August 28, 2017

Gender Quotas in Politics

Putting more women on the ballot can improve male politicians too

Gender quotas implemented in Sweden improved the overall competence of its elected leaders.

Chris Fleisher illustration/Bigstock

Sweden’s national parliament had a greater share of seats held by women than anywhere else in the world -- and it was facing an identity crisis.

It was 1993 and efforts to boost women into office experienced a setback in the election two years earlier, when the share of parliamentary seats held by women fell 5 percentage points to 33 percent.

Facing pressure from feminist organizers who were concerned about losing more ground, Sweden’s Social Democratic Party introduced quotas to put more women on election ballots.

It worked, and in ways that many people had not imagined. Women not only gained power among the party leadership, but in so doing, improved the competence of their male colleagues, according to a paper that appears in the August issue of the American Economic Review.

“When the quota was introduced...mediocre male leaders seemed to have left,” said Johanna Rickne, who co-authored the paper, in a Skype interview with the AEA.

The findings offer a striking rebuttal to concerns that quotas offend meritocratic principles by discriminating against more qualified candidates.

More than 100 countries have some sort of gender quota in their political system — the US being a notable exception — but so far there hasn’t been much hard evidence about the impact that these quotas have on the quality of elected leaders.

Women in Politics
Women have been gaining political ground in elected bodies around the globe. The map below shows the share of seats in national parliaments that belong to women. Hover your cursor over the map to see the data for 2016.


Rickne and her co-authors Tim Besley, Olle Folke, and Torsten Persson, set out to provide some by studying what happened after Sweden’s Social Democratic party instituted quotas for all of its 290 local parties in 1994.

Sweden has a “party-list” system, which means that voters don’t pick candidates, but rather vote for an entire party. The party ranks its representatives on the ballot, with party leaders at the top. So, if the party wins eight seats in parliament, then the top-eight people on the ballot fill them.

Traditionally, most of those top spots were held by men. But the new quota system mandated that the ballot be “zipped," alternating male and female names on the list.

Studying individual data for all the candidates in Swedish elections from 1982 to 2014, the authors found that the quota system increased the share of elected women, on average, by 10 percentage points.

But the data revealed something even more surprising about the quality of the candidates up and down the ballot. The party ranking system was less meritocratic than many believed.

“There was a lot of rotation of mediocre men at the top,” Rickne said.

In measuring competence, the authors compared the income of politicians with similar characteristics — education, occupation, age, and residence. So, for example, plumbers of the same age and region might be compared. The most competent, according to their model, would be the ones with the most successful plumbing businesses and therefore highest income.

And what they found was that “mediocre men” weren’t concentrated at the bottom of the ranked ballot. They were near the top as well, suggesting that weak leaders also picked mediocre male party members to join them on the ballot because they posed less of a threat to the leader’s standing.

Zippering women into the ballot reduced the number of mediocre male leaders, who were either kicked out or resigned. A 10 percentage point bump in female representation also raised the proportion of competent men among the party’s elected politicians by 3 percentage points.

There's really no contradiction between meritocracy and better diversity.

Johanna Rickne

It’s unclear the extent to which such quotas would be effective in the US, Rickne said. Quotas need to be tailored to a country’s particular electoral system. But it raises broader questions about meritocratic systems.

The paper comes at a time of heated debate in this country over other quota systems, as affirmative action policies at US colleges come under fire by the Trump administration.

Arguments against quotas and in favor of meritocracy are usually made by the incumbents in that system, who believe rightly or not that they gained their status through their own skill and talent. But they may be ignoring the other factors — professional and family networks, for example — that helped them achieve.

“If we don't have a meritocracy in the first place then, arguably, meritocracy can be improved by affirmative action,” Rickne said. “So there's really no contradiction between meritocracy and better diversity.”

“Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man: Theory and Evidence from Sweden” appears in the August issue of the American Economic Review.