Gender quotas – can they enhance women’s parliamentary representation?

Do legislative gender quotas enhance the representation of women in parliaments and legislatures? Dr Anna Gwiazda shares the findings of her new article on gender quotas in Poland.

Women are underrepresented in politics. Hence, gender quotas have been proposed as an important means of enhancing the representation of women in political institutions. In the early 1990s they became common in Latin America and post-conflict societies in Africa. In the late 1990s and through the 2000s, several European countries implemented constitutional or legislative quota reforms. Nine member states of the European Union currently use legislative gender quotas, including Belgium, Croatia, France, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain (Quota Project, 2017).

Legislative gender quotas are expected to be effective because of a legal requirement to comply with gender quota provisions. In contrast to informal party quotas, quotas enacted through reforms of electoral laws, or sometimes constitutions, are formal and inclusive means of encouraging all political parties to comprise a certain proportion of female candidates on party lists. Overall, EU countries with legislative gender quotas perform slightly better than countries without quotas. Whereas the average female representation for all EU member states was 27% in 2016; for countries with gender quotas the average was 29%. However, if we examine individual countries using quotas, we can see that women’s representation ranged from 39% in Belgium and Spain, to 15% in Croatia in 2016 (Inter-Parliamentary Union, 2016).

How can we explain such a variation in women’s representation in countries with gender quotas? The scholarly literature shows that the impact of gender quotas can be moderated by several factors such as the type of electoral system, gender quota provisions, ideology, norms and political parties. My research shows that the effectiveness of gender quotas depends on two key factors: gender quota policy and political parties. Provisions of gender quota policy can influence the implementation of gender quotas and hence their effectiveness. The literature identifies three issues here. The first is a quota size. Quotas that require a higher percentage of women on party ballots lead to the election of more women. The second is placement on the party list. Positions higher up the ballot mean higher chances of being elected to parliament. The third is sanctions for non-compliance. If there are no sanctions, implementation is not likely to occur. Equally, the role of political parties is vital. The literature points to the importance of parties as gatekeepers to political office, in addition to party organisation, party ideology, women party activists and party quotas.

By examining the case of Poland, I demonstrate that gender quota policy and political parties matter. The case of Poland, where gender quotas were introduced in 2011, presents an interesting puzzle. Although the overall number of women candidates increased almost twofold in comparison with the pre-quota period, this translated into only a slight increase in the number of women deputies after the 2011 and 2015 elections to the lower Chamber of Parliament, the Sejm, 24% and 27% respectively, – an increase from 20% in the pre-quota election of 2007 (Sejm 2015). I argue that this modest overall increase in women’s parliamentary representation can be explained by provisions of gender quota policy and preferences of political parties. Polish gender quota policy stipulates that at least 35% of all candidates on party lists must be women and if parties do not abide by this provision they will not be able to register their lists. However, the law does not provide for a placement mandate: that is, there is no provision concerning the ranking of candidates on party lists. Indeed the Polish case confirms that if placement mandates are absent, parties do not have any incentive to place women in top positions if they do not support gender equality. Thus, the quota without placement mandates is not very effective because women usually end up at places which are not winnable. Placement mandates should be used in conjunction with sanctions. The Polish case also confirms that parties play a role: whereas some parties promoted wholeheartedly women’s access to political office, other parties did not facilitate it. Political parties’ affirmative actions and policies towards gender quotas have a positive impact on women’s parliamentary representation. Two parties, Civic Platform and Modern, adopted internal party regulations concerning women. Civic Platform implemented a party quota with placement mandates where rank-ordering followed ‘1 woman in top 3’ and ‘2 women in top 5’ rules. Modern adopted a party quota with placement mandates mostly based on top ranking (Number 1). As a result, Civic Platform had 35% women deputies in 2011 and 36% in 2015. Modern has 43% of female deputies in the current Sejm. By contrast, other parties, including the governing Law and Justice party, did not promote women and consequently women’s representation is lower: Law and Justice – 23%; Polish Peasant Party – 19% and Kukiz’15 – 14%.

To sum up, legislative gender quotas aim to increase the number of women elected to parliaments. However, their impact varies. By examining the case of Poland, I demonstrate that although political parties have formally implemented gender quotas for the 2011 and 2015 parliamentary elections, their effectiveness was limited. I argue that the effectiveness of gender quotas depends on provisions of gender quota policy and the preferences of political parties. Effective gender quotas should include a provision on placement mandates and a high penalty for non-compliance. Moreover, the preferences of political parties are important too. Political parties supporting gender equality and affirmative actions are expected to promote women’s representation in parliament.


Dr Anna Gwiazda is a Senior Lecturer in Comparative Politics at King’s College London. Her new article on gender quotas in Poland is now online: Gwiazda, Anna (2017) ‘Women in Parliament: Assessing the Effectiveness of Gender Quotas in Poland,’ Journal of Legislative Studies, forthcoming:

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