Candidate Gender Quotas

Mona Lena Krook. Women and Politics around the World: A Comparative History and Survey. Editor: Joyce Gelb & Marian Lief Palley. Volume 1: Issues. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009.

Women occupy 18.2 percent of the seats in national parliaments around the world (Inter-Parliamentary Union 2008). Although this is a small minority of all representatives, the degree of women’s exclusion from political office varies enormously across the globe. However, most countries have registered increases in recent years in the number of women elected. In many cases, a crucial component of change has been the adoption of quota policies to facilitate the selection of female candidates. All the same, not all quotas are equally successful in increasing women’s political representation: some countries experience dramatic increases after the adoption of new quota regulations, whereas others see more modest changes or even setbacks in the proportion of women elected. Further, quotas appear to have mixed results for women as a group: some have positive consequences for public policy, and others appear to undermine women as political actors.

To track and make sense of these developments, this essay surveys quota policies around the world. The first section discusses candidate gender quotas as a global phenomenon. It outlines three categories of quota policies—reserved seats, party quotas, and legislative quotas—and describes their basic characteristics, the countries in which they appear, and the timing of their adoption. The second section offers four explanations for the passage of quotas related to the mobilization of women, the strategies of political elites, the norms of equality and representation, and the role of international and transnational actors. The third and fourth sections explore, respectively, why some quotas are more effective than others in promoting female candidates and empowering women as a group. The analysis suggests that quotas are a diverse set of measures that do not always have their desired effects. Nonetheless, they often produce a host of positive results—both expected and unexpected—in the pursuit of greater equality between women and men in political life.

Gender Quotas as a Global Phenomenon

Candidate gender quotas include three categories of measures: reserved seats, party quotas, and legislative quotas. Despite differences in their features and distribution across world regions, these policies share striking similarities in terms of the timing of their introduction. Before 1990, approximately 20 countries adopted gender quotas. In the 1990s, quotas appeared in more than 50 new states, which have been joined by nearly 40 more since the year 2000 (Krook 2006b, 312-313). As a result, today more than 100 countries now have some sort of quota policy. Because more than 75 percent of these measures have been passed since the early 1990s, quotas appear to reflect a growing international norm regarding the need to promote women’s political representation (Krook 2006a; Towns 2004).

The three types of gender quotas vary in terms of their basic characteristics, the countries in which they appear, and the timing of their adoption. Reserved seats are policies that literally set aside places for women in political assemblies. They are usually enacted through constitutional reforms that establish separate electoral rolls for women, designate separate districts for female candidates, or allocate women’s seats to political parties based on their proportion of the popular vote. They guarantee women’s presence by revising the mechanisms of election to mandate a minimum number of female representatives. This proportion, however, is often very low: some reserved seats policies mandate as little as 1 or 2 percent of all seats, although there are important exceptions, like the 30 percent policy in Tanzania. These measures first appeared in the 1930s, but have been adopted as recently as 2005. Indeed, they have become an increasingly prominent solution in countries with very low levels of female parliamentary representation. They are concentrated geographically in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. In some states, there are no quotas at the national level, but quotas are used very effectively at the local level, as in India and Namibia.

Party quotas are measures adopted voluntarily by political parties to require a certain proportion of women among their parties’ candidates. They are typically introduced through changes to individual party statutes and introduce new criteria for candidate selection to encourage—or force—party elites to recognize existing biases and to consider alternative spheres of political recruitment. Given their origins with political parties, these quotas differ from reserved seats in that they concern slates of candidates rather than the final proportion of women elected. Further, they generally mandate a much higher proportion of women, usually between 25 and 50 percent of all candidates. They were first adopted in the early 1970s by various left-wing parties in Western Europe. Today they are the most common type of gender quota, appearing in parties across the political spectrum and in all regions of the world. They continue to be the most prevalent measure used in Western Europe. However, they also frequently coexist with legislative quotas in Africa and Latin America, where party quotas predate or accompany the adoption of more encompassing quota laws.

