Improving Women Quotas in Politics: Unintended Consequences
Tue, April 20, 2021

Improving Women Quotas in Politics: Unintended Consequences


Women have been fighting for representation for decades now. Their voices are often disregarded or downplayed because patriarchal society deems them as too emotional. But generations of women fought to have every right to have their voices be heard and be represented. Women have conquered leadership positions in both local and national governments. 

Gender Quotas in Politics

Since politics are dominated by women across the world, efforts to improve female representation in politics have often focused on quotas and reserved shares., a leading global advocate that champions gender equality and the health and rights of girls and women, reported that the rate of women’s representation in national parliaments globally over the last two decades has incrementally increased from 11.8% in 1998 to 17.8% in 2008 to 23.5% in 2018. While women hold fewer than 25% of parliamentary seats worldwide and only 12% of the world’s heads of state and government, these figures are still huge progress.

The demand for more female leaders comes with people’s need for change. Experts believe that women must be encouraged, empowered, and supported in becoming strong political and community leaders not only because they have the ability to serve the interests of their constituents but also to meet worldwide development goals and build strong, sustainable democracies. Some countries and regions have seen particularly dramatic increases in gender quotas and female political representation.



The number of women in parliaments in Sub-Saharan Africa, for instance, has risen from 11% to 23.6% in the last 20 years. The Arab States region has also seen an increase from 3.1% to 17.5%. However, total global representation is still well below the 30% benchmark often identified as the necessary level of representation to achieve a “critical mass,” a considerable minority of all legislators with significant impact, rather than a token few individuals.

An ideal country to look up to is Rwanda. According to the World Economic Forum, an independent international organization committed to improving the state of the world by engaging business, political, academic, and other leaders of society to shape global, regional, and industry agendas, women in this country make up 61.3% of the lower house and 38.5% of the upper house.



Why Gender Quotas Are Important

Gender quotas provide a quick and simple solution to the unjustifiable fact of women’s underrepresentation. Many governments and parliaments urge for this system to be recognized because it guarantees the numeric increase of women in political parties and parliaments. At the same time, a quota system like this can be used as a tool to fast-track an increase in women’s representation in politics and break the rigid status quo of male dominance.

When women's representation is increased, it makes sure that the sector’s interests and issues can be addressed. Quotas are important because women may have different preferences for public goods than men. They ensure that there are leaders that are focused on women’s concerns. Female leaders’ policy preferences not only differed from men but also differed from one another based on geographic location and caste background.

As Kofi Annan, a Ghanaian diplomat, said: “Study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity or to reduce child and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.”

Also, having a female leader means women participate more in community governance. Gender quotas in village development councils in Afghanistan, for instance, led to increased women’s participation in village governance, community life, and economic activities. Quota systems also change some attitudes and views about women as leaders. In India, men in communities with gender quotas were more likely to associate women with leadership and more likely to consider female leaders to be effective.



Unintended Consequences

Unfortunately, there are several risks that gender quotas may bring. For one, some believe that reserving political seats for women may not effect genuine change. For instance, husbands of elected female leaders may maintain power by controlling the actions of their wives. Previous studies showed that women elected under quotas in India were more likely than their male counterparts to state that their spouses encouraged them to stand for election and helped them do their jobs.  

A recent study published in the American Journal of Political Science revealed that boosting gender quotas may well curtail representation in other respects. According to, an internet news portal that provides the latest news on science, the researchers examined the consequences of women quotas on the electoral representation of caste groups in local government bodies in Delhi. Reports showed that female-reserved seats in India have been enshrined in the 73rd and 74th Amendments of the Indian Constitution since the early 1990s.

"The effect of electoral quotas for women in India was to reduce the representation of lower caste groups,” lead author Alexander Lee, an associate professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rochester, said.

The findings revealed that the impacts of women quotas depend on the relative social standing of women. Lee explained that the quotas will raise the proportion of minorities in politics in a situation with many qualified female candidates. However, if there are disproportionately low numbers of qualified female candidates in the minority pool, it will result in fewer minority politicians.

Also, women quotas in countries where women have a higher social standing among elite groups will lead to increases in the representation of the elite as well as lead to a reduction in the representation of people from historically marginalized groups. The team believes that their findings in India can also be the same in nations where the status of women is lower within underprivileged groups, including many developing countries.

"Gender quotas tend to politically strengthen groups at the top of traditional caste hierarchies and favor empowered groups over disempowered ones. These unintended consequences are plausible because we think that women from marginalized groups—at the intersection of two disadvantaged identities—tend to be especially disadvantaged,” Varun Karekurve-Ramachandra, a Ph.D. graduate in the Department of Political Science at the University of Rochester, said.