Rebel Girls: How Quota Systems Across the Globe Count Women Into Politics

feature image via Wikimedia

Header by Rory Midhani

Header by Rory Midhani

Government generally works better for marginalized groups when more members of those groups are present in it, advocating and legislating for their communities. It’s this kind of common sense logic that has led half of the nations in the world to implement gender quotes in their governments to guarantee that women have a seat at the tables where decisions are made daily that impact their lives.

When we look at the phenomenon of women in government, we find that there’s more going on than just better representation: women are also more effective lawmakers and public servantsWomen pass more legislation, govern by consensus and coalition-build, and just generally get more shit done than their male counterparts. They’re also more likely to listen to constituents and actually take into account what the folks they represent want to see them do in office, and they’re less likely to serve out of a desire for personal power and more likely to do so in pursuit of a greater good. Perhaps the most important reason we need more women in politics is because if we can dedicate ourselves to electing a more diverse array of public officials today, we might have a more nuanced and truly representative democracy tomorrow.

Data has shown that women are — surprise, surprise! — more attuned to the sexism that runs deep in this nation than men. Studies also show that even women who don’t identify as feminists still tend towards women’s issues and govern with a gendered perspective, whereas men who don’t identify as feminists… don’t.

The problem with our conversations around electing more women to politics or elevating women in other sectors to positions of higher leadership is that they move in a cycle: We need more women here, here’s why there aren’t more women here, gee we fixed the thing or thought we did and now there’s still no women here. It seems that we won’t see more women in leadership positions until we start seeing more women in leadership positions. It’s hard to build momentum without a first, second and third person who starts things off — but without the momentum, how do you get the first, second and third pioneers in the door?

This is where quota systems come in.

There are two very different schools of thought when it comes to what political equality looks like, and it basically comes down to an argument about equity versus equality. Whereas some political systems are centered around equality of opportunity for women in politics — basically, the system we have in the US that (in theory) gives women the chance to run for office and be elected to office just like men, nothing different and nothing more — a growing number of nations and political parties have opted instead to make broader representation of women in their governments an explicit political goal using quota systems. This creates a framework where it isn’t just up to individual women to fight tooth and nail for a shot at being a token. Instead, quota systems normalize — nay, require — women’s participation in political leadership, and they also require that the parties competing for seats at all levels of government in any given region do the work to make sure they get there.

There are myriad kinds of quota systems in place across the world. What they have in common is a goal of women reaching “critical minority” status in their governments and serving in 20 to 50 percent of the elected and public service positions within them. Some quota systems aim to do this by restricting men’s participation, and others do it simply by placing a motivating focus on increasing women’s participation. Not all quota systems are based on gender, either: lots of countries have quota systems in place that address representation across lines of race and class, too, among other factors; Bhutan, Venezuela, and Slovenia are just a few of the countries with quotas for ethnicity, for example.

Though there is no “model” all nations have come to follow over time, there are three distinct kinds of quota systems. Reserved seat systems require women to serve in a certain number of positions, but may also cap their participation due to the nature of the notion of “assigning” seats by gender. Legal candidate quotas mandate that a certain number of women appear on the ballot, putting the onus on parties to recruit them. Political party quotas are internal mechanisms used by those parties, sometimes by their own fruition and free of a legal mandate to do so, to ensure greater parity within their party’s leadership and recruitment.

Around 45 nations have legal gender quotas in place, and many individual political parties have internal quotas to achieve the same goals. When it comes to whether they’re successful, the numbers and the data speak volumes. Bolivia’s government is 53 percent female. Mexico’s government is 42 percent female. Afghanistan’s reserved seat system has fundamentally changed the face of their government, which is now over a quarter women. Iceland has no legal quotas, only quota rules in place within political parties, and yet is ranked #1 in women’s representation and has witnessed many women presidents and PMs. An IPU report in 2012 found that nine of ten countries with the highest growth in women’s representation as MPs and in parliament had quota systems in place. Nations with quota systems in place that once required appointing women to various seats have started seeing a marked shift in which women are actively winning them instead.

That being said, they also often fall short — and often the numbers don’t tell the full story. Women are sometimes found at the bottom of a ticket, putting them at a statistical disadvantage. In other nations, like Brazil, the ways donations are funneled to candidates leaves women, who are part of a quota system incentivizing their candidacies within their parties, stuck with underfunded — and thus often failing — campaigns for office. In the Middle East, quota systems have taken the political world by storm — but women who make it to the top and serve find themselves alienated by their male peers and haven’t wielded much additional power within the system. (In Afghanistan, lawmakers even decided women had enough of a share and lowered the quota goal.) In some political systems, like that in Iraq, the division of power still ensures male dominance despite quota laws. Additionally, ensuring compliance with quota laws is key — and often isn’t effective.