Finally, legislative quotas are measures passed by national parliaments that require all parties to nominate a certain proportion of female candidates. They involve reforming the constitution or the electoral law to alter the meanings of equality and representation that inform candidate selection processes by legitimizing affirmative action and recognizing “gender” as a political identity. Similar to party quotas, they address selection processes, rather than the number of women actually elected. Unlike party quotas, however, they are mandatory provisions that apply to all political groupings, rather than simply those that choose to adopt quotas. Legislative quotas typically call for women to constitute between 25 and 50 percent of all candidates. They are the newest type of gender quota, appearing first in the early 1990s, but they have become increasingly common as more and more countries adopt quota policies. With some notable exceptions, these measures tend to be found in developing countries, particularly in Latin America, and/or in post-conflict societies, primarily in Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe. In many countries, they coexist with—or supersede—provisions for party quotas.

Gender Quotas and Policy Adoption

The diffusion of gender quota policies raises questions about how and why these measures have been adopted in diverse countries around the world. The global reach of any policy is unusual, but the rapid spread of quotas is especially striking, as many people—including feminists—voice strong and convincing objections to quotas per se as a strategy for increasing women’s political representation (Bacchi 2006; Krook 2006a). Some argue against quotas on the basis that they are undemocratic, because they violate the notion that there should be “free choice” in who is nominated or elected to political office (Squires 1996). Others contend that quotas are unfair because they do not allow men and women to compete openly for seats and, as such, discriminate against men. Still others claim that quotas are demeaning to women, because they suggest that women are not capable of winning office “on their own” (Amar 1999; Kishwar 1998). In addition to this normative hostility, the diffusion of quotas is puzzling because it contradicts expectations about the role of self-interest in politics. More specifically, quotas for women appear to challenge the status of the same male politicians and party leaders who pass these policies, as they require that men cede seats to women as a group.

Quotas have nonetheless been accepted in countries around the world. A survey of these cases suggests at least four possible explanations related to who supports quota policies and why they are ultimately adopted (Krook 2006b). The first is that women mobilize for quotas to increase women’s representation. Usually this occurs when women’s groups realize quotas are an effective—and maybe the only—means for increasing women’s political representation. The particular women involved in quota campaigns nonetheless vary enormously and may include women’s organizations inside political parties, women’s movements in civil society, women’s groups in other countries, and even individual women close to powerful men. In all of these instances, however, women’s groups pursue quotas for normative and pragmatic reasons. They believe there should be more women in politics to promote justice, interests, and resources (Phillips 1995). Absent any “natural” trend towards change, they recognize that this is likely to be achieved only through specific, targeted actions to promote female candidates.

The second explanation is that political elites adopt quotas for strategic reasons, generally related to competition with other parties. Various case studies suggest, for example, that party elites often adopt quotas when one of their rivals adopts them (Caul 2001; Meier 2004). This concern may be heightened if the party seeks to overcome a long period of opposition or a dramatic decrease in popularity. In other contexts, elites view quotas as a way to demonstrate some sort of commitment to women without really intending to alter existing patterns of inequality, or alternatively, as a means to promote other political ends, like maintaining control over political rivals within or outside the party. If these motives are correct, adopting quotas may be less about empowering women in politics and more about how quotas fit in—perhaps serendipitously—with various other struggles among political elites.

The third explanation is that quotas are adopted when they mesh with existing or emerging notions of equality and representation. Evidence indicates that gender quotas are compatible in distinct ways with a number of normative frameworks. Some scholars view quota adoption as consistent with ideas about equality and fair access. They point out that left-wing parties are generally more open to measures such as quotas because these match with their more general goals of social equality. Others interpret quotas as a method to recognize difference and the need for proportional representation. Quotas for women are thus a logical extension of guarantees given to other groups based on linguistic, religious, racial, and other cleavages. A final observation is that quotas tend to emerge during periods of democratic innovation. In these countries, quotas may be seen as a way to establish the legitimacy of the new political system during democratic transition or the creation of new democratic institutions. Taken together, these arguments analyze quotas in relation to their fit with features of the political context: they do not reflect principled concerns to empower women or pragmatic strategies to win or maintain power.

