Justifying gender equality in electoral politics:  is the quota system the solution?

Given that it has been argued that the main impediment to gender equality in electoral politics is patriarchal politics, most gender equality projects involve the implementation of gender quotas to increase the number of women leaders. Within the use of quotas to promote gender parity emerges the configuration of women as marginalized groups who require affirmative action. The marginalization or under-representation of women can be attributed to gender stereotypes, inadequately qualified women, financial challenges and discrimination during the selection of candidates by political parties among other reasons.

What is the two-third gender rule?

What constitutes the two-third gender rule is the UN’s resolution to promote gender parity by requiring women to occupy 30% of a country’s parliamentary seats.[1] In Rosemary Hunter’s opinion, an inclusive governance with more women has more democratic legitimacy as gender parity in institutions reflects the face of the society.[2]  Another basis for increasing women representation is the symbolic display of equality of opportunity in governance.[3] Further, increasing women leaders contributes to a political culture that improves and promotes gender equality.[4] However, affirmative actions to increase diversity might be seen to violate liberal democracy yet a parliament whose membership does not reflect the proportion of men and women in the society might be viewed to be unrepresentative of the society.[5] Without gender parity, some quarters suggest that gender inequalities reduce substantive representation. As Hunter suggests, women bring in a gender sensibility that tempers the law with lived women’s experiences.

Pros and cons of the quota system in advocating for gender equality in politics

The essence of democracy is to promote political participation and substantive representation. While universal suffrage promotes equality in democratic participation, it does not necessarily lead to substantive representation of women. Equal voting rights do not change the sociocultural and patriarchal structures that impede gender equality in access to political processes and equality of outcomes in gender representation. Thus, gender quotas allow for gender equality through diversity and recognition of factors that affect gender equality in representation in a participatory democracy.

As an anti-discrimination tool, quotas acknowledge that social factors reduce the uptake of women in politics. To this end, various types of quotas push women into leadership positions. While the quotas violate the precepts of liberal democracy because they allow women to become leaders on account of their gender, they enhance democracy by allowing more women to participate in administration and governance processes. While most studies on gender equality focus on the nature of quotas, this section uniquely investigates the appeal of gender quotas by considering alternatives to gender quotas. This facilitates new insights into the understanding of the two-third gender rule as critical mass. Further, investigating the relationship between gender quotas and alternative measures to promote gender parity is critical to identifying best practices to achieve political gender equality.

Empirically, gender quotas increase women representation.[6] For Childs and Krook, some people might oppose gender quotas but one cannot ignore their value in increasing female representation. In this case, the rationale for gender quotas is to increase the critical mass of women in leadership.[7] Institutions like the Judiciary or Parliament are critical bodies in governance yet have few female members.[8] Despite attaining high education qualifications, patriarchal structures tend to lock women out of leadership in critical institutions. Only by increasing the number of women leaders in these critical institutions can a state enjoy gender equality and pro-women policies. To this end, using gender quotas to increase women representation is commendable because it promotes diversity and policies that advances gender equality.

One of the strongest oppositions to gender quotas argues that quotas might increase female representation but the processes leading to the quotas do not empower women. Quotas that prescribe the number of seats that women should hold do not contribute to diversity in representation.[9] Often, political parties do not fill gender quotas with women from the grassroots. Instead, parties tend to recruit already empowered women. As a result, quotas address female underrepresentation without increasing political participation at local levels. Still, women who join leadership through quotas might not be taken seriously by their elected colleagues. Some states have laws which confer lesser duties or powers to female members nominated or elected through quotas. Further, such women elected on quotas still require support from their male-dominated political parties to make substantial legal or policy changes that benefit women. Nevertheless, increasing female numbers to a third of the members of a decision-making body might not lead to women-friendly laws but it provides an incentive to change agendas and policies.

Another case against gender quotas is meritocracy. In making a case for meritocracy over quotas, quotas should be assessed for their potential in bringing about substantive representation as opposed to or descriptive representation. While substantive representation is concerned with the place of diversity in outcomes, descriptive representation only focuses on the numbers of female members.[10] In what may be considered an internal inconsistency of quotas, the increased women representation may remain subservient to patriarchal or party interests.[11] Women elected on account of quotas are party nominees whose first obligation is to the sponsoring parties that recruited them.[12] Put differently; the female members may remain subordinate to the recruiting party’s interests thus they may not participate in formulating laws or policies that benefit women.[13] Accordingly, the motivation to implement quotas to tackle structural and historical disadvantages against women remains unattained. Thus, using quotas to remedy historical exclusion of women does not change the social or cultural factors that promote gendered exclusion of women from politics.

