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Gender Quotas –  Balancing Act between Efficient Policies and Gap Fillers

During the last century, Europe has made huge steps towards gender equality and the improvement of policies regarding women’s rights. Changing societal patterns is a cross-generational matter and cannot take place in a short time span. Nevertheless, Europe is still far away from having achieved equal opportunities for women and men and it will take many more generations to accomplish this important mission.

Europe: Women’s representation in political institutions

In Europe, women are still underrepresented in political institutions. The European Parliament (EP) may be the forerunner when it comes to the share of female deputies, having 37 percent women holding a seat in the European institution. But when examining their representation in European Union (EU) member states’ national parliaments, another reality is revealed. On average, women only represent 27 percent of the national members of parliament (MPs), way less than the 40 percent suggested by the 2003 Council of Europe (CoE) Recommendation on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making. In one-third of the 47 CoE countries, the female share of MPs does not even reach the 20 percent mark. Thus, the representative nature of elected bodies in the EU is not guaranteed in any of the national parliaments. Moreover, political parties in Europe are still largely led by men and in 26 out of 43 examined CoE countries, no single party has a woman as its leader.

While the overall share of female party members and female MPs had increased over the last decades, their actual impact on politics is not at its best yet. Women’s work still takes place mainly in the background and although they succeeded in taking seat(s) within institutional bodies, they often do not reach the buttons to be pressed for attaining real participation in the decision-making process. That is to say that women are indeed integrated into different layers of the parties’ organisation, but their share in party executives, party members and party candidates is still far from the 40 percent target. Only in three EU member states, including Estonia, France and Sweden, the percentage of female party executives exceeds 40 percent. In fact, party executives are powerful bodies, being in charge of daily operations as well as playing a role in the recruitment and selection procedure of party candidates for elections. A higher presence of female party executives consequently has a positive impact on the presence of female candidates for elections, on the improvement of gender balance and creates a new pool of experienced female candidates.

After so many years, it is time to scrutinise the functioning and the utility of policies applied in Europe to tackle the issue of female underrepresentation in politics. The following sections provide an overview of existing measures to achieve gender balance in Europe and examine their efficiency.

Women’s trudge to the top

Before analysing the actual functioning of gender quotas, it is indispensable to understand the causes for the underrepresentation of women in political institutions. Changes in gender equality always take much time and are only possible through a long and progressive process. Members of society, which are not part of minorities, get used to what they see every day and are not necessarily aware of imbalances. In Europe, parliaments are still mainly composed by white, well-educated, male deputies and this is what people are daily exposed to in newspapers, on pictures, in TV shows, and on the internet. Male politicians have been in the spotlight of the media for centuries, but half of the population are women, who are not proportionally represented in any European national parliament. Of course, this is partly linked to the time factor, already mentioned above, but there are multiple other reasons for this phenomenon.

First of all, due to the lack of female role models in the political sphere, women are generally less interested in politics than men when it comes to institutionalised politics. That implies being part of a political party and the disposition to assume a certain political post. However, for political activities in unconventional sectors, such as the participation in a citizens’ initiative or protests, collecting signatures for petitions, volunteering for non-profit or non-governmental organizations, gender differences are much less. Within institutionalised politics, women criticize the formal way of holding meetings and endless debates on principles, which they consider unnecessary. Generally, women are also less likely to think in competitive structures, they prefer consensus seeking processes and put emphasis on team work. Men tend to invest more time and power in winning a competition and would go further than women to get a seat in a given institution.

Second, typical ways to get into politics such as starting as a member of a party and later getting promoted to higher positions, are not always open for women for several reasons. Being part of a political party often starts as an evening activity during a person’s free time, becoming more and more time-consuming. The membership in a party may transform from a part-time into a full-time job at some point. For women, there are many obstacles in this multistep ladder process of political recruitment. Realizing the transition from a free time activity to devoting one’s whole life to politics is not an evident and easily doable task for women. Today still, they have more obligations related to family and child care and are consequently less flexible and available. Devoting the remaining free time to party activities can result in an extreme additional strain. Furthermore, traditional structures continue to exist within many political parties. Male deputies still tend to nominate and to vote for other men to take over a high position and enhance discrimination through their voting behaviour.

