By Sophie Becker
An overwhelming majority of countries across the globe display a disproportionately small number of women represented in their national parliaments. Generally speaking, females make up approximately half the population, yet parliaments rarely reflect these demographics. This is a serious problem, as male dominated institutions are less likely to introduce legislation regarding issues that overwhelmingly impact women. Countries urgently need to increase the representation of women in elected office, and arguably the most effective ways to do that are by implementing quotas and utilizing a proportional representation electoral system. Although quotas and electoral systems display the best overall results, other variables such as political parties also play a significant role.
A gender quota is an institutional mechanism that is implemented in order to combat some of the advantages men are privileged to in the political arena. These quotas determine the percentage of female candidates required to be elected to public office, and many parliamentary systems have implemented these quotas in an attempt to facilitate a pathway to provide women with proper representation. Kang and Tripp (2007) describe three different types of quotas which receive varying levels of compliance: the compulsory party quota, the voluntary party quota, and reserved seats. Compulsory quotas legally require that political parties must nominate a certain number of women. This type of quota is often disrespected as it may be dictated to a party that does not care to promote women’s representation. Noncompliant parties can put women at the bottom of lists or in the running for seats that are impossible to win in order to avoid their obligations, but ensuring enforcement with strict punishments is a strategy to avoid this (Taylor-Robinson 2014). Voluntary quotas typically have a higher compliance rate because the parties choose to carry out the conditions and are therefore more committed to gender equality. Since the result of the reserved seat method is a predetermined percentage of seats in parliament held by women, this technique is generally the most successful in aiding women’s representation (Kang & Tripp 2007). Regardless of their variety in form, quotas are the main institution facilitating the increase of women in legislative bodies and decision-making positions. They allow the bypass of barriers previously insurmountable to female candidates, such as “unequal access to and distribution of party resources” and “inadequate funding of women candidates” (OSCE 2014), leading to sharp increases in representation.
Secondary to gender quotas, it is the proportional representation (PR) electoral system that influences levels of participation by women in the legislature. Table 1 provides evidence for this claim as it displays countries with the top 25 highest percentages of women in parliament in 2016. Upon viewing this table, it is clear the overwhelming majority of states with high percentages of female representation have either PR or Mixed electoral systems.
Source: (Johnson-Myers 2017: 10)
PR systems elect consistently higher numbers of women than their majoritarian counterpart, because in a majoritarian system, “if a male and a female candidate compete for a party’s nomination, a victory for the woman means a loss for the man” (Johnson-Myers 2017: 12). In that situation, it is more likely the male candidate will be supported by both the party and the voters as a ‘safe’ candidate. Furthermore, a closed party list PR system is the ideal way to promote women to parliament because it allows for the ‘zipper system’ in which male and female candidates are alternated throughout the list (Parliamentary Assembly 2005). This zipper system prevents women from being intentionally positioned in the most undesirable places on the list. Past analysis of female representation in parliament pointed to electoral systems as the most significant factor. Although they do undeniably play an influential role, increased study has revealed that the implementation of quotas since the mid-1990s is the largest driver increasing the numbers of women elected to public office (Kang & Tripp 2007). However, it is important to note that political parties can also play a substantial role in the pursuit of representative equality.
Political parties are essential actors in the quest to enhance the representation of women because parties are the ‘gatekeepers’ of elected office. A candidate cannot be elected to parliament without first winning a party nomination. The internal structure of a political party may act as a hurdle obstructing a woman’s trajectory as men often receive preferential treatment in the candidate selection process and are labelled as the superior choice (United Nations, 2005). According to the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (2014), regulations must be enforced upon political parties in order to increase fairness and balance the challenges faced by men and women. Without such regulations, female candidates are at a disadvantage for reasons such as “unequal political and socio-economic power” in comparison to male colleagues, and candidate registration restrictions that “disproportionately affect… women candidates” (OSCE 2014: 16) and impede their access to resources. Institutional mechanisms like party quotas have been introduced to help, but not all parties enact quotas due to a genuine desire for gender equality. Some may support female candidates due to inter-party competition in order to avoid seeming behind more progressive parties, or use those women to mobilize female voters in their favour rather than to actually alter the gender makeup of the leadership (Kang & Tripp 2007). Working to eliminate the gender disparity in political parties is not only important for the expansion of equality, it may also widen a party’s support base and spread their popularity. Furthermore, some studies of parliamentary parties have recorded that an increase in female party elites results in more women being elected to the legislature, so it may be a self-reinforcing mechanism (Kang & Tripp 2007).
Until direct and indirect gender discrimination are eradicated from both the political sphere and society in general, institutional mechanisms such as gender quotas and PR electoral systems, as well as the regulation of candidate selection processes in parties, must be in place in order to allow for the growth of female representation in parliaments. Only when the obstacles preventing women from equal participation are removed will male and female candidates face a level playing field.
Johnson-Myers, T. (2017). The Mixed Member Proportional System: Providing Greater Representation for Women? A Case Study of the New Zealand Experience. Springer International Publishing.
Kang, A. and Tripp, A. (2007). The Global Impact of Quotas: On the Fast Track to Increased Female Legislative Representation. Comparative Political Studies, 41(3): 338 – 361.
Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. (2005). Mechanisms to ensure women’s participation in decision-making: Committee on Equal Opportunities for Women and Men. Council of Europe Publications.
Taylor-Robinson, Michelle M. (2014). “Gender and Legislatures”, in Shane Martin, Thomas Saalfeld, and Kaare W. Strøm (eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Legislative Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 251–66.
The OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights. (2014). Handbook on Promoting Women’s Participation in Political Parties. Warsaw: Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe [Available at: http://www.osce.org/odihr/120877].
United Nations Division for the Advancement of Women. (2005). Equal Participation of Women and Men in Decision-Making Processes, with Particular Emphasis on Political Participation and Leadership. Addis Ababa: United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs [Available at: http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/egm/eql-men/index.html].
Sophie Becker is a third-year undergraduate student studying Politics & International Relations and Geography. Originally from Boston, Sophie is a full time International Student pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree at UCD. Sophie is the 2016-17 winner of the Conor Martin Memorial Prize, which is awarded by the UCD School of Politics and International Relations to the student in Stage Two Politics who achieves the highest combined grade point average in the four core Level Two Politics modules. This blog post was written as part of her coursework for POL30540 Parties in Parliament.