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#WPPOslo: On a fast track to gender balance in politics

#WPPOslo 14.-15. november

The conference "Women, Power and Politics: The Road to Sustainable Democracy" is opening today in Oslo. Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science at Stockholm University, will hold the keynote speech this afternoon, talking about parity as a tool for women's political participation. In the following article that was published in Women United no. 3/2012, Dahlerup agrues that: "Quotas is no miracle cure for all the barriers women meet in politics, but it has proved to be an effective measure to break male dominance in politics."

14.11.2013 Av: Drude Dahlerup, professor of political science, Stockholm University. She has been a consultant on the inclusion of women in politics for UNDP and IPU in Sierra Leone, Cambodia and Tunisia.

Drude Dahlerup
Drude Dahlerup

"How long time did it take you in the Nordic countries to reach the 38-45 % women in your parliaments”. I am often asked this question when lecturing around the world on how to empower women in politics. And frankly, I have to answer that it took around 100 years! We are celebrating the centenaries of women’s suffrage in the Nordic countries. The reply is often this: “Well, we admire your historically high representation of women in elected assemblies, but we are not going to wait that long!” It is my conclusion, that the Nordic countries with their stepwise, incremental development are not any longer the model, at least not the only model for breaking male dominance in politics.

An increased international transparency contributes to a competition between countries, which is used by women’s movements: That a country is ranked lower than the neighboring countries on the world rank order in terms of women’s parliamentary representation (see www.ipu.org) is one of the best arguments today. Ever since the 1990s, the inclusion of women in political decision-making at all levels is seen as a sign of modernity and democratization. Consequently, many post-conflict countries and other countries in transition to democracy are today using fast track policies for effective inclusion of women in public life – in contrast to the incremental model of the old democracies (1).

The global trend.

In 1997, the world average for women in parliament was 11 %. Today women have 20 % of the seats in all the world’s parliaments. In 1997 only five countries had over 30 % women in their parliaments, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Denmark and the Netherlands; today 33 countries have passed the 30 % threshold, among them many countries from the Global South. Nine countries today have over 40 % women in their parliament. As everyone knows by now, Rwanda, with 53 % women, is no one and became the first country with a majority of women MPs. Moreover, 15 % of the speakers of parliament are women and in 26 countries women hold more than en third of all cabinet positions. This is progress, yes, but it is very slow, and we know that backlash is always a possibility:

Results of all elections to the lower or single houses held in 2010:

In 22 countries did women’s representation increase (51%)

In 8 countries did women’s representation remain the same (19%)

In 13 countries did women’s representation increase (30%)

Here comes the good news: In none of the elections to lower or single houses of parliament held in the first half of 2012 did women’s representation decrease. In fact, an increase took place in almost all these elections, some with real leaps forward. The highest leap was made by Senegal, which thanks to the adoption of gender quotas moved from 23 to 43 %, joining the highest ranking countries ( www.quotaproject.org).

There are, however, strong reasons to warn against the perception that gender balanced in politics will come more or less by itself, as a society develops – the so-called time-lag theory. Firstly, this perception is dangerous, since it may make many people just lean back and wait. Secondly, it is wrong, since nothing comes by itself. The fact is that there are always people who act. The question is who has the lead: the forces of resistance to change or the forces of change.

Why are women under-represented? What seems like a banal question is in fact the key to action, since different answers lead to very different strategies for change. In short, do we blame the women or the political parties for women’s under-representation? 

Focus on women:

  • Because women are not qualified
  • Because women do not vote for women

Focus on institutions and parties:

  • Why are parties not more inclusive? ’Old boy’s network’. Political parties as the main gatekeepers to elected positions in most pol. systems
  • This approach is also relevant for research on other under-represented groups (minorities, immigrants)

If the diagnosis is women’s alleged shortcomings, e.g. lack of qualifications or willingness to come forward as a candidate, then the relevant strategy is to educate women. If, in contrast, the main problem is that the political parties are not sufficiently inclusive, then the main strategy should be to make the political parties change their selections criteria and nomination processes.

The Egyptian election 2011

Let’s take the discussion after the recent election in Egypt as an example, however, the same discussion can be heard all over the world. The unpopular quota system from the Egyptian election of 2010 was removed, but the result of the first free election after the ‘revolution’ was the election of only 2 % women to the new (now dissolved) parliament. Even in feminist circles one could hear voices blaming women voters for this result. ‘The women voters did not vote for women’, it was said pointing to the many illiterate women. A closer look at the electoral process however shows for the 2/3 of the parliament, which was elected on a closed list PR system, there was in fact no chance of personal voting. There were no candidates on the ballot! The voters could just choose between various party symbols. Consequently, it makes no sense to blame women voters for the poor result for women. The main problem was that the most political parties did not place any women high on their candidate lists. It is the political parties who select and nominate candidates and place them high or low on the list, and in good or bad constituencies for that specific party. Only for the individual district seats did the voter have the opportunity to vote for a person, but only one woman was elected for the individual seats, indicating that neither women nor men voted for the few women candidates. Since President Nasser’s time, Egypt has run a radical 50-50 % quota system, where at least half the seats shall go to candidates representing farmer or worker. There was little complaint about this class based quota system, whereas quotas for women was unpopular, seen a Susan Mubarak’s initiative. Consequently, even within women’s movements there were contrasting opinions about quotas. After the disastrous result for women in this 2011 Egyptian election, the women’s movement is in a process of reconsidering their attitude towards gender quotas in politics.  

Gender quotas

Electoral gender quotas are a controversial equality measure, however, increasingly popular. One may say that quotas is a simple question to a very complex problem, that of women’s historical exclusion from political influence. But if the main problem is that the political parties for many reasons mostly recruit male candidates, and discriminate against women, then gender quotas in fact target the root of the problem. Gender quotas force the political parties to more seriously recruit women candidates.

Today, 58 countries have adopted electoral gender quotas by law or constitution. We document this amazing new trend in the world on the global web site, www.quotaproject.org, operated by Stockholm University, International IDEA, lately joined by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, IPU. Please help us with new information on gender quotas. Things are moving rapidly!

In around 50 additional countries, some individual political parties have adopted quotas for their own candidate lists. In general the devil is in the details concerning quota systems, since there will be of no effect if the quota provisions do not fit the electoral system in a country. Quotas is no miracle cure for all the barriers women meet in politics, but it has proved to be an effective measure to break male dominance in politics.

Prediction or results. With so many countries using gender quotas, we have  now a lot of experiences about when quotas work and when they don’t; even about under which circumstances gender quotas may have unintended consequences. Research on gender quota systems is flourishing. Consequently, there is no reason to continue debating gender quotas in the form of the usual predictions: ‘Quotas will lead to the election of unqualified women;’ or ‘there will not be enough women to fill the seats’. It is time to move from predictions to evaluation of the actual results (2).

(1) Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall, "Quotas as a Fast Track to Equal Representation for Women. Why Scandinavia is no longer the model," in International Feminist Journal of Politics, March 2005, vol. 7, no 1: pp. 26-48.

(2) Drude Dahlerup and Lenita Freidenvall, "Judging Gender Quotas - Predictions and Results",  Policy & Politics, vol.38, no 3, July 2010., pp-407-25.


This article was first published in Women United no. 3/2012, pp. 13-14.