Further, preference of quotas over meritocracy promotes gender stereotypes that quotas sought to tackle. While affirmative action tackles women underrepresentation, they promote subjugation or ridicule of women. Kanter suggests that preferential treatment of women may mask their qualifications thus opening them to stereotypes.[14] Still, women serving under quotas may experience performance pressure. Specifically, they feel the need to prove themselves to their counterparts who did not attain office through quotas.[15] While the members on gender quotas may outperform their colleagues, performance pressure is highly damaging to leadership. It also promotes a spirit of competitiveness rather than collaboration. As a result, women leaders concentrate less on improving women’s welfare since they are more inclined to compete.

Non-quota measures to promote gender equality

France challenges the use of quotas to increase representation by using political recruitment. As a non-quota method, political recruitment in France is based on the premise that the broader issue is not one of gender parity in political representation.[16] Rather, the key issue is gender parity in access to political opportunities.[17] Thus, the French Constitution provides for gender parity instead of quotas where there should be a 50-50 balance between males and females.[18] Before the 1999 French parity law reform, the French Republic used the concept of universalism in its laws to ensure that there was no discrimination in the application of laws. Sadly, this masked women and ignored the realities that led to the under-representation of women in representative politics. Aware that quotas might not achieve equality of representation because of the institutionalized patriarchy in political parties, the gender parity law requires political parties to enforce gender equality during political party recruitment. Thus, the gender parity law in Frances avoids the strict quotas approach that increases the number of women in political representation without addressing the structural inequalities that affect women representation.[19] The endorsement of female candidates by political parties provides legal access to political participation and representation. In turn, this challenges patriarchal structures and cultural perceptions that work against gender parity in politics. Specifically, it creates legitimacy of gender equality in political representation.

While gender parity during candidate recruitment promotes equality, some parties can use nominations to promote or change female candidates. Behind the influence of political parties in selecting candidates is that women candidates are party members whose first loyalty is to the recruiting party’s interests. The view that women should act in accordance with their party’s agenda challenges the view that increasing the number of women promotes laws tempered with gender sensibility.

In what Jude Browne calls “thwarted critical mass” in her report titled “Corporate boards, quotas for women, and political theory”, gender quotas might not lead to natural increase in women leaders.[20] Browne proposes a critical mass marker approach to increase gender balance. While her study focuses on gender quotas in corporate boardrooms,[21] the insights in her report are applicable to gender equality in political representation. Under the critical mass marker approach, institutions should promote capacity building of women. In turn, this approach ensures that women have requisite skills to access or contest for political offices. Rather than rely on quotas for equality in representation, the critical mass marker requires women and institutions to remain proactive in increasing the aggregate capacity of women to access political seats without affirmative action.

While leading democracies like the United States have not achieved gender equality, Sweden represents a crucial case for implementing gender equality in political representation. It is worth mentioning that Scandinavian countries like Sweden and Norway have achieved gender equality without the use of quotas.[22] This is not to say that they do not have gender quotas. Rather, some political parties have gender quotas.  In Sweden, the journey to gender equality was influenced by a recognition of differences and similarities between men and women. To address the differences, the feminists in Sweden sought equal protection and enjoyment of the law.[23] The emphasis on equality of results saw political parties embrace gender equality eventually allowing women to enjoy gender equality in politics. Further, women’s issues were politicized leading to activism around gender equality. [24] Rather than view women’s issues as those of a minority, parties saw these issues as universal among women seeking gender equality.[25] As a result, political parties began to compete amongst themselves on which best promoted women’s interests. Also, they increased the women they nominated for elections leading to increased number of women in representative politics.[26] Through this approach, Sweden underwent institutional reforms to embrace and promote gender equality.

Another non-quota option that promotes gender equality is provision of financing for women candidates in electoral politics. Gender-based quotas might satisfy the demand for female leaders, but they do not increase the supply of women in politics. Specifically, the supply of women leaders can only increase after women have overcome structural barriers to female participation in leadership and decision-making processes. In this case, financing women candidates increases the number of women locked out of politics because of inadequate financial resources.[27] Still, the economic empowerment of women at local levels would change the negative patriarchal perception of women as domestic workers instead of economic and political agents. There is a widespread stereotype that women are best fit for domestic space and poor political leaders.[28] Their economic and political empowerment would promote gender equity in the political and economic spaces thus encouraging their participation in leadership.[29] Thus, financial empowerment of women would allow them to fund their campaigns and emerge as strong leaders.