The fourth explanation is that quotas are supported by international norms and spread through transnational sharing. Since 1995, a variety of international organizations have issued declarations recommending that all member-states aim for 30 percent women in all political bodies. These norms shape national quota debates in at least four ways (Krook 2006b). International imposition occurs in cases where international actors are directly involved in quota adoption, either by deciding to apply quotas themselves or by compelling national leaders to do so themselves. Transnational emulation takes place in cases where local women’s movements and transnational nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) share information on quota strategies across national borders. International tipping appears in cases where international events provide new sources of leverage in national debates, shifting the balance in favor of local and transnational actors pressing for quota adoption. International blockage, finally, happens in cases where international actors seek to prevent the adoption of gender quotas, despite mobilization by local women’s groups and transnational NGOs in favor of these policies.

Gender Quotas and the Election of Women

Quota measures are diverse, and thus differences in their impact are to be expected. However, pinpointing why some quotas are more effective than others is a complicated task: in addition to features of specific quota policies, which affect their likelihood of being implemented, quotas are introduced when variations already exist in the percentage of women in national parliaments. Cross-national variations are thus the combined result of quotas—where they are present—and other political, social, and economic factors that were often at work before quotas were established. As a result, quotas do not simply lead to gains proportional to the quota policy, but they also interact, both positively and negatively, with various features of the broader political context (Krook 2009).

In an attempt to untangle these effects, scholars outline three broad explanations related to the impact of quotas on the election of more women to political office. The first focuses on the details of quota measures themselves. Some studies assert that the impact of quotas is closely connected to the type of measure involved. Although most agree that reserved seats generally produce small changes in women’s representation (Chowdhury 2002), some claim that party quotas are more effective than other types of quotas because they are voluntary measures, adopted from concerns about electoral advantage (Leijenaar 1997), and others insist that legislative quotas are more effective because they bind all political parties, rather than merely those who choose to adopt quotas (Jones 1998).

More recent work delves deeper into variations within and across types, seeking to understand why specific quota measures are more or less effective in achieving changes in women’s representation. These scholars argue that the impact of gender quotas stems from the wording of the quota, whether the language used in the policy strengthens the quota requirement or reduces ambiguity or vagueness regarding the process of implementation; the requirements of the quota, whether the policy specifies where female candidates should be placed and to which elections the policy applies; the sanctions of the quota, whether the policy establishes organs for reviewing and enforcing quota requirements and procedures for punishing or rectifying noncompliance; and the perceived legitimacy of the quota, whether the policy is viewed as legal or constitutional from the point of view of national and international law.

A second explanation relates the impact of quotas to the fit between quota measures and existing institutional frameworks. Most studies in this vein focus on characteristics of the electoral system, examining how electoral rules facilitate or hinder the potentially positive effect of quotas on women’s representation. They observe that quotas have the greatest impact in proportional representation electoral systems with closed lists, which enable parties to place women in electable positions on party slates, and high district magnitudes, which open the way for women to be included as the total number of members elected per district increases (Caul 1999; Htun and Jones 2002). However, researchers also identify idiosyncratic features of particular electoral systems that negatively affect quota implementation, including the possibility for parties to run more than one list in each district (Costa Benavides 2003), the existence of distinct electoral systems for different types of elections (Jones 1998), and the chance for parties to nominate more candidates than the number of seats available (Htun 2002).

Other scholars consider features of the political party system, as well as the characteristics of parties themselves, to discern partisan dynamics that aid or subvert quota implementation. They argue that quotas are more likely to have an impact in party systems where several parties coexist and larger parties respond to policy innovations initiated by smaller parties (Kolinsky 1991), as well as in parties with left-wing ideologies where the party leadership is able to enforce party or national regulations (Caul 1999; Davidson-Schmich 2006). Still others observe higher rates of implementation across all parties in countries where the political culture emphasizes sexual difference and group representation (Meier 2004) and lower rates of compliance in countries where the political culture stresses sexual equality and individual representation (Inhetveen 1999).

A third explanation outlines the actors who support and oppose quotas and their respective roles in guaranteeing or undermining quota implementation. Much of this literature focuses on political party elites as the group most directly responsible for variations in the impact of quotas, as the effective application of quotas largely hinges on the willingness of elites to recruit female candidates. Most accounts expose the ways elites seek to mitigate the effect of quotas ranging from passive refusal to enforce them to more active measures to subvert their intended effect (Araújo 2003; Costa Benavides 2003) to the point of even committing large-scale electoral fraud and widespread intimidation of female candidates (Human Rights Watch 2004).

