Gender Quotas: For Parliament, From Parliament

Vaishnavi Prathap, Vidisha Mehta, Mihika Sharma, Madiery Vasquez, Arkopal Datta, Rodrigo Ventocilla
The authors are students in the Master in Public Administration and International Development program at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Dedicated to honor the memory of our dear friend and co-author, Rodrigo Ventocilla. He will always be remembered for his intellectual motivation, passion for activism, kind friendship and invaluable contributions to the class of 2023.

The world has taken great strides toward gender equality in recent years, and this is apparent in many spheres of life. Yet, equality in political representation and office is conspicuously lagging. According to the Global Gender Gap Index, women’s political representation remains one of the largest gaps among dimensions considered, such as economic participation, educational attainment, health, and political empowerment, considered in the index. Women constituted just 26.4% of the members of lower and upper houses of parliaments globally in March 2022 (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2022); this number is around 15-18% of low to middle-income countries. It is no surprise then that gender quotas— or any form of institutional rules that recruit women into political positions to counteract instances of structural discrimination— have emerged as a popular corrective mechanism, as exhibited in Figure 1.

Figure 1: Year of adoption of Gender Quotas in National Parliaments

Why are quotas important?

Gender quota systems can take many forms, including compulsory, constitutional, and political party quotas (Peschard, 2003). Reservations are a type of compulsory quota where certain constituencies are ‘reserved’ for women candidates, guaranteeing that one will be elected; this system of quotas is prevalent in South Asia, the Middle East, and Africa, more widely at the subnational level. There are also voluntary or constitutionally mandated party quotas, where political parties commit that a certain proportion of their candidates would be women; this does not guarantee a woman representative but increases opportunities for deserving candidates to emerge. Such systems of quotas are pervasive in Latin America and the Caribbean countries (LAC) at the national level. Just as there is variety in the type of quota and level of government, there is also heterogeneity in the percentage of quota chosen, the strength of their enforcement by governments, and other implementation details.

Research confirms that quotas are effective at increasing opportunities for women in leadership (Pande and Ford, 2011), that quotas with enforcement mechanisms boost women’s political inclusion at the national level (Htun and Jones 2002) and those female political representatives can act as gatekeepers for women’s rights even at sub-national levels. One example is the enforcement of property rights as described by Brule (2020).

Women’s political representation through quotas can increase the focus on women’s issues, boost overall social outcomes (Westfall, 2016; Peschard 2003, Brule 2020), and also improve service delivery in areas such as health, education, and infrastructure.  However, the strength of improvements in service delivery seems to depend on the type of quota system implemented (Westfall et al 2016, Peschard, 2003). Westfall (2016) notes that reservations have a strong association with positive conditions for women’s health, but the relationship is much stronger under a seat-based system.  Taken together, these suggest that the desired social impact is critically dependent on the design of quotas and possibly their rigorous enforcement.

Yet, despite their global popularity and proven effectiveness, not all countries that “need” quotas have them. In this article, we argue that this is not for the want of political awareness or better civil society organizing. Rather, the fundamental bottleneck for effective gender quotas is that their adoption itself is a political action of Parliament (and enforcement is an action of the government in power) that can only take place when the political advantage for the incumbent is strong enough. This political advantage is composed of both demand-side factors (public demands for gender-equal representation and voter support for women candidates) and supply-side factors such as parties’ ability to recruit and nominate a pool of high-quality candidates likely to win their seats.

How do quotas get adopted?

The demand-side explanation for why gender quotas eventually get adopted is simply that there is a vociferous and undeniable call for women’s political representation. This is an expression of shifting norms around women’s equality and role in public life, that remains unmet in the normal course of elections. The emphasis on women’s political representation is evident in the recommendations and declarations of a wide range of international bodies—led primarily by the United Nations, but including the Inter-Parliamentary Union, African Union, and European Union among many others—urging member states to achieve a minimum of 30% women in all elected positions.  For example, the UN Beijing Conference for Women in 1995 set an agenda for women’s gender equality that was endorsed by an unprecedented 189 countries; quotas for women in legislatures were a keystone of that agenda. Bangladesh, for example, raised its quota from 7% to 30% in response to a push from UNDP.

Hughes, Krook, and Paxton (2015) differentiate between global pressure on national governments and local homegrown support for women’s equality, and carefully analyze the extent to which each explained quota adoption in 149 out of 189 countries. Their initial models confirm that—some negative interaction effects notwithstanding—the strength of the international movement and the local presence of organized advocacy are among the largest determinants of quota adoption. The same authors also report that regional density is positively associated with quota adoption. The regional density hypothesis, also documented in Htun (2016), was specifically used to explain the unique pattern of rapid adoption among Latin American and Caribbean (LAC) countries. We are reminded of the case of Argentina, a relatively early adopter in 1991 but not before a prolonged feminist movement, that in fact boosted similar movements around the region Argentina’s pioneering adoption of the candidate quota law and its struggle to implement it set the stage for quota adoption in the rest of the region. Politicians like Marcel Durrieu traveled around LAC to share experiences, advise local social movements, and promote the demand for gender quotas.

