Assessing the Effect of Gender Quotas on Politics

Last week, Natalia Bueno drew our attention to gender quotas in politics, pointing out that while the number of women candidates in elections to the local and federal chambers in Brazil was increasing, the proportion of women actually getting elected was not witnessing a commensurate increase; in fact, it was mostly stable over time. Regardless of whether a quota is for a certain percentage of women that must contest elections, or for a certain percentage of women that must actually hold legislative seats, Natalia raises an important question at the end of her post – is such affirmative action even effective? Like Brazil, India has also been struggling to implement reforms that encourage representation of women in government. While a 1992 amendment to the Indian constitution made it mandatory for 33% of elected seats at the local level (village panchayats) to be filled with women, the bill for implementing this reform at the national level has still not been passed. In light of the debate on women’s issues that has been sparked off by the recent gang-rape in Delhi, a number of proposals are now back into consideration, including the Women’s Reservation Bill, which mandates that 33% of all seats in the lower house of the Parliament and in all state legislative assemblies be reserved for women. But does guaranteeing a certain number of elected seats for women yield their group any benefits?

Government Participation by Women (

In terms of effectiveness of gender quotas and representation, what exactly are we aiming for? Observers draw a distinction between descriptive representation,  the similarity between the representative and the represented in terms of race/ethnicity/gender, symbolic representation, the subjective feeling of “fair” represented, and substantive representation. This third kind is particularly important as it implies that the legislators actually enact policy which reflects the concerns of the constituents.

Looking at the effects of descriptive representation, Barnes and Burchard, using the Afro-Barometer survey for 20 countries across sub-Saharan Africa, show that increased representation of women in the political sphere is positively related the political engagement of women at the mass level. Political engagement here is measured in a variety of ways – talking about politics, participating in demonstrations, interest in politics, contacting a member of Parliament and contacting a party leader. More importantly, they argue that true gender parity in representation is not even necessary to achieve a commensurate parity in political engagement – as the percentage of women in the legislature increases from 25 to 35%, the difference between male and female turnout in voting during elections virtually disappears.

However, such descriptive representation does not necessarily translate into symbolic or substantive representation. This is a concern in many developing countries such as India and Brazil, where women candidates may often be wives or relatives of male candidates in politics and, therefore, may do little to advance the interests of the constituents who they are supposed to represent.  Evidence of symbolic representation however, can also be found in some contexts. Iyer, Mani, Mishra and Topalova have found that increased representation of women in local councils in India has gradually contributed to an increased reporting of crime against women. In substantive terms, Chattopadhyay and Duflo using the reservation rule mentioned above, find that female leaders invest money in public goods considered more important to women than men, which in this case were drinking water and roads.

The above examples show us that the effectiveness of gender quotas is conditional on many factors and the kind of representation that we choose to focus on. Besides examining the effects of these gender quotas, it would also be interesting to analyze if exposure to power and the formal workings of politics builds capabilities for these female leaders. In other words, what are the effects of these quotas on its direct beneficiaries?


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