Women’s organizations both inside and outside the political parties also play a direct or indirect role in enforcing quota provisions: they pressure elites to comply with quota provisions, distribute information on quota regulations to elites and the general public, and train female candidates to negotiate better positions on their respective party lists (Camacho Granados et al. 1997; Durrieu 1999); national and international courts that provide an arena to challenge noncompliance and require parties to redo lists that do not comply with the law (Jones 2004); and ordinary citizens who engage in public scrutiny of parties’ selection practices through reports and reprimands that lead elites to honor and even exceed quota commitments (Baldez 2004; Kolinsky 1991).

Gender Quotas and the Empowerment of Women

Existing patterns of quota adoption and implementation leave many skeptical that these policies will prove beneficial for women. Indeed, evidence from many cases suggests that quotas are not so much a feminist demand articulated by a new global women’s movement, but rather reflect more a cynical attempt among elites to mask other struggles under the guise of concern for the political status of women. Further, quotas appear to contradict a number of other recent trends in international and feminist politics, namely rising neoliberalism, the supposed decline in women’s movement activity, growing doubt about the unity of “women” as a category, and ongoing challenges to links between descriptive (the number of women in political office) and substantive representation (attention to women’s interests in the policy-making process).

These tensions have led scholars and activists to outline four possibilities in terms of what quotas might mean within larger political processes, and thus for women as a group. The first is that quotas contribute—within a global context of growing neoliberalism—to an increasing separation between political empowerment, on the one hand, and social and economic empowerment, on the other (Phillips 1999). In this scenario, quotas appear to be a major concession to women’s movement demands, but in fact serve two decidedly nonfeminist ends: to demobilize feminists through the guise of empty promises and to mask enduring—and, some might argue, more pressing—inequalities among women themselves, particularly along class and racial lines.

The evidence for these claims is mixed. Although neoliberalism is often associated with the end of special measures to help underrepresented groups, the desire to improve economic efficiency has in fact bolstered the case for quotas. Indeed, international actors like the United Nations often explain their support for these measures on the grounds that the increased representation of women contributes to greater gains in social and economic development (Towns 2004). In practice, therefore, quotas and neoliberalism are not mutually exclusive, but instead, they are often partners in the pursuit of a new world order. Similarly, the passage of quota policies has varied effects on women’s movements: although in some countries quotas result in a decline in women’s movement activity (Gaspard 2001), in others they spur continued mobilization to ensure that quotas are implemented in line with the spirit of the reform (Durrieu 1999; Jones 2004). As a consequence, gender quotas may undermine the feminist cause but may also lend renewed energy to feminist organizing.

A second possibility—often raised by feminist critics of quotas—is that these policies result in the election of more women, but only those who will reinforce rather than challenge the status quo. This argument aims to expose why quota policies, which appear to be a radical departure from politics as usual, are often adopted relatively quickly by party leaders and nearly unanimously by national parliaments (Krook forthcoming). To support this claim, most point to the rules for implementing these provisions, which often place considerable autonomy in the hands of party leaders and/or confer extensive discretion to electoral authorities (Htun 2002; Meier 2000). Although some parties ignore the requirements by claiming that they cannot find a sufficient number of qualified female candidates (Holli, Luhtakallio, and Raevaara 2006; Murray 2004), others simply use this opportunity to select a slate of female candidates who are decidedly nonfeminist (Abou-Zeid 2006; Nanivadekar 2006). Still others appeal these policies in various kinds of courts, which occasionally overturn quotas on the grounds that they violate basic principles of equality and representation (Mossuz-Lavau 1998; Russell 2000), or merely refuse to intervene to ensure proper quota implementation (Schmidt and Saunders 2004).