Finally, political qualification of male and female politicians is not evaluated equally by the media. Women in top positions are more exposed to criticism than men, and media coverage is mainly limited to their private life and physical characteristics, rather than on their political achievements. Female politicians are quantitatively less covered than their male colleagues, and their parties don’t put forward women as candidates, which leads to their marginalisation and trivialisation. Hence, women’s interest in politics is not stimulated by this gender-biased representation. They tend to be less self-confident due to the lack of external encouragement. Topics related to women’s specific life situations are raised during electoral campaigns, but these issues don’t cease to exist after elections and must be addressed continuously. First steps have already been done regarding parental allowances and paternity leave, facilitating women’s access to politics. Today, the media has a responsibility to transmit new gender roles to the society by reporting more objectively.

Notwithstanding all these causes for the underrepresentation of women, which obviously cannot disappear in a couple of years, the promotion of gender equity in politics can be justified by a long list of reasons. The first motive is based on the fact that women represent 50 percent of the overall voting population and have the right to be represented in political institutions at the same proportion. Many female characteristics can enrich politics in our society and make them more democratic, such as women being less corrupt, seeking higher cooperation and consensus. A gender-balanced political body implements policies differently and allocates resources in another way than a male-dominated one. There is evidence that a higher presence of women in Italian municipal councils had an impact on the allocation of public spending. According to a Swiss study, women devote more resources to public goods with long-term effects. Although their presence in municipal councils does not have any impact on the amount of total spending, research has shown that capital account spending is higher for education and environment. This confirms the findings from Switzerland about long-term investments in public goods by female counsellors.

At the same time, female politicians are also role models for other women who wish to pursue a political career. However, these women will not just suddenly pop up in the landscape of European politics. Therefore, policies are imposed top down, to fasten the process of reducing gender gaps.

Gender quotas in the EU

Gender quotas are only one among many different measures, but the most common policy, to tackle the issue of female underrepresentation in politics. They are considered as the most effective resources of achieving substantial and rapid progress when correctly designed and implemented. However, gender quotas are highly criticised, because women who take a certain political post, following the introduction of female quotas, are easily considered as “Quotenfrauen” (German for “token women” thanks to quota rules), and any of their qualifications loses its entire value. Yet, there is the need to impose policies to change the European political picture and it is extremely difficult to suit everyone’s individual needs.

In Europe, two main types of quotas are applied, separated or combined, in national, regional and local elections. First, there are legislated quotas, also called legal quotas, which are implemented through reforms to electoral laws. These reforms are temporary legal measures providing for a minimum proportion of the under-represented sex to be included among candidates to an election. Legislated quotas are currently deployed in 9 EU member states, including Belgium, Croatia, France, Greece, Ireland, Poland, Portugal, Slovenia and Spain. They must not be confused with parity systems, which are permanent rules aiming at an equal representation of women and men, reaching a share of 50 percent of each sex.

Secondly, there is the use of voluntary party quotas, commitments by individual political parties in order to increase women’s political representation in Europe and to guarantee a certain percentage of female candidates on their own electoral list. Voluntary party quotas are not legally binding since they originate from a party’s own initiative and conviction. Nowadays, they are applied in 21 EU countries and are much more frequent than legal quotas. Party quotas can be very efficient in fostering women’s membership in a given political party, expressing thereby its readiness to directly address issues related to female participation, and creating a women-friendly image for themselves.

The CoR Recommendation Rec(2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making, suggests three different measures that member states should consider in order to attain the 40 percent benchmark. Among these means are legislative and administrative measures to achieve gender balance in political and public decision-making, as explained above, but also supportive measures and monitoring of the progress made. The CoR member states committed themselves to sending regular reports on the measures taken and the progress made in the field of balanced participation of women and men in politics.