While countries with quotas have witnessed an increase in women’s representation, women’s representation was still increasing even without the quotas. [30] To this end, it is crucial to identify alternative measures to increase women’s representation. From this discussion, quotas are not the only vehicle for ensuring gender parity in leadership and decision-making. Future recommendations should tie up gender quotas with measures such as gender parity policies and financing among others. As demonstrated by French and Sweden, gender parity and mainstreaming exercise provides an institutional framework for promoting access to equal opportunities. While gender mainstreaming increases political participation and eliminates barriers to women’s leadership, it does not guarantee equality of outcomes. It is here that gender-based quotas come in to promote both equal opportunities and equal outcomes in gender equality. Arguably, quotas improve women empowerment by widening their political rights or acknowledging their political rights to participate in decision-making processes. Also, the concern of most female leaders is resource challenges and sociocultural perceptions on women in politics. Gender quotas do not resolve stereotypes. Ultimately, the success of gender quotas in promoting gender equality requires the joint use of quotas and other multiple measures to promote equality of opportunities and overcome barriers that lead to women’s underrepresentation.

Christabel M. Eboso is an Advocate of the High of Kenya, currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Kent, Canterbury; a fellow at the Institute of Global Policy and Law, Harvard Law School, class of 2023 and a Tutorial Fellow at the University of Embu.

[1] Para. 182, http://www.un.org/womenwatch/daw/beijing/fwcwn.htm

[2]  Rosemary Hunter, ‘More than Just a Different Face? Judicial Diversity and Decision-making’ (2015) 68 Current Legal Problems 119.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] While the use of quotas to increase number of women ought to be celebrated, quotas are often represented as a project that should be progressively achieved. Like in Kenya, the gradual implementation of gender quotas is influenced by the prohibitive patriarchal politics and gendered stereotypes that act as barriers to participation of women in electoral politics and governance.

[6] Sarah Childs and Mona Krook, ‘Critical Mass Theory and Women’s Political Representation’ (2008) Political Studies.

[7] Ibid.

[8] L Clark, Affirmative Action–Gender Representation in Parliament: Quotas, Political Parties and Reserved Seats (2006) 2-3

[9] Mona Lena, and Pippa Norris. “Beyond quotas: strategies to promote gender equality in elected office.” Political Studies 62, no. 1 (2014): 2-20.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Verge, Tània, and María De la Fuente. “Playing with different cards: Party politics, gender quotas and women’s empowerment.” International Political Science Review 35, no. 1 (2014): 67-79.

[12] Mona Lena, and Pippa Norris. “Beyond quotas: strategies to promote gender equality in elected office.” 2-3

[13] Maira Zeinilova. “An Alternative Approach to the Advancement of Women Political Participation in Non-Democratic Post Soviet Regimes.” Dublin City University, Policy Paper – 2017,  4

[14] Rosabeth Moss Kanter, Men and Women of the Corporation (New York: Basic Books: 1993)

[15] Mona Krook. ‘Empowerment versus backlash: gender quotas and critical mass theory.’ (2015) Politics, Groups, and Identities 3, 184-188.

[16] Alan Berman, ‘The Law on Gender Parity in Politics in France and New Caledonia: A Window into the Future or More of the Same?’ (2005) Oxford U Comparative L Forum 2.

[17] Laure Bereni, ‘French feminists renegotiate republican universalism: The gender parity campaign.’ (2007) 5 French Politics. See the Constitution of the French Republic, Article 3): ‘The law favors the equal access of women and men to electoral mandates and elective functions’.

[18] Ibid., 278.

[19] Zetterberg, Pär, ‘Do Gender Quotas Foster Women’s Political Engagement? Lessons from Latin America’ (2008) Political Research Quarterly

[20] Jude Browne. Corporate boards, quotas for women, and political theory. (2014).

[21] Commission Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council on Improving the Gender Balance Among Non-Executive Directors of Companies Listed on Stock Exchanges and Related Measures, at 7-8.

[22] Lenita Freidenvall, ‘Women’s political representation and gender quotas – the swedish case’ 2

[23] Diane Sainsbury, ‘Women’s political representation in Sweden: Discursive politics and institutional presence.’ 2004 Scandinavian Political Studies, 66-67

[24] Ibid., 83. See Louise Chappell, “Interacting with the State: Feminist Strategies and Political Opportunities,” in Women, Gender and Politics: A Reader, eds.Mona Lena Krook and Sarah Childs (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 313-17.

[25] Lenita, 9

[26] Ibid.

[27] Mona Lena, and Pippa Norris. “Beyond quotas: strategies to promote gender equality in elected office.”

[28] Nyokabi Kamau, Women and Political Leadership in Kenya: 100 Case Studies (2010: Heinrich Böll Foundation)

[29] Maria-Nzomo. Representational Politics in Kenya: The Gender Quota and Beyond. In African Research & Resource Forum, 3.

[30] Meryl Kenny, and Fiona Mackay, ‘Already doin’it for ourselves? Skeptical notes on feminism and institutionalism’ [2009] 5 Politics & Gender 2.

Guest author The Platform Magazine