Women in Australian PoliticsTony Abbott’s Chief of Staff Peta Credlin’s call last week to women in the Australian Liberal Party to fight sexism in politics comes as I was reviewing the evidence for and against gender quotas. And one thing is clear, the Australian Labor Party’s introduction of a voluntary quota, Emily’s List, sees it with double the number of women preselected for all winnable state and federal seats compared to the Liberal Party.

Should the Liberal Party follow the ALP’s success and introduce a gender quota?

Quotas, politics and a critical mass of women in leadership

The introduction of gender quotas has been based on the belief that a critical mass of women is needed to increase women’s representation in leadership roles.

Why a critical mass?

Critical mass was first used by Rosabeth Moss Kanter in 1977 to categorize organizational interactions affected by status differentials such as between men and women. Kanter is credited with coining the term token, which refers to a representation of women at 15% or lower, where women are seen as representatives of their gender and have limited effectiveness. She also outlined the benefits of a critical mass of women, around 30%:

  • Supportive alliances are created,
  • Women are recognized for their individual characteristics, and
  • Women influence the culture of the larger, dominant group.

Originally, the term critical mass was taken from nuclear physics, where it refers to an irreversible turning point, a chain reaction that leads to a new situation. More recently, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet put it as follows: “One woman in politics changes the woman; but many women in politics changes politics.”

Research shows that women’s presence in small or ‘token numbers’ doesn’t lead naturally to critical mass. Most recently, Deszo, Ross and Uribe (2015) looked at the five highest paid executive roles in 1,500 US firms between 1991 and 2011. They expected to find that the introduction of one woman into this top echelon led to a snowball effect. Instead, they found that once one woman had been appointed, the chance of a second woman joining this group dropped by about 50%. Companies that appointed a woman into a staff or professional role, such as Head of HR, rather than a line role, were even less likely to appoint a second woman. And it wasn’t a result of women stamping on other women trying to rise to the top, which is something Credlin argues against: female CEOs were more likely than male CEOs to appoint a second female executive.

So despite a focus on women in leadership, and the identification of the significance of critical mass, few legislatures, corporate boards and executive management teams have achieved it.

Why quotas?

Kogut and his colleagues (2014) define a quota as a percentage target that mandates a proportional representation of a particular group: gender quotas are sometimes backed up by legislated sanctions, but are usually voluntary.

While the causal effects of quotas over the long term have not been well researched, their introduction is associated with increased representation of women, changed attitudes towards women as leaders, increased confidence of female leaders, and changes in girls’ educational outcomes and career aspirations.

Political quotas began in Norway in 1975 with a 40% minimum target for representation of each gender on electoral lists. (At the time of their introduction, women already held 25% of seats in parliament.)

In 1990, the UN Economic and Social Council set a five year target of 30% female representation in decision-making bodies. When that wasn’t achieved in 1995, the UN Conference on Women called on governments to ensure equal representation of women in decision-making institutions. Quotas became a popular policy option for shifting women’s representation, and since then more than half the countries in the world have adopted some form of quota.

According to Pande and Forde (2011), there are three main types of quotas for women in politics:

  • Voluntary party quotas, in which individual parties voluntarily commit to a percentage of female candidates – 61% of countries;
  • Candidate quotas set by legislation stipulating a number of candidate positions must be reserved for women (e.g., every second candidate on the list) – 38% of countries; and
  • Reserved seats for which only women can compete – 20% of countries.

Over the last 20 years, the global average of women in national parliaments has nearly doubled – from 11.7% in 1997 to 21.9% in 2014. Female representation in parliament in those countries with any type of gender quota is almost double that of countries without a quota: quotas are seen as a critical ingredient in the increased representation achieved (Krook 2015).

The following chart displays the shift in women’s representation in the lower house of parliament in a number of countries, comparing the percentage of seats held by women in 2015 with 2000. China has reserved seats, France through Greece have both voluntary party quotas (V) and legislated candidate quotas (Q). Poland through Belgium have no voluntary party quotas (N) but do have legislated candidate quotas (N). The largest tranche of countries, from Australia through to the United Kingdom, have voluntary political party quotas but no legislated quotas. The final tranche of countries, Denmark through the USA, have no quotas. (Data on quota type from The Quota Project, and percentages from International Parliamentary Union.)

Political quotas in Australia

Australia’s only quota to increase the representation of women in politics is the Australian Labor Party’s voluntary Emily’s List which commenced in 1996 with the goal of 35% women preselected for all winnable state and federal seats. The target was later increased to 40% (and there’s a current push to see that increased to 50%). Women’s representation increased from 14.5% then to 43% in 2015. Women’s representation in the Liberal Party, which does not have a quota, increased by half as much over the same time from 13.9% to 23.2%.

Overall, Australia is ranked 42nd on the International Parliamentary Union’s scorecard with 27% women in the House of Representatives. By comparison, New Zealand is 29th, the UK is 58th, and the US is 72nd.

Countries with the highest representation of women (40% or more) in the lower house of parliament include Rwanda (1st), Cuba (3rd), Sweden (5th), South Africa (7th) and Spain (11th).

The special case of India

In India in 1993 a law was passed requiring randomly selected village councils to reserve one third of positions in every election cycle for women, which provided a natural experiment for the impact of quotas. A decade after their introduction, women were more likely to stand for, and win, elected positions in councils that had reserved positions for women in the previous two elections.

Beaman and her colleagues interviewed almost 9,000 11 to 15 year olds and their parents in 495 villages and found that there was a range of significant benefits experienced by girls in particular. In villages with female leadership for two election cycles, girls were much more likely to have similar aspirations to boys, and the gender gap in educational achievement was closed. This was due entirely to shifts in girls’ achievements and desires, such as to delay marriage, to graduate from school, and to get a skilled job. Men’s initial resistance to female leaders reduced. Parents’ aspirations for their daughters also increased. The researchers note while in the first generation women leaders encountered significant prejudice, their experience led over time to increased acceptance of women leaders, highlighting generational impacts.

What has been the effect of quotas: do they achieve what is intended?

According to Pande and Ford, quotas can and do increase female leadership in politics. They analyzed data from 126 countries and found that candidate quotas and reserved seat quotas have a highly significant positive effect. To the extent that equitable representation in policy-making is desirable, they claim that quotas are an effective policy tool.

In politics, there is no evidence that representation through quotas has come at the cost of efficiency. Gender quotas do not seem to create a sustained backlash among citizens – rather, evidence suggests that voters use new information about how female leaders perform to update their beliefs about women. There is some evidence of backlash amongst male incumbents and party leaders, some of whom actively work to reduce the impact of gender quotas on leadership outcomes.

Childs and Evans (2012) identify the key factors for quota success: “gender quotas have to be well-designed, appropriate to an electoral system, ensuring that women are selected for winnable seats/positions, and well-implemented with strong sanctions for parties that do not comply, meted out by specified bodies.”

While Credlin might call on her female counterparts to strengthen the Liberal Party’s pipeline of strong women candidates so that if they win the next election they have a pool of talent for Ministerial positions, one of the best tactics for ensuring future long-term success is the introduction of a voluntary party quota system.