Quota laws are not an island. They can make a big impact when implemented properly, but the mitigating factors by nation are many. How well quota systems work is a question that requires qualitative and quantitative data, because it isn’t just enough to let women sit at the table if they don’t actually have the power to effect change; it isn’t enough to tell political parties to put women forward and then let them fuck those women out of a fair shot.

In a nation like the US, though — one where women are posited to have unprecedented opportunity but remain devastatingly underrepresented within (and, quite often, targeted by) the political systems in place at every level — a quota system could change everything. If women in a representative democracy had a larger collective share of power and influence, it could trigger a sea change in not only how many women aspire to become part of the political process but also how much policy would center on women and their needs, and how likely it would be to pass.

Women are certainly capable of winning elections in the US; with a quota system in place, though, they would feel less isolated in their attempts to do so. With a quota system in place, they would have women to look to who had come before them — and so would voters. These things are pivotal, here and elsewhere. And although quota laws may not deliver us all from evil men and their longstanding reign of absolute power, they’re a strong start, when done right, at ensuring that women are in the room to push back. Oh, right. And to fundamentally shift how power is distributed, how policy is made and what policies are prioritized, and who is truly served by this nation’s laws.

One of the biggest criticism of quota systems is that they’re “not truly democratic.” But what could possibly be better — for our democracy and democracies across the world — than ensuring that our government is working for everyone?

Rebel Girls is a column about women’s studies, the feminist movement, and the historical intersections of both of them. It’s kind of like taking a class, but better – because you don’t have to wear pants. To contact your professor privately, email carmen at autostraddle dot com. Ask questions about the lesson in the comments!

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Carmen spent six years at Autostraddle, ultimately serving as Straddleverse Director, Feminism Editor and Social Media Co-Director. She is now the Consulting Digital Editor at Ms. and writes regularly for DAME, the Women’s Media Center, the National Women’s History Museum and other prominent feminist platforms; her work has also been published in print and online by outlets like BuzzFeed, Bitch, Bust, CityLab, ElixHER, Feministing, Feminist Formations, GirlBoss, GrokNation, MEL, Mic and SIGNS, and she is a co-founder of Argot Magazine. You can find Carmen on Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr or in the drive-thru line at the nearest In-N-Out.

Carmen has written 919 articles for us.


  1. This is interesting, it never really occurred to me that other countries are using quota systems for this. But, my only criticism of the quota system is it may not be enough? Like it be great to see more women in office, but not if it’s being dominated women like Palin or someone who is trying to appease cis het white men. Maybe we could have a quota that requires at least a few LGBTQ candidates in the higher ups of the party system(which lets face it, might be either a cis white gay dude or bi dude married to a woman).

    • Right. Not all female candidates are created equal. (Same goes for LGBTQIA candidates and candidates of color.) However, if the quota were high enough, some quality leaders would get into office.

      Honestly, I didn’t even know this was a thing until today, NO THANKS TO AMERICA and all the thanks to Carmen! :)

  2. Thank you for all this information.

    Argentina has a quota system since 1991 and today we have more than %36 of women in Parliament. Our law has several provisions about placement order that allows the legal %30 quota to be accomplished. But still I’m not happy about our representation and a %30 quota seems too low, considering our population.

    This place has a lot of aditional information about quota systems (structure of Parliament, electoral system, quota type, sanctions for non-compliance, etc.) by country.

  3. An interesting example of quotas at work is here in Australia.

    We have two major political parties, Labor and the Liberal/National Coalition. Labor has had a 40% quota (45% by 2022, 50% by 2025) for women candidates in winnable seats, while the LNP refuses to have a quota at all preferring a “merit based” system of choosing candidates and a “national aspirational target” of 50% women MPs by 2025.

    After the results of the recent election, Labor ends up with 39% women MPs (and will be over 40% if they win the seat of Herbert which is still being recounted) while the LNP sit around 20%.

    When Labor introduced it’s quota in 1994 both parties were about 15% and while both parties have a target of 50% representation for women by 2025, only Labor has made significant inroads to achieving that target with its quota.

    So that’s an example of a quota working.

  4. Great piece – thank you. Quotas are especially effective when combined with proportional voting systems – the US still uses an antiquated winner take all voting system with districts where we elect just one person (10 states use districts where more than one person is elected) – nearly all of the 95 countries that rank above the US in the percentage of women elected at the national level use different kinds of voting systems that are based on proportional systems that translate votes into seats fairly!

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