Gender equity in Politics. Time for quotas.

As the 2016 U.S. Presidential election nears, all eyes are turned on the Republican primaries, already a very entertaining political waltz, to say the least. On the other side of the fence, Hillary Clinton is still leading the Democratic primaries and is a strong contender for the presidency. The inexplicable feeling of being witness to the return of the aristocracy’s dominance in the United States, or to a Medieval Europe where a few families (Bush and Clinton) controls the government, is obscuring the fact that for the second time in 8 years, a women (albeit the same one) has good odds of being in the power seat – sitting on the Iron Throne.

As gender equality gets more attention and as the gender gap narrows in most spheres of the western world, women who enter the political arena are still fewer than men, and the pack gets thinner as they move to the top. This is also true for the private sector. For a long time, reaching the apex of the political system was a right reserved for men. As it slowly opened up following the second World War, a lone women amidst the macho and rugged political elites, needed to be an Iron Lady to be taken seriously.

Today, as the occidental world sees more and more women carry out a political career, we are still unable to say that gender equality has been achieved. But what is gender equality? Is it the need for the number of seats in parliament to add up evenly between genders? Or is it to implement a system that grants an equality of chances? Can we really ask for both gender to be equal when they are so distinct?
Resolving these issue begs a whole new set of questions, ranging from political philosophy to ethics. For example, matching men and women is a task that doesn’t take into account the celebrated differences of these two complex beings. Are we asking for conformity of both genders?

The objective of gender equality is not to create a world where the governing bodies constantly have equal amounts of both genders, but merely to allow them to participate. Indeed, women’s inputs on this men-created and men-led world is crucial. Who knows, we might even realize that the conception at the very core of our societies foundations are weak, and decide to act on it. But in any case, to achieve a form of gender equality, however defined, society urgently needs more women participation in politics, and this entails two things: taking down a set of hurdles and implement a favourable setting for women. To do this, gender quotas have proven effective.


The first impediments to dismantle, on the indubitable path to modern political equality, were the traditional barriers. Women had to fight  (and still do) for their inclusion as full citizens embodied by the right to vote. Undeniable to them following their extraordinary war effort, having replaced men in the workforce while simultaneously running the households, they wouldn’t allow society to cast them back to their “wifely duties”. The fight to achieve enfranchisement, symbolized by the “suffragettes” movement, hasn’t received all the merit it deserves. Kudos to these brave women for their courage in challenging the established order and pioneering for a true democracy.

Undeniably, most governments realized how prosperous it was for a country to have this considerable addition to the “active” population. Therefore, gradually, most European, Asian and African countries adopted a truly universal suffrage after WWI, followed by most of the American continent just before WWII. The suffragettes had won.

Once the doors to political participation per se were opened, women’s traditional role in society still impeded their inclusion. Lower education levels, the heartbreaking choice between a political career and having a family or even a life partner, meant that most women who could have been great stateswoman were discouraged to do so.

A remarkably large amount of these traditional values stem from religious beliefs. These generally conservative views have forged a world where, inter alia, politics is perceived as the affairs of men. In most religions, the traditional view has always been an impediment to women’s emancipation, clearly portrayed to this day in their own organizations’ structure, where no woman has ever been allowed to run their churches, mosques or synagogues (except for the the Popess Joan if ever she existed).

As traditional assignment of roles slowly wears down within society’s fabric, the cultural perspective is still embedded deeply in it, hampering changes. It’s a problem. As the UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon has said: “The world will never realize 100 per cent of its goals if 50 per cent of its people cannot realize their full potential.”[i] Accordingly, a 2013 UN report mentioned that the eradication of any obstacles to uplifting the level of women participation in politics is a fundamental human rights issue. We need to act.

Closing the gap

Nowadays, we like to think that we are giving women a fair(er) chance as gender equality is on every institution’s’ guidelines and meritocracy runs the private sector.  Canada’s newly elected Liberal Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has named an equal number of women and men to his cabinet. When asked what were the criterias for naming them he simply answered: “because it’s 2015”. But the facts remains, women still get a lower representation and a lower salary than men.

According to a PEW report[ii], the overall women labour pool in the U.S. earns 84% of the men’s workforce, while The White House has estimated it at 78%. In the OECD countries, a 15.5% average wage gap was observed, a leap forward compared to 18.2%[iii] in 2000. By observing exclusively the millennial generation, this gap diminishes to 93%. This younger generation of women not only starts on a practically equal footing, but is also better equipped to face the job market with 38% of them having completed a bachelor’s degree compared to 31% for their male counterparts. Things are brightening up indeed.

In politics, women participation has improved greatly. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in Europe, women participation in both the lower and upper Houses of government combined went up from 14.2% to 25.5% from 2000 to 2015 and in the Americas from 15.3% to 27.2%.[iv]The world average for the lower House alone is at 22.3%.[v]

Is this increase the reflection of a much-awaited openness of our cultural values regarding women’s participation? Probably so, and credit has to go to Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba who are, in that order, the leading countries in women’s political participation.[vi] These countries like many others (with the exception of Cuba) have taken concrete steps to make sure women would be represented fairly: the use of a quota system. Gender quotas prove to be an effective means to counter cultural impasses.


