Gender-based quotas require that a certain number of women either run for or have seats in the legislature. Currently about 110 countries have rules that boost women’s chances to get elected. The main concern people express about gender quotas is that they are, by certain definitions, inherently anti-democratic. I argue that we should prioritize substantive representation over procedural integrity, but ultimately gender quotas, as a temporary measure, are beneficial under either definition.
There is a lot of disagreement on what we should mean when we say “democracy” – is it the logistics of a specific form of government? Is it a value system? The common theme is an underlying assumption: governments should be a tool to express the will of people they rule. Procedural democracy, in my view, is a means to an end. It was formed as a response to thousands of years of authoritarianism in order to, for the first time, empower regular people. We should not consider this democratic project done in any country. Not all people are legitimately empowered by democracy. We should not assume that the procedures we have now are the best mechanism for representation.
Gender quotas are a change in procedure. They ensure that candidates, in part, are chosen by their membership in an oppressed group. If the goal is deconstructing the power systems that have prevented substantive representation, this is a legitimate change to procedure. Gender quotas are necessary for substantive representation – the representation of women’s actual preferences. Male leaders, even if they care about women’s issues, are unlikely to understand what women want. For example, female leaders in West Bengal are more likely to propose investments in drinking water, since they’re usually the one carrying it for their families.
The currently prevalent strategy of including women’s preferences is by changing societal mindsets, causing people to vote for more women. These women, in turn, advocate for their gender. However, more representation can only impact policy in marginal ways until there is a critical mass of women. For example, Mexico is on the cusp of having enough support for a bill seeking to prevent gender based violence. A few more female politicians could make a big difference.
Legislatures also need a critical mass of women for them to be able to propose bills. Using evidence from Argentina, Barnes finds that female legislators don’t receive respect in a “boys’ club” atmosphere and don’t have access to political networks. This inhibits their performance. Having enough women creates new networks and changes the culture. This facilitates collaboration and cosponsored bills. This is also due to socialization, which leads women to want to collaborate, particularly with other women (Barnes shows that this holds up empirically).
But even if we believe that defining democracy shouldn’t include the resulting policy, having quotas in the short term minimizes distortions to the electoral process in the long term. First, it gives voters more options. Pande and Ford compare districts in India with and without quotas. Since which districts had a required quota was mostly random, this case provides a natural experiment. When the quota only permitted women to run for seats in reserved districts, it led to an estimated 10-fold increase in women running for office. Importantly, this effect doesn’t stop when the quota does. In the election cycle after seats had been reserved, there was still a 7.4% increase in female candidates. However, there are still benefits to continuing quota policies. When quotas lasted for two cycles, the amount of women running more than doubled.
Not only do quotas give voters more options, they remove psychological barriers to considering all their options. Most people have never experienced true female-led governance. How can voters decide that they want something that they’ve never seen work? This is why arguments like Jochen Bittner’s, that quotas “question voter judgment and pre-engineer a certain result,” are insufficient to call quotas anti-democratic. They are a short term measure that increases voter information. It’s not that their judgment should be questioned, but we have to give them the tools for accurate judgment. Granted, the effect is delayed. Another study on the Indian case found that in the first two cycles, men are more resentful of female leaders. However, in the long term, their bias against women’s leadership decreased.
Finally, quotas cause more people to legitimately participate in democracy. Either directly through the quota policy or indirectly from more female leadership, women feel more politically empowered. In the same study, the authors found that there is a 25% increase in the likelihood that a woman speaks in a village meeting while a quota is in place.
Quotas understandably sound alarming to proponents of democracy. However, they might be necessary to overcome the historical oppression that still keeps our governments from representing half the population.