Equal Representation? The Debate Over Gender Quotas (Part 2)

Equal Representation? The Debate Over Gender Quotas (Part 2)

. 7 min read

This article is the second in a two-part series examining the impact of gender quotas. The first article discussed the structure of gender quotas and their general impacts.

Gender quotas play a varied and complex role in political life; every country maintains its own reason for their implementation and experiences unique outcomes from their existence. This article aims not to present a definitive case for or against gender quotas. Rather, it explores two very different manifestations of gender quotas and how they concretely impact the political atmosphere of India and Sweden. These two countries help demonstrate how quotas may bring gender equality in name, but not in practice. Both countries suffer from a similar “moral hazard” problem where quotas may encourage complacency in addressing women’s issues, leaving deeper problems unresolved.  

Equal Representation in India: Defining the term “Representation”

India’s Constitution mandates the use of a quota system for its subnational government. In 1992, India passed its 73rd amendment, establishing its Gram Panchayats (GPs)—the lowest official authority in India. There are around 250 thousand GPs, which consist of residents in anywhere from 5 to 15 contiguous villages. Parties nominate GP representatives and people elect them through a proportional representation (PR) system. Each GP has one chief, called the Pradhan. GPs manage the public infrastructure of villages, giving them a large role in people’s day-to-day lives; for example, they oversee the provision of water and sanitation.

The 73rd amendment also reserves one-third of the seats in all GPs and one-third of all Pradhan positions in India for women. This rule applies in all major states in India except Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Reserved seats change from election to election, on a random basis. They rotate between different territories such that this requirement applies to only one-third of the regions in any given election cycle. While these quotas have technically been legally binding for nearly three decades in India, the government imposes no sanctions for noncompliance.

India has seen many benefits from gender quotas. Quotas improve the chances of women winning in any given region, even in years without a requirement. In Mumbai, the presence of a quota in the prior election increases the probability of a woman winning by five times. Reservations also affect policies in a way that better reflect women’s preferences. Female representatives in GPs invest more in public goods addressing women’s concerns. For example, women elected as part of the quota system invested more in drinking water and roads in West Bengal and drinking water in Rajasthan. These mirrored the policy issues that women complained about the most in those areas. Meanwhile, they invested less in education in West Bengal and roads in Rajasthan, which were the policy issues prioritized by men. Gender quotas also coincide with an increase in reports of crimes against women, but not the number of crimes committed against women. This suggests that such policies produce an empowering effect on women to seek justice for otherwise underreported crimes.

However, studies question whether some women merely act as proxy candidates or stand-ins for their husbands in reserved seats. In one study, 43 percent of female Pradhans reported receiving help from their spouse in governance compared to only 13 percent of male Pradhans. This implies that men more often influence the policy choices of their wives when women serve as Pradhans, while male Pradhans experience a much smaller effect. Additionally, 17 percent of female Pradhans had spouses who served as Panchayat members or Pradhans in the past. This suggests that spouses influence female Pradhans while making decisions. In another study, 34 percent of women referred to their husbands as their main source of support in running, compared to only seven percent of men. A study from the Government of India also found that 42 percent of female Pradhans and GP members were encouraged to run by their husband. Academics worry that this may indicate a pattern of men encouraging their wives to run, only for men to make the decisions behind the scenes, leaving the women powerless. This seems especially concerning given that men do not seek similar support from their wives when running for office.

Thus, India must ask whether quotas result in true representation, or only representation in name. Clearly, electing more females to government has brought some benefit in terms of passing policies relevant to women. Scholars worry that quotas allow India to masquerade as a country with a gender-equal government, when in reality, quotas do not really mitigate the influence of men in government. If many women actually do act as proxies, then India must find another solution, beyond quotas, to improve female representation in government. But, in the status quo, India has little incentive to do more to push women into government since quotas appear effective.

However, not all gender quotas result in this effect; in Sweden, female parliamentarians possess overall more qualifications than male parliamentarians. No academic articles even consider the possibility of Swedish women running as proxy candidates because they, themselves, are independently qualified. This shows that the impact of quotas vary widely across countries, so they must be analyzed in specific contexts. And while Sweden may not experience problems with women running as proxy candidates, it does face other issues from quotas.

Equal Representation in Sweden: Defining the term “Equal”

The Swedish government consists of a national, regional, and local system. All three levels use PR voting to elect the governing body every four years. At the national level, Sweden's parliament, the Riksdag, has 349 members. A party must hold at least four percent of the vote to be represented in parliament. Sweden then divides its regional government into 21 läns or counties, and its local government into 290 municipalities, each with their own council.