A gender quota is a simple and effective tool, by which governments, or parties, set a minimum limit or a number of reserved seats for a specific group, in this case women.[vii] Most experts and international organizations, such as the United Nations, agree that the threshold for a successful women participation in political decision making is 30%[viii]. Quota laws around the world usually range from 30% (e.g., Colombia, Brazil and Rwanda) to a full 50% (e.g., France, Costa Rica and Senegal). A national quota aspires to have a set number of representatives in the chamber, sufficient enough to advocate the group’s ideas, share their opinions and impact on the decision-making process, taking into account their needs. A quota can also be candidate-based within each party, commonly on a voluntary basis, achieving similarly the same goals, thus customizing the party’s platform to be accountable to that group’s needs.

There are three timing to which a quota can be established: upon selection or short listing of candidates (primaries) of each party; at the ballot box, meaning each party needs to present the appropriate amount of candidates; or it can be set as seats reserved in the governing body. These means adapt to the different electoral system and their efficacy varies accordingly. Imposing a quota in a list proportional system[ix], for example, works fine, but in a single-member legislative district, commonly known as first-past-the-post or winner-takes-all system, the party decides who gets elected and the leader nominates his ministers. In such a case, voluntary party quotas or quotas on seats allocated to women are the best options.


In some cases, quotas may be seen undemocratic given that their preconditions impede the complete and free choice of voters, implying that delegates are elected because of their gender and not their qualifications, setting aside possibly better suited candidates. Additionally, this somewhat refutes the inherent “equal opportunity for all” of liberal democracy, not to mention that many women would prefer to get elected on their merits rather than their gender. Furthermore, a recurring problem facing the said 30% threshold is that it is often used as a ceiling in lieu of a minimum to be achieved. Therefore, setting the bar higher should prove more efficient in promoting women’s participation in politics.

These are valid points, which need to be taken into consideration. Nonetheless, in most societies, quotas will compensate for local barriers to women’s entry into politics and allow them not only to be represented equally and fairly, but benefits society with their needed experiences and points of view. The more women will participate in politics, the more they will create an appeal and encourage their feminine counterparts to engage in politics. Moreover, quotas do not impede voters’ choice, because the parties are responsible for the nominations and selection of their members. Some supporters of the quota system and a number of scholars even agree that it may be a tool for better transparency in the selection of candidates within parties.

On the other hand, forcing a large amount of a given group in the political sphere may lead to unqualified representatives. In this case the term unqualified means that meritocracy may suffer when confronted to the obligation of filling a seat. For example, reserving seats in Congress does not mean that qualified and interested women will automatically want to participate. Personal interest, salary and cultural or religious beliefs may still impede or discourage a great selection of candidates. Similarly, parties can fill these quotas by putting a figurehead, which will only serve as a facade. For example, in a country where family name equals power and automatic votes, as it often happens in Latin America, a party could fill-in a seat left vacant by one of its imprisoned member, with his wife, making her ipso facto a channel through which business as usual is being conducted. Although this dilemma is of real concern for advocating women’s voices and for a transparent democracy, this particular issue is certainly not restricted to gender. Additionally, some countries have put together real measures to counteract these problems at the source. Colombia has established a proofing mechanism for parties to check their members’ background before an election and have created a system which penalizes parties that have elected members sent to jail. This last process blocks the party from nominating another candidate to replace him or her, leaving the seat vacant.

A new gap?

These last point begs a new series of questions, such as: are gender quotas relevant in all regions and electoral systems alike? And more importantly (at least to me), once a system has thoroughly included women in its political sphere, when is it legitimate, if at all, to eradicate this affirmative action? This last question is especially important nowadays, when women are slowly getting better equipped to face the job market than men. Indeed, in the OECD men own only 42% of the degrees and women are estimated to rise to 58% of all students enrolled by 2025. Accordingly, the PEW Research center, has identified a general trend to a lowering of the wages for men and an increase for women over the last 30 years, as seen in the image below.[x]

In any case, working towards gender parity is still a priority. A report by the McKinsey Global Institute estimated that:

A “best in region” scenario in which all countries match the rate of improvement of the fastest-improving country in their region could add as much as $12 trillion, or 11 percent, in annual 2025 GDP. In a “full potential” scenario in which women play an identical role in labor markets to that of men, as much as $28 trillion, or 26 percent, could be added to global annual GDP by 2025.”

Imagine the possibilities this would entail, and this merely represents a monetary outcome. The results of social and political parity could have monumental impacts on our lives.

Nevertheless, women remain the most fragile group, may it be ensuing catastrophic events such as civil wars and forced migrations, or in the streets of the so-called developed country, as the fate of about a thousand plus aboriginal women who disappeared or were murdered in Canada in the last 30 years can attest to.[xi] As the statistics demonstrated, every region of the globe needs to strengthen women’s political participation and what better way to attack theses critical issues than to include this half of the world’s population into the debate. They are not merely needed in the decision-making arena for gender-related issues; they are the key to a fairer and modern representation of our societies. It is time for all countries to put in place the settings that will allow a truly representative democracy.


[ii] Research undertaken in the U.S. in 2012.

[iii] Based on the last year of data received for each country.

[iv] Inter-parliamentary Union Europe’s average excludes Nordic countries, which were at 38,9% in


[vi] Respectively Rwanda, Bolivia and Cuba have 63.8%, 53.1% and 48.9% women elected in their lower House. Source Inter-parliamentary Union

[vii] Quotas can also be gender neutral, limiting to a certain minimum or maximum % allowable for one gender or the other.


[ix] In a list proportional system, voters rank either the candidates from the party’s list in order of preference or vote for the party which presents its list.



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