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  • Gabrielle Galchen

The Necessity of Gender Quotas

Updated: Mar 19, 2021

It is universally acknowledged that the United States is known to be the progressive beacon of democracy for the world. Yet as of late — whether it be a public presidential mockery of the Me Too movement, a consistent Senate refusal to pass the Equal Rights Amendment, or increasingly restrictive abortion legislation — the United States has shown itself to be anything but equal.

As such, it is not a surprise that the US has failed to achieve gender parity in government: women currently make up 27.2% of the House of Representatives, and 26% of the Senate. Though there are various factors at play for this humiliating gender discrepancy, a major factor is simply that there are no gender quotas set for women leaders. This forms a stark contrast to the 80 other nations in the world that have set gender quotas in politics.

As recently as November, Chile took a historic step to draft a new constitution centered around gender parity. This new constitution was drafted in light of the oppressive dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet, who led a coup-d'etat against Chile’s first democratically elected Socialist president, Salvador Allende. Pinochet’s brutal military rule (1973-1990) resulted in widened socioeconomic inequalities and a myriad of human rights abuses, as Pinochet’s military men tortured approximately 40,000 Chileans and executed 2,300 “rebels.” Pinochet was finally removed from power when a single-candidate presidential referendum was held in 1988. The current president of Chile is Sebastián Piñera, who has served his second term in office since 2018.

In light of its dark history, Chile’s new constitution focused on equality and democracy, especially regarding women. The new constitution won by an overwhelming majority, obtaining 77.6% of the national vote. The second ballot called for a constitutional convention to secure gender parity in the allocation of seats, obtaining 78.99% of the national vote. This means that Chile’s new constitution will be written exclusively by elected citizens, half of whom will be women, rather than by majority-male parliamentary members. As of 2020, Chile is the first country in the world to have a constitution drafted by an equal number of men and women.

Though Chile has been historically conservative regarding women, the onset of the 2010s have led to enormous breakthroughs, ultimately culminating in the Chilean “feminist revolution.” In addition to the 2017 legalization of abortion on three grounds, a 2016 law on gender quotas mandated that 40% of political candidates be women. This law caused the rate of female parliamentary participation in Chile to rise from 15.8% (2015) to 23% (2020): a 7% increase in just five years. Though there is still much more progress to be made, it is evident that gender quotas have greatly mobilized the Chilean fight for gender equality in political representation.

The same trend applies to the 80 other nations that have established gender quotas. Belgium’s 2002 revised gender quota requires political parties to put equal numbers of men and women on the ballot. When the quota was introduced, 16% of Belgium’s seats in parliament were held by women; as of today, the number is about 40%.

Similarly, Mexico’s and Costa Rica’s 30-per-cent policy for political candidates was recently revised upwards to 50%. This resulted in Costa Rica’s share of women parliamentary members rising by 12.3%, and Mexico’s rising by 11.1%.

Though Sweden does not have legislated quotas, many of its political parties have adopted voluntary quotas. In 1993, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party implemented a quota that required local branches to alternate between male and female candidates. Sweden’s Left Party also has a minimum 50% quota for women, and the Green Party has a 50% gender quota. Sweden is currently the fourth most gender equal country worldwide according to the 2020 ranking of the World Economic Forum.

The area with the most gender quotas is currently Europe, particularly Western Europe. Though France and Belgium were originally the only two nations to have gender quotas, as of 2006, eleven additional countries have adopted such quotas: Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Greece, Poland, Slovenia, Macedonia, Albania, Bosnia, Kosovo, and Georgia. The results are very tangible: the average global participation rate of women in parliament is 24.5% internationally, yet 37% in the European parliament. Democrat-Socialist Scandinavian nations are closest to political equality, with 48% female representation in Iceland, 47.2% in Sweden, 42.5% in Finland, 41% in Norway, and 40% in Denmark.

The issue of gender quotas remains controversial. Many argue that establishing gender quotas is undemocratic, promotes less qualified women to serve in office, and delegitimizes the accomplishments of women politicians.

However, reality indicates otherwise. According to Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, the executive director of UN Women, it will take another 50 years to achieve gender equality in the political sphere at the current rate of change. This is because both legislative and cultural sexism enables underqualified men to be selected for top positions, whereas overqualified women are systematically overlooked. A growing body of psychological and economic research supports the idea that both conscious and subconscious biases prevent women from being elected for high positions as often as men, despite having similar qualifications.

An extensive 2017 study from the London School of Economics and Stockholm University concluded that quotas enable highly capable and skilled women to displace mediocre male leaders, who meet a lower bar than women to be assumed competent. As such, quotas do not delegitimize women, nor do they threaten democracy; for the time being, quotas are absolutely necessary to close gender gaps by forcing political leaders to recognize systematically overlooked women politicians who are beyond qualified. And if anything, legislation promoting gender equity is the pillar of a true democracy.

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