Gender Quotas in Politics: Are they Really that Bad?

By Kaloyan Kirilov
The question of whether gender quotas in politics are necessary, effective or wanted is a source of a discussion between politicians, activists, academics and the general population worldwide. This conversation may be put in the context of a more general debate on the topic of gender inequality. However, by considering the most prevalent arguments for and against the use of quotas, I will seek to argue that the benefits of quotas outweigh the disadvantages, most of which are over exaggerated or simply false.

Despite the fact that women represent a slight majority of the total global population, they are strongly underrepresented in politics throughout the world, with the total percentage of women in national parliaments at just 24%.[1] To make this statistic even more disturbing, we have to take into account that it includes the dramatic increase in countries implementing gender quotas in recent years. Gender quotas are a temporary affirmative action measure designed with the aim of increasing gender equality in political decision-making bodies and structures through equal gender representation. So what are the main arguments for and against gender quotas, and which have more weight?

  1. Arguments relating to the direct effects of the use of quotas

Possibly the most obvious argument in favour of the use of quotas is that it provides an objective guarantee for the numeric increase of women in political parties and parliaments. Following this argument, quota systems provide a quick and simple solution to the unjustifiable fact of women’s underrepresentation. Gender quotas can, in addition, be used as a tool to fast-track an increase in women’s representation in politics and break the rigid status quo of male dominance. Alternatively, some argue that by using gender quotas, governments only treat the symptom while neglecting the disease. However, for this argument to be valid, gender quotas must be evaluated as if they produce only direct effects, which is not the case.

A more important point against the use of quotas is that they represent positive discrimination against men, who have worked hard to become qualified for a position they may not get in favour of less qualified women. If this is true, there is a risk of lowering the quality of the representative body by implementing quotas. However, despite the possible appeal this argument might have to some men, it proves to be quite weak when challenged. For starters, it neglects the importance of gender as a social construct that has influenced women’s secondary position in the sphere of politics overwhelmingly in favour of men. More importantly, the argument is based on the false premise that there are not enough qualified women to represent the population. On the contrary, with some issues, such as abortion, women can be considered exclusively qualified to represent women’s interests, as only they are capable of understanding the situation. Finally, no significant difference in the quality of quota-elected female legislators and their non-quota colleagues has been found.[2]

2. Arguments relating to the indirect effects of the use of quotas

In addition to their direct effects, gender quotas also carry indirect implications.

Effects on women’s political interest and participation

The numerical increase of women via gender quotas increases women’s symbolic representation as well as their descriptive representation, and reduces gender discrimination in the long term. Indeed, the “experience of holding political office exerts transformative effects, both on women who firmly believe that they have never been the victims of sex discrimination and on women who have known nothing else but lives as second-class citizens”.[3] Furthermore, even if the quota system is ineffectively implemented and/or used to gain political credit or to avoid international pressure (as has been observed in India with the use of ‘token women’) there are positive effects of the formal presence of women. These ‘token women’ increasingly demonstrate willingness to defend their opinion and position within the legislative body, and female constituents gain more self-esteem and desire to pursue a career in politics. Opposing this, whilst acknowledging that further research is necessary, a study in Latin America found that gender quotas do not necessarily increase political involvement in Latin American women.[4]

Effects on women’s self-esteem

A strong argument has been made that some women do not want to be elected based solely on their sex and such an appointment may lead to strong negative effects on their self-esteem and their work. However, research on how gender quotas affect white women found that there was no relationship between the view of quotas as a form of affirmative action and self-perceived competence among white women who considered themselves beneficiaries of quotas.[5]

Effects on the institutional obstacle women face

There are three main obstacles that affect female legislators’ performance in parliament which are said to have a stronger negative impact on legislators who gained their position via quota than those who did not. These are the use of ‘tokenism’, ‘marginalisation’ and ‘invisibilisation’.

All of these are valid criticisms of the implementation of quotas, however, they should serve as an example of why gender quotas are necessary rather than not, as they are not caused by the use of gender quotas themselves, but by socially constructed gender roles. Furthermore, the concept that women who gained their position via quota are more likely to suffer from these practices has been countered by an empirical study where no evidence was found that quota and non-quota legislators were affected differently.[6]

Democracy-related arguments

The main argument against quotas related to democracy is that the quota system is undemocratic, or even anti-democratic, and that it shows a lack of confidence in the voters, depriving them of their right to choose their representatives. The argument addresses the discriminatory characteristic of quotas stating that representatives should not be appointed or elected based on their gender, but based on their political program and platform. The possibility of proliferation of quotas for minority groups, which may be perceived to deform the representative system, should also be taken into consideration.

These possible disadvantages are relative to the type of quotas used and are opposed by many counter-arguments. As we have already discussed, quotas should be considered as temporary measures that aim to affirm the position of a particular marginalised group. This is important, as it shows they are only to be used when necessary and become unnecessary once equal representation is achieved. They should not be considered as a discriminatory measure. As for the possible restrictions on voters’ rights, more female representation will create diversity and more choice for voters and therefore support democracy rather than impair it. Furthermore, we should not overlook the capacity of quotas to strengthen democracy when used to fast-track gender equality and when used in transitional or unstable countries after a crisis. Rwanda is a powerful example, where the lower house of the parliament consists of 64% women: the highest percentage globally.[7]


Gender quotas have been shown to enhance women’s participation in political decision-making. Arguably, the effects of the use of gender quotas are positive, although the effects can be reduced dramatically based on the way they are implemented, political will and other factors.

Kaloyan has a Bachelor degree in law from Lyon III Jean-Moulin University. In addition to the EMA programme, he is also finishing his Master degree in Law at Sofia University. He has particular interest in environmental protection and crisis management.

[1] Inter-Parliamentary Union, “No Change in Overall Average of Women in Parliaments despite Increase in Percentage of Seats Won by Women in the 2017 Parliamentary Elections Worldwide | Inter-Parliamentary Union”; Ballington and Karam, Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers; Inter-Parliamentary Union, “Women in Parliaments: World and Regional Averages.”

[2] Allen, Cutts, and Campbell, “Measuring the Quality of Politicians Elected by Gender Quotas – Are They Any Different? – Peter Allen, David Cutts, Rosie Campbell, 2016.”

[3] Krook, “Gender Quotas, Norms, and Politics,” 2006.

[4] Zetterberg, “Do Gender Quotas Foster Women’s Political Engagement?: Lessons from Latin America.”

[5] Unzueta, Gutiérrez, and Ghavami, “How Believing in Affirmative Action Quotas Affects White Women’s Self-Image.”

[6] Zetterberg, “The Downside of Gender Quotas? Institutional Constraints on Women in Mexican State Legislatures.”

[7] UN Women, “Revisiting Rwanda Five Years after Record-Breaking Parliamentary Elections | UN Women – Headquarters”; Warner, “Rwanda Is The No. 1 Country For Women In Power But They Still Face Challenges In Daily Life : Goats and Soda : NPR”; Dahlerup* and Freidenvall*, “Quotas as a ‘fast Track’to Equal Representation for Women: Why Scandinavia Is No Longer the Model.”