In Sweden, parties voluntarily adopt gender quotas, as no governmental mandate for quotas exists. The idea of gender quotas first entered Swedish politics in 1928 when the National Women’s Federation, a group of 120 women’s clubs, asked for their implementation. However, parties virtually refused to talk about quotas until 1991, when the number of females in parliament fell sharply from 38 percent to 33 percent. Women formed a feminist network, called the Support Stockings, and threatened to start their own party unless political representation improved. In response, the Social Democratic Party instituted a “zipper” system in 1993, meaning they alternated between men and women on their party list. This proved a huge victory for the feminists, as the Social Democratic Party has been the largest party in parliament since the 1930s. Also in 1993, the Left Party mandated a 50% minimum of women on party lists, but not using the zipper system. In 1997, the Green Party followed suit, also setting a 50 percent  minimum of women on their list. Finally, in 2009, the Moderate Party set a rule that the top four seats must go to two men and two women.

These voluntary quotas resulted in many improvements in Sweden. As of 2019, women constituted 46 percent of parliament. On top of merely increasing representation, quotas also correlate with an increase in women's appointment to leadership posts. In addition, quotas improve the quality of the candidate pool overall as more experienced women choose to run. In fact, female parliamentarians, on average, possess more experience and stronger educational backgrounds than their male counterparts. Quotas also force mediocre male leaders to resign, raising the competence of male politicians and improving governance. Some also credit Sweden’s progressive legislation on parental leave, childcare, and schooling to the high numbers of women in government who helped push for these policies.

However, even quotas fail to counteract the instilled masculine culture in Sweden’s parliament. As used here, the term “masculine culture” implies an environment either overtly hostile to women or otherwise resulting in forms of internalized misogyny. This masculine culture may manifest itself in hostile ways, with 1,300 women in Sweden signing on to a document alleging a culture of harassment “in the corridors of power.” The testimonies describe assault and harassment, in addition to sexist comments made by men in parliament. In a more subtle way, parliamentarians also shifted power away from women in Swedish politics. Birgitta Olausson, the former vice president of the Fredrika Bremer Women’s League in Sweden, explained how as soon as the number of women in parliament increased, the decision-making power shifted to commissions where few women held positions. Finally, on a more internalized level, female parliamentarians experience greater pressure, higher anxiety, and worse treatment compared to their male peers. This likely stems from either internalized misogyny or sexist and degrading comments made in the work environment. And even though the number of women elected has increased, quotas often fail to affect the tenure of incumbent females.

Taking these facts together presents a puzzling picture. On the one hand, many view Sweden as a bastion of gender equality due to its high female representation in parliament and liberal policies. Even the way gender quotas originated in Sweden attests to the respected status of women in the country: women, as far back as the 1990s, held so much power that they could force the largest party in government to implement a gender quota—and this was not just any quota, but a zipper system, the strictest kind of party quota. As such, outwardly, Sweden appears like a gender-equal oasis. Yet, internally, women clearly do not receive equal treatment.

This is surprising for two reasons. First, the general public benefits from quotas. Quantitative studies, as mentioned above, show that female parliamentarians are overall more qualified than their male counterparts. This should refute the idea of quota women as undeserving or less equipped to govern. Second, political parties must necessarily value women, otherwise they would not have quotas in the first place, since implementing them is purely voluntary under Swedish law. Parties are also able to choose their own quota thresholds. In fact, the Left Party used to require only a 40 percent minimum of female candidates in 1990, but raised it to 50 percent in 1993. As such, voluntary quotas can be interpreted to reflect the beliefs of political parties. But if both the public and party members should, hypothetically, value quota women, then why are they continually devalued?

In this sense, Sweden may suffer from the same moral hazard problem as India. Sweden has not been held accountable for its poor treatment of women in parliament, in large part because these quotas provide political cover and suggest liberal governance. Nevertheless, much like they do in India, quotas may perversely mask underlying social problems, perpetuating inequality by creating equality in name but not in practice.

Conclusion: The Debate Continues

Ultimately, gender quotas may serve a key role in getting women elected and helping them pass important policies, but do nothing to change patriarchal culture. In India, the effect of the patriarchy turns some women into puppets for their husbands. In Sweden, women receive worse treatment in government than their male peers. Academics worry that governments will become complacent, doing little to push women into politics, since they see quotas as sufficient. Nevertheless, the immediate benefits of quotas seem to remain consistent across countries: more women get elected to government, and, while in government, they push for more policies relevant to women’s issues.

With this in mind, it is unclear whether quotas net benefit women. However, with quotas unlikely to disappear anytime soon, and many governments seeing them as the best solution to gender inequality, academics, activists, and policy-makers must counteract government complacency by remaining vigilant: quotas present one way to include more women in government, but by no means function as the end-all-be-all solution. Ultimately, the Russian feminist adage still rings true: “Democracy without women is not democracy.”

Click here to read the first part of the article on quotas generally.

Jaya Nayar

Jaya is a senior editor and staff writer for the HIR. She is interested in environmental issues and international law. She is getting a joint concentration in Government and Philosophy.