However, the demand-side theory falls short on two counts. First, it fails to explain cases around the world where global pressure and well-organized local demands for gender-equal representation do not achieve the desired results. There are two particularly puzzling studies of contrasts. The first is India, an early and celebrated champion of reserved seats (compulsory quotas) at the panchayat level as early as 1993 but with a frustrating and repeated failure to enact a similar policy at the national level. The Panchayat Reservation bill was passed but the Eighty-Fourth Constitution Amendment Bill meant to reserve one-third of seats in State and Central legislative bodies on a rotational basis was introduced in 1998 and is yet to pass. In theory, this bill enjoys well-intentioned support across the aisle and there has been consistent domestic pressure in the form of social movements since 1971, rising female empowerment and organized civic action stimulated by the Committee on the Status of Women in India and the international momentum emerging from the Beijing Conference in 1995.

The second example is Chile, which was one of the last Latin American countries to adopt a gender quota in the legislature despite a rapid diffusion of both international and domestic pressure since the 1990s. While the bill was introduced many times and strong social movements and policy popularity– a poll conducted in 2006 revealed that more than 70% of citizens supported the parity measures–domestic demand, international pressure, and regional precedent were all prevalent, it was repeatedly defeated in the Parliament until 2015

The demand-side theory also does not explain why demands for ‘equality’ are met by quotas set at different percentages anywhere from 10-50%. Figure 2 plots the quota percentages at the time of initial adoption in approximately 80 countries by 2015 and reveals that the modal thresholds are 30% and 50%. The question then arises: what explains the decision to legislate a different level from the norm and how was the level chosen?

Figure 2: Distribution of Gender Quota Threshold in 2015

Our answer is that these puzzles can only be resolved by simultaneously considering both demand-side and supply-side theories.  Thus, what we observe across the world as adoption decisions, quota percentages, and implementation details are the equilibrium result from a political calculus. Quotas are adopted only when there is immense popular demand and support for women representatives and when it is politically affordable for a committed incumbent government to push the legislation through.

As more women enter the ranks of a political party, it becomes more likely that there will be an increased support quota, because each political party will now have a greater supply of female candidates who can win, affecting the political calculus of the party (Caul 2001). Women’s participation in the party organization as activists could boost their access to power and resources to influence policy, which is what finally enabled the passage of gender quotas in Chile. In addition, it could also increase the pipeline of experienced and ‘winnable’ candidates.

We find this is the primary constraint on both sides of the aisle in the Indian case. Since the bill was tabled, the national level is that the share of female legislators is never in favor of a stable incumbent (see last 2 columns of Table # 1). The last two columns indicate that the share of women in the ruling coalition is almost equivalent to or less than the share of women legislatures in the opposition in most years. Throughout the entire period not only is the share of women legislators low but also roughly equivalent across the aisle. This signifies that there was never an obvious political advantage in passing gender quotas.  Quota adoption and enforcement would almost necessarily come at the cost of losing power. Moreover, evidence from the panchayat level suggests that reservations are often passed after an anti-incumbency wave at the State level to consolidate or cultivate sub-national cadres.

Year Bill introduced? Ruling (Incumbent) Party Incumbent Party’s Share of seats Ruling Coalition Share of seats Women % in Ruling Party Women % in Single-largest Opposition Party Women % in Ruling Coalition Women % in All Opposition
1996 Yes Janata Dal 15% 56% 11.35% 9.26% 8.8% 6.7%
1998 Yes BJP 33.6% 54% 8.2% 7.95% 6.25% 12.2%
1999 Yes BJP 23.75% 54.6% 8.79% 12.28% 7% 6.1%
2008 Yes INC 26.53% 61.1% 8.22% 8.7% 8% 11.4%
2014 No BJP 51.7% 61.6% 11.27% 9.09% 12% 10%
2019 No BJP 55.80% 64.22% 13.53% 11.54% 13.2% 15%

Table 1: National-Level Introduction of the Bill and Party Politics in India

In this article, we have proposed that women’s mobilization and activism in the face of unequal representation is a requisite but not sufficient condition for affirmative policy action. Since the adoption decision is subject to parliamentary majority, it also depends ultimately on the calculus of winners and losers. Specifically, it depends on the supply of high-quality candidates in the incumbent majority such that they would not risk losing power because of their own policy decisions.

If true, the implications run deep for how political representation can come to change, not only in terms of gender but for any type of identity-based equal representation that we desire. Gender quotas are popular precisely because they are a forceful ‘shock’ to a dysfunctional system that delivers poor outcomes along this dimension; the intention is that the quota would guarantee more opportunities for women in legislatures. The demand for gender quotas may arise from internal or external pressures, but an act of Parliament is required to legitimize the quotas. However, if the gender quota policy itself must come from an act of Parliament, then it is not a decision based on values but essentially a political decision that affects re-election into power itself.

The matter is further complicated when we consider the full spectrum of identities that were traditionally excluded and are now contesting for access to power and resources. If the incumbent party were to double down on gender-based reservations at the national level, it risks losing support on other fronts and hence would need a very significant gender advantage over the opposition. Our hypothesis is that the delicate coalitions governing India in the 21st century have not afforded sufficient political capital to take this risk. A similar calculus can be seen in the case of Chile, where the research indicates, that the national-level bill was largely blocked by male deputies who faced a threat to power (Gray, 2003). We understand that for the composition of Parliament to change by an act of Parliament or more broadly, for politics to change through politics itself, quotas are not a silver bullet.



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Editor: Bhawna Prakash

Image credit: Sébastien Thibault