The effects of political institutions on women’s representation in national politics

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Jennifer Rosen In this blog, Jennifer Rosen argues that if we want to increase the presence of women in parliaments we need to move away from a ‘one size fits all’ approach. Her research shows that Proportional Representation is more effective as a means of increasing the number of women in the legislatures of developed countries, whereas quotas have proved highly successful in developing countries. Jennifer has a PhD in Sociology from the University of Northwestern.


Women have secured the legal right to participate in government in all but a handful of countries — they can vote, run for office, organize political campaigns, and participate in party structures.  Formal political representation, however, remains an arena where gender inequalities are remarkably pronounced and where women are widely underrepresented.  In 2013, women occupied only 20.7% of the world’s single/lower house parliamentary seats, just 23 of the 189 highest ranking United Nations diplomatic posts, and a mere 17 elected positions as head of state.  Simply scanning photos from the recent G20 global summit in Mexico (June 2012) draws attention to the scarcity of female faces among world leaders.  The significance of such underrepresentation in national politics is extensive.  Scholars have increasingly found that it can negatively affect the quality of democratic electoral processes, and may reinforce legal and symbolic limitations on individual citizens.

There are, however, substantial cross-national variations and progress has moved much faster in some places than others.  Many countries, following the international pattern, have achieved little progress.  From 1992 to 2013, the percent of women in parliament in Brazil went from 7.4% to 8.6%, in India from 6.9% to 11%, in Russia from 8.7% to 13.6%, and in the United States from 11% to a slightly more impressive 17.8%.  By contrast, countries such as Angola, Mozambique, Nicaragua, and Argentina have seen women’s parliamentary representation nearly triple over the past two decades, to well over 30%.  In fact, in 2008 Rwanda became the first country to achieve a female majority national legislature (56.3%).

What has been particularly surprising about the variation that exists, and the changes that have occurred in the past twenty years, is that many countries with relatively low levels of socioeconomic development have outpaced developed democracies in enhancing the formal political representation of women.  Twenty years ago, countries with the highest concentrations of women in parliament were all Scandinavian or Western European.  As of May 2013, however, 13 of the top 20 spots (and 3 of the top 5) are represented by less developed countries, mainly in Africa and Latin America.

Despite this trend, the empirical cross-national analyses in academic social science literature have tended to generalize their findings across a diverse collection of countries, or limit their samples to Western industrialized nations.  There are a handful of large-scale, comparative studies that look exclusively at less developed countries, but these have produced disparate results.  Qualitative case studies of less developed, emerging democracies in Sub-Saharan Africa, Latin America, South East Asia, and the Middle East, however, offer important insights into how particular political institutions effect women’s parliamentary representation in these contexts.  The goal of my work is to use data from a large sample of countries to test the theories generated by the rich, detailed process tracing of the qualitative case studies.

In my recent paper for Political Research Quarterly, I argue that the prevailing analytic models designed to explain women’s enhanced representation are inadequate when applied in contexts of low socioeconomic development.  In fact, I show that two of the most important variables identified in the literature – gender quotas and electoral systems – have different effects on women’s political representation across development thresholds.

In response, I assemble an original data set that covers 168 countries from 1992-2010.  Although I build models that comprehensively analyze cross-national variations in women’s political representation, this is not my primary goal.  Instead, I focus on the effects of gender quotas and electoral systems to reveal how the causal processes vary across countries depending on their level of socio-economic development.

I believe that it is particularly important to understand how political institutions can enhance women’s political representation, because these institutions are more easily manipulated than other ideological or socioeconomic factors.  In the short term, reforming a country’s electoral system or passing gender quota legislation is far more realistic than dramatically changing a country’s cultural view of women.

My results suggest that there are important structural differences across countries, particularly across countries with different levels of socioeconomic development, which support or obscure the beneficial effects of proportional representation (PR) electoral systems and nationally mandated quotas.  In contrast to most previous research, I find that a PR electoral system provides a much larger benefit to female politicians in Western, developed democracies than in other countries.

One reason for this may be that the benefits of PR systems are obstructed by barriers that prevent party lists from going forward with female candidates.  For example, hindrances such as corruption, internal conflicts, and/or patronage can obscure the institutional benefits.  Additionally, traditional gender role ideologies that relegate women to the home and family can make the political costs of nominating women so great that parties prefer to run virtually all-male slates rather than risk the wrath of the voters by nominating women.  It is likely to be a combination of these factors that prevents an institutional mechanism such as a particular type of electoral system from benefiting women outside of long-term stable democracies.

Nationally mandated quotas, on the other hand, are significantly more effective outside of the industrialized West.  These laws mandate a minimum percentage of parliamentary seats to be reserved for female candidates, and tend to be more popular in semi-democratic and post-conflict countries. In part, this is because they are perceived as conferring international legitimacy, but it is also because these countries often begin from scratch building political institutions, drawing up new constitutions, and rebuilding parliaments, providing a political opening for quotas.

My results indicate that universal generalizations derived from large cross-national samples should be interpreted with caution, as they may not adequately represent the effects of key causal mechanisms.  Rather, different institutional changes are advised to increase women’s presence in national governments.  My findings indicate that a ‘one size fits all’ policy to increase the proportion of women occupying seats in national governments does not make sense.  Rather, the transition to a PR electoral system considerably helps women in the average developed country, but it does less to aid women in less developed countries.  On the other hand, women in developing and least-developed countries generally experience substantial gains through the adoption of gender quota legislation, while this use of time and/or resources may be ill-advised in developed countries.

One thought on “The effects of political institutions on women’s representation in national politics

  1. I am a professor en the Law School of a Public University in México, and currently. I’m writing a master thesis about the impact of quotas in México and Argentina ( Comparative Analysis). I want to apply for a PHD in Gender. Studies. Recently in México on Dec. 3 the President presented to a new law reform, to change the 40% of quota for woman to reach the parity. This law is now in the Congress, we might have parity rules soon in the electoral law. As you sure know women have around 37% of rep. in congress, not bad, but only in Congress, in the rest of the political structure of México women are under represented. I will quote you in my research, I find your article very interesting.

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