Although some work suggests that women elected through quotas are more loyal to party leaders than women who win open seats (Cowley and Childs 2003), the presence of quotas does not always preclude the ability of women to represent women’s concerns. Indeed, in some cases these policies confer a special mandate on women who are elected this way, precisely because their election is intended specifically to improve the representation of women as a group (Schwartz 2004; Skjeie 1992). Further, although many elites—and some male aspirants—do seek to subvert the impact of quota provisions, including through legal or constitutional challenges, some of these events in fact reinvigorate quota campaigns. In a growing number of cases, these renewed efforts lead to new specifications of the quota provisions (Childs 2003; Krook 2009), which can result in dramatic changes in the numbers and types of women elected. These dynamics suggest that quotas may undercut feminist progress by masking steps backward as steps forward for women. However, disappointment with the lack of progress after the introduction of quotas may also spur feminists into action to achieve more substantial change, both in the election of women and the representation of women’s concerns.

A third expectation is that quotas serve to reify “women” as a political category. Although this creates the false impression of a unified group that does not in fact exist (Mansbridge 1999), it also restricts the scope of women as political actors, as well as limiting the recognition of the diverse needs of women as a group, by anticipating that women can only represent “women’s issues” (Childs and Krook 2006). In some cases, these suspicions seem to be borne out: both anecdotal and hard evidence suggests that female candidates are often viewed—or at least perceive themselves to be viewed—as representatives of women, rather than as representatives of other groups (Childs 2004). In contrast, male candidates are rarely seen as advocates only of men—indeed, they are rarely considered as such—but instead as representatives of a host of other social and economic identities.

All the same, quotas vary importantly in the degree to which they essentialize women: some measures are sex-specific, indicating that women are the group that requires special treatment, whereas others are gender-neutral, providing for a minimum representation of both women and men. In addition, the proportion provided for ranges enormously across quota policies, from as little as 1 percent to as much as 50 percent (Krook 2009), establishing different opportunities for the election of a diverse group of legislators. As a result, some quota policies may create wider or narrower definitions of “women,” opening up or restricting the capacity for those elected through quotas to pursue a broad range of policies that might benefit women as a group.

A fourth concern with regard to gender quotas is that they reduce women’s effectiveness as political actors. According to this account, these effects are felt both individually and collectively. On the one hand, women elected with and without the quota face the possibility of being taken for “quota women,” as people who did not earn political office “on their own,” thus reducing their esteem in the eyes of voters and their colleagues (Goetz and Hassim 2003). On the other hand, these perceptions lead—either implicitly or explicitly—to a reduced scope for action, causing many quota and nonquota women to disavow their association with what are considered to be a narrow set of female concerns (Childs 2004).

Some evidence does indeed support this claim: some women do report a sense of decreased efficacy as a consequence of gender quotas (Childs 2004). However, many more gain increased confidence over the course of their tenure and bring a range of women-centered issues to political attention (Nanivadekar 2006). In numerous cases, this influences the political engagement of female constituents, who not only contact their representatives with greater frequency (Childs 2004; Kudva 2003) but who also increasingly consider running for political office themselves (Goetz and Hassim 2003). These patterns suggest that quotas do sometimes negatively affect women’s abilities as political actors, but they also often generate a host of positive externalities both for individual women and for women as a group (Krook 2006a).


Gender quotas constitute a growing global phenomenon: more than 100 countries have witnessed the adoption of quotas, and nearly 20 more are currently considering quota reform. Although all quotas share the same basic objective of increasing women’s political representation, these measures are diverse, appearing as reserved seats, party quotas, and legislative quotas, and mandating that women form between 1 and 50 percent of all candidates. Further, although the overwhelming majority of quota policies have been adopted during the past 15 years, the specific actors involved in quota debates vary greatly, spanning groups at the civil society, state, international, and transnational levels. Despite their apparently radical challenge to politics as usual, patterns of adoption indicate that quotas can reach the political agenda for feminist and nonfeminist reasons.

Similarly, gender quotas can serve both feminist and nonfeminist ends. A closer look at the effects of quotas on the election and empowerment of women suggests that particular measures may in fact mean different things within distinct political contexts. Despite their enthusiasm for increased female political representation, many feminists express doubt about the intentions of quota reform. They observe that quotas rarely achieved their stated goals—and may even subvert them. Nonetheless, substantial evidence points to a range of positive implications of quota reform. These patterns suggest that gender quotas have a somewhat complicated relationship with feminist projects of empowerment: although they can reach the political agenda for a variety of reasons and can serve a number of distinct ends, they often renew feminist engagement with the formal political sphere, with crucial and positive consequences for women as a group.