing the type of candidates put forward. This clearly highlights their limitations in solving the problems of women’s representation; as despite their successes in promoting descriptive representation, they are severely limited in solving women’s underrepresentation in terms of class and race and are overly simplified on the basis that the experiences of a white, middle-class, university educated parliamentarian will be extremely different to a working class, black woman.
Following on from this, quotas are also limited in monitoring how far women can pursue and gain positions of power within the political process. It is true that with quotas, the number of women in Parliament do improve; but how much power do they wield, and can they gain enviable positions of power? This argument has been put forward by Folke and Rickne who argued that “despite women’s advances, descriptive evidence abounds that female representation in positions of influence” (2012). Thereby, proving that whilst quotas can be effective in improving overall representation in the countries in which they are implemented they are relatively ineffective in helping women get to significant positions of power and influence. This has been demonstrated again in Latin American countries in which women parliamentarians aren’t effectively represented in ‘power committees’ and have little control over important decisions within economic, defence or foreign affairs sectors and are often side-lined to relatively unimportant ‘women’s issues’ and ‘social’ committees (Michelle-Heath, Schwindt-Bayer, Taylor-Robinson, 2005). One way to perhaps remedy this would be to introduce quotas at the highest levels of office such as in cabinet or ministerial positions where they are privy to the highest levels of decision-making and power. Perhaps a more radical way of improving this representation would be to introduce quotas for men, as suggested by Rainbow Murray, who argues that gender quotas are a problematic way in promoting the idea that ‘men are the norm and women are the “other”’ (2014). Consequently, by implementing these quotas at the highest levels of decision making could be beneficial in the likes of Latin American countries who struggle enormously with women reaching significant positions of power, despite their large presence in parliament. This is due to the fact that until women are at the heart of decision making committees or are privy to the highest levels of power, current gender quotas will be relatively ineffective at solving the problem of representation on the basis that despite the increased descriptive representation caused by gender quotas it does little to allow women to rise significant positions of power as this route is often blocked by gendered institutional practices, norms and values.
On a further note, the way in which quotas are executed in different countries is enormously influential regarding how they solve the problem of representation. Therefore, suggesting that the extent of which quotas are successful in solving the problem of women’s underrepresentation is dependent on the nature of their implementation. Friedanvall and Dahlerup, have highlighted this argument by stating that “historical jumps in women’s representation can be achieved by many other means besides quotas…and reversely, quotas do not always result in increased representation” (2005). The effectiveness of quotas in terms of substantive interests depends on this. For example, if women are elected via the ‘fast track’ (Dahlerup & Friedanvall, 2005) with quotas being implemented immediately, then although their descriptive representation may increase dramatically, it may have very little effect on women’s empowerment and substantive representation if these women do not have a strong support network or power base to fall back on. This argument is furthered by Krook who emphasised the importance of mass-mobilisation and the role of the public/private divide in the impact of quotas (2010). This proves that quotas do not automatically lead to the empowerment and further representation of women if elected via the fast track. Dahlerup and Friedanvall conclude that critical acts are central to tackling the problem of women’s substantive representation (2005). A way of solving this would be to ensure that quotas are introduced alongside the removal of cultural barriers, with women’s organisations working with parliaments to educate those in the executive about the importance of women’s interests; thereby assisting in solving the problem of women’s substantive representation alongside increasing their descriptive representation. This incremental change has proved to be hugely successful in countries such as Sweden; whose women are represented both descriptively and substantively; with studies proving that their input has improved the quality of the Swedish parliament (Dahelrup & Fridanvall, 2005). Whilst being a slower and more gradual process, it would prevent women’s representation being purely symbolic, allowing to create real and meaningful change; on the basis that quotas alone are relatively limited in solving the problem of women’s representation without the discourse from outside institutions or the support of those in power positions within parliament.
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In addition to this, the use of quotas alone is not enough to solve the problem of representation, as their success is governed by their design and how they fit into the current electoral system. This is highlighted by Schwindt-Bayer who stated that “the quota’s effectiveness depends on their design” (2011). Indeed, whilst quotas themselves provide the theoretical foundation to solve the problem of women’s underrepresentation via critical mass theory, they are limited without the implementation of a wide variety of other factors. A key example of such a factor would be using sanctions to enforce the quota. The most effective of which see electoral authorities banning the lists of non-complying parties if they do not have an appropriate number of women (Kenny, 2015); this has been seen in the case of Belgium which has a gender quota law of 50%, with non-complying parties being refused by the electoral authorities (Friedenvall & Dahlerup, 2013). Belgium currently has 38% of women in its Parliament (IPU, 2017), in comparison to the likes of Indonesia, which despite a 30% quota implementation, only 11% of its legislature is made up of women (Schwindt-Bayer, 2011). This therefore proves that the singular use of quotas is not sufficient in solving problems of women’s representation as it requires the assistance of outside factors for quotas to be fully effective. In addition to this, the type of electoral system can also have a strong impact on the effectiveness of quotas, this has been highlighted by Walters who stated: “electoral systems are really driving the change in the effectiveness of quotas” (2015); again, proving that quotas are reliant on a host of other factors to be successful. It is often stated that quotas work best when implemented in a PR system with high party district magnitudes and a closed-list, allowing parties to place women in electable positions (Jones, 1999). This has been seen in countries such as Bolivia in which 1/3 positions must be occupied by a woman (Jones, 1999). In contrast to this, Brazil, despite having a 30% gender quota implemented, women only make up 10.7% of the lower house and 14.8% of the Senate (IPU, 2017). This is partly due to the open-list PR system used in Brazil which is more individualised (Miguel, 2008) and therefore allows voters to root for specific candidates. This reinforces the statement by Schwindt-Bayer arguing that success of quotas is heavily reliant on their design (2011), as quotas systems which are implemented with closed-list, PR systems with high district party magnitudes are more successful in solving the problems of women’s descriptive underrepresentation than those who operate under a majoritarian system or PR systems which operate with an open-list system with low district party magnitudes. This is on the basis that these systems allow for a more individualist and personable electoral system, lacking compatibility with quotas, proving that the design of the electoral system is paramount to a quota’s success.
Consequently, whilst it would be wrong to dismiss quotas as completely ineffective in solving the problems of women’s underrepresentation within politics; it is true that they are heavily reliant on the individual design, implementation and cultural factors of a country. This is demonstrated through the varying successes that quotas have had worldwide, with some countries improving at a faster rate than others. Therefore, quotas are severely limited in solving the problem of women’s underrepresentation alone; what is necessary for quotas to reach their full potential are strong enforcement methods, an open-list PR system with high district party magnitudes and finally an attitude of cultural equality within society. The latter being the hardest to achieve but could be accomplished via international pressures, a mobilisation of women’s groups within civil society and more comprehensive public education on the difference that women can make if allowed to have a significant voice in policy decision making processes. We are already seeing this sort of success in countries such as Rwanda, Sweden and Belgium in which women’s groups within civil society is becoming increasingly influential in working with parliaments. Consequently, if this is achieved, gender quotas will be able to execute substantial strides in solving the problem of women’s underrepresentation within politics. However, presently, quotas are viewed as a simple solution to an extremely complex problem.
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