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24 October 2018

How well-designed gender laws can break the glass ceiling in parliaments

Dr Anna Gwiazda, Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics, King's College London

For parliaments to represent the women they serve, affirmative action is needed


The under-representation of women in politics is one of the major problems of contemporary democracies. Representation is inherent to democracy and so political institutions should represent women and guarantee their political rights. 

In recognition of this, and of the slow progress towards equality, countries across the world have adopted gender quotas to enhance women’s representation in parliaments.   

There are two main types of gender quota. Some quotas create reserved seats within the parliament that can only be taken up by women, but more commonly legislative (or candidate) quotas guarantee that women constitute a certain percentage of the candidates put forward by political parties, usually from 25-50%, and legal sanctions are applied to parties that don’t comply.  

On average, EU countries using legislative gender quotas perform better in terms of increased female representation than those without a quota and have witnessed increases in women’s parliamentary representation over time. But this is not universally true and across the EU there is an intriguing variation in the success of such legislative quotas. In Ireland, legislative quotas were used for the first time in the February 2016 elections, which resulted in a seven-percentage point increase in the number of women in the Dáil. In 2018 women’s parliamentary representation in the 10 EU democracies with legislative gender quotas ranged from a healthy 39% in Belgium, Spain and France to just 13% in Croatia.

Part of the answer to understanding this variation lies in quotas’ design, including the penalties for non-compliance and mandate placement. In Croatia the penalty for political parties who fail to put forward enough female candidates is a fine of just HRK 50,000 (approximately £6,000). In countries with party-list proportional representation, political parties create lists of candidates to be elected and then rank them. The parties vote share then determines how many of the candidates take up their seats, starting from the top of the list. In Greece, where there are no rules on where female candidates must appear on the lists, political parties do not sufficient promote women’s representation – there, only 20% of MPs are women, despite laws stating they must make up a third of lists.  

Conversely, the best performers have well-designed laws and parties which implement the gender quota laws. Spain has a 40% quota size and placement mandates, and quotas are not only applied to the whole party lists but also to every five posts. And in Belgium, parties are obliged to alternate men and women on the lists. Lists that fail to meet this standard are not approved by the electoral commission.  

In France, which makes use of a majoritarian two-ballot electoral system, women’s parliamentary representation is also high thanks to well-designed quotas. The country has a 50% parity rule which stipulates that the difference between the number of candidates of each sex that a party presents for single-member constituency elections cannot be greater than 2%. For example, in the 2017 parliamentary elections President Emmanuel Macron’s victorious Republic on the Move party had the highest proportion of women elected, at 47%.

The debate on legislative gender quotas in Europe is ongoing. In 2017 the Estonian parliament rejected a bill providing for gender quotas, arguing that there was no need for such a law. Opponents of legislative gender quotas often cite Sweden and Finland as examples of countries which perform very well, with 46% and 42% of women in parliament respectively in 2018, but which have no legal quota requirement. But these countries have gender-equal cultures. Moreover, Finland has a long tradition of female inclusion in politics since it was the first country in Europe to introduce women’s suffrage in 1906 and elected the first women Members of Parliament in the 1907 elections. While Estonia rejected the idea, Italy introduced a legislative gender quota before the 2018 parliamentary election and saw a rise in the number of women in parliament.

While they may not be needed in countries with pre-existing gender-equal cultures, the European experiences show that countries with more traditional cultures benefit from gender quotas. Well-designed gender laws can change political practices and culture and contribute to breaking the glass ceiling in parliaments. For parliaments to represent the women they serve, affirmative action is needed.