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Movements , World

Do Gender Quotas in Elections Work?

by Umaru FofanaMaher Sattar June 23, 2023

Co-published with Foreign Policy

PORT LOKO, Sierra Leone—Standing in the scorching afternoon heat, Aminata Bilkisu Kanu takes off her sunglasses to wipe away the beads of sweat trickling down her face as she appeals to the crowd of mostly male voters.

“Think ‘women’ when voting in the June 24 elections,” she tells them. “We keep your resources within; the men take them away.”

The 24-year-old single mother is the first woman to run for the national parliament from Mamoi village, part of the Masimera Chiefdom in Port Loko District, located in the conservative north of the country. Patriarchal culture runs deep in Sierra Leone, but it is even stronger in the north and parts of the east, where customs do not allow for women to become a paramount chief, the traditional name for the district leader. 

But this election is the first since the country passed a landmark gender quota law earlier this year. The law clearly states that the workforce in any public or private institution must be at least 30 percent female, and Bilkisu is hoping this will help her shake things up.

“It is very tough for us!” she told The Fuller Project and Foreign Policy.

Ever since they were introduced in modern form in Argentina in 1991, gender quotas for national elections have been criticized by opponents on the grounds that they are non-meritocratic, undemocratic, and nepotistic. But that hasn’t stopped their adoption by the majority of countries in the world, and on June 24, Sierra Leone will become the latest to hold elections with a gender quota in place.

Today, there’s a growing consensus among academics that these quotas “work.” Studies from across the world have shown that, aside from putting more women in positions of power, quotas also typically lead to legislatures with higher qualifications and greater diversity in terms of class, age, and experience, and can shift budget priorities from defense spending to education and health care.

“It depends on what ‘works’ means,” said Alice Kang, a University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor who coauthored a cross-national analysis on the effectiveness of gender quotas. “Does having a quota save a country from descending into authoritarianism? No, it doesn’t.

“[But] we found that quotas are perhaps the most impactful thing in terms of explaining why some countries have much higher levels of women’s representation than others. Back in the day, people thought religion, how wealthy a country was, or electoral systems made the difference. Compared to other factors, we found that [gender] quotas were having a significant and large effect.”

Scholars warn that the effectiveness of gender quotas varies widely from country to country, and their success is heavily influenced by factors such as the existence of strong enforcement mechanisms and the political will to implement them.

“The devil is totally in the details,” said Jennifer Piscopo, coeditor of The Impact of Gender Quotas, a book that dives into case studies from Europe, Latin America, Africa, and Asia.

“Most Latin American countries have a proportional representation system, which means that when voters go to the polls, they’re voting for a party list,” she said. “A lot of the first quota laws said parties [had] to nominate 30 percent women. OK, great; so where do parties put their 30 percent women? They put the women at the bottom 30 percent of the list. If you’re at the bottom of the list, you’re probably not going to get a seat, because the further down the list you are, the less likely it is that the party won enough seats to get to you.”

Bilkisu is at the bottom of her party’s list. She’s candidate number nine out of 10 in her district for the All People’s Congress, Sierra Leone’s largest opposition party. Sierra Leone also has a proportional representation system; for Bilkisu to go to Parliament, her party must win 88 percent of the vote in Port Loko District to gain nine seats, far more than projected.

But Bilkisu remains sanguine. 

“The men are warming up to us,” she said. “The turnout is great in my door-to-door campaign. I see a lot of cooperation from them. So there is a chance for me.”

From exception to entitlement

Even in countries where quota laws are considered weak, researchers are finding that they still play a role in empowering women. 

In Nepal, researcher Punam Yadav found that political quotas “not only accelerate women’s representation in politics, but also strengthen their position in society. [Quotas] establish women’s credibility, pave the way for future generations and shift the social perception of women’s presence in politics from being an exception to being an entitlement.” 

Women who are elected in countries with gender quotas are often criticized as being less qualified than the men they replaced, or for being proxies of powerful men. But recent scholarship has begun to debunk these views. 

A 2017 study from Sweden partially titled “The Crisis of the Mediocre Man” found that “far from being at odds with meritocracy, this quota raised the competence of male politicians.” The study said this was the result of the departure of mediocre male leaders who faced a more competitive landscape due to the increased participation of women.

On the nepotism charge, Piscopo says the perception had a lot to do with cherry picking examples.

“OK, maybe there’s a woman who’s the wife of the party boss,” she said. “Well, how many brothers, or sons, of party bosses end up running for office? 

“At certain points, you run out of wives and daughters. There’s not an infinite supply, and you start tapping into networks that you ordinarily wouldn’t be tapping into.”

Parties reluctant to embrace quotas often claim they’re having trouble finding qualified women, Piscopo said, but she attributed this to a lack of political will to find them. She cited the example of Mexico, where women’s groups put out a full-page ad with the names of 1,000 women who were qualified to run for office after some political leaders said they couldn’t find any.

“Remember when Mitt Romney said he had ‘binders full of women’?” Piscopo said, recalling a famous campaign gaffe by the 2012 U.S. presidential candidate. “I love that quote. We all made fun of Mitt Romney, but actually, if we step back from the inartful phrasing, what he’s saying is civil society organizations made lists of qualified women for his cabinet and turned them over to him.”

Mexico is an example of how creative approaches can strengthen gender quota laws that are initially weak. Early efforts fell far short of reaching the gender quota, partly due to parties placing female candidates in races that were lost causes. In response, the country’s electoral agency categorized each seat as an easy win, an easy loss, or a competitive race for each political party based on previous results and demanded that female candidates be fielded in equal numbers in each of the three categories. The result is that Mexico now has gender parity in parliament.

Piscopo, Kang, and several other academics said it was especially critical that strong penalties exist for parties that fail to meet quota requirements, such as removing them from the ballot. When countries lack this political will, the number of women in office can remain stubbornly low. 

In Brazil, which implemented a 30 percent quota in 1997 but has only 17.7 percent women in its national parliament today, parties have been accused of promoting “ghost candidates”—submitting women as candidates to meet the quota without actually campaigning for them—sometimes without the women even knowing they’re on the ballot.

In Sierra Leone, a recent report by the Institute of Governance Reform, a civil society group based in Freetown, the capital, states the country is unlikely to hit its goal of electing 30 percent women, with parties accused of placing female candidates too low on their candidate lists to win. 

Meanwhile, the next Parliament of 149 members will include 14 paramount chiefs representing the country’s 14 geographical districts. Elections for the chiefs have already been conducted, and only one woman was elected. In nine of the districts, mostly in the north, women are still barred from becoming paramount chief. 

Nemata Majeks-Walker, the founder and head of 50/50, a women’s rights group that advocates for gender parity in Sierra Leone, said the passage of the quota was “mere lip service.” 

“I don’t feel there is the political will anywhere,” she said. “I think it is just a show, a mere show. It’s as if the men in Parliament were scared of the women taking their places.”

Bilkisu holds out hope that her party will make the changes needed to give women like her a fighting chance. 

“I want to encourage my party to amend its constitution in the future so that it will not only give us 30 percent on paper, but [also] ensure safe seats for women by enshrining the positioning of women at the top of the list,” she said. “If not, the 30 percent quota won’t work.”

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