Indeed, mere gender quotas are not enough to address gender imbalances in politics and must be accompanied by additional methods to support women’s representation. These measures can take, for example, the form of a zipper system, in which one male and one female candidate alternate on the electoral list. The system was first introduced by the Swedish Social Democratic Party in 1993, followed by the Green party, requiring a gender balance plus minus one person and the Left party, imposing at least 50 percent women in their party.

Furthermore, “soft” quota provisions such as recommendations and targets have been recently introduced in Europe in order to promote the nomination of more female candidates, for example, gender quotas in internal boards and committees or on specific electoral ballots. In some countries, specific political arenas are established for women to meet and mobilise around relevant female issues. These measures were introduced for the first time in the 1920s and 1930s, in order to attract female voters to the parties, but in the meantime, they have developed into important platforms inside political parties. Nevertheless, some parties believe that these arenas aim at the opposite of the expected outcome. They think that topics linked to women’s rights would be marginalised again through the establishment of extra bodies dealing only with female matters.

Sometimes, parties organise capacity building activities for their female colleagues, concerning candidate training, recruitment programs, networking, communication and negotiations skills training, handling the media or running a campaign. These activities also include the improvement of working conditions to help female politicians with small children to pursue their political career.

Another supplementary method to increase women’s presence in political institutions consists of initiating media campaigns, raising awareness related to gendered issues and to address the problem of stereotypes. However, one problem of these soft measures is that they do not force political parties to fundamentally change their structure and their recruitment procedures. They finally play only a moderate role in increasing the representation of women in political institutions.

Gender quotas’ efficiency in practice

Findings have demonstrated that women’s political representation on the average is rather similar under the two quota regimes. Legislated quotas are slightly at the top, but there are differences in the impact of quota types on politics and the society. Nevertheless, parties voluntarily adopting strong measures to improve gender balance in their ranks, are also having very effective results.

As we can see in Finland and Denmark, gender quotas are not necessarily mandatory measures to reach a high level of female representation in politics. In these two countries, neither legislated quotas, nor party quotas, are applied, and yet, female representation is about 40 percent, more than the average of 27 percent in in all EU countries. Mere gender quotas are not a sufficient condition for gender equality. Without a specific design of the quota system and without taking into account its compatibility with the countries’ different electoral systems, a successful implementation of quotas is condemned in advance.

It has been proven that gender quotas on candidate lists do increase the share of female politicians on these lists, but they are not a guarantee for their actual representation in the respective institutional body. Top positions are often given to male politicians, and women remain in marginalised positions. If, for instance, the share of women on the electoral lists is fixed at 40%, and the first 60 candidates on the list are male candidates, while the remaining 40 persons at the bottom of the list are women, it is not guaranteed that these women will actually be elected and represented in the institution.

This is why quotas cannot work without additional rank-order rules, or provisions about the placement of candidates on the lists, making it possible that women have a realistic prospect of getting “winnable” seats. In Spanish elections, a gender quota of 40 – 60 percent must be applied to every five posts on the electoral lists in order to achieve an actual gender-balanced representation in the institutions. In Belgium, a rule has recently been introduced determining that the top two positions cannot be held by persons of the same sex. In Portugal, electoral lists cannot be established by more than two consecutive names of the same sex. On Polish electoral lists, at least one woman must appear among the first three candidates.

Moreover, taking into consideration a country’s electoral system is crucial when designing gender policies. In countries with proportional representation (PR) electoral systems, female representation worldwide is around twice as high as in countries with majoritarian electoral systems. This is due to the fact that parties in PR systems have an electoral incentive to have all societal layers represented in their lists, in order to maximize their collective appeal. In practice, gender quotas are easier to implement in PR systems within party lists, than within single-member districts of majoritarian systems.

Doing research about gender quotas can be a delicate task since it takes time to implement these policies. On average, authentic results become visible only after three elections after the entering into force of the quotas. In the short term, parties may not be able to attract the most talented and experienced women to their lists. Experience often is an important aspect for voters. Another factor preventing the rapid increase in the representation of women is that parties may hesitate to remove an incumbent male member of the parliament and wait until his seat becomes available for a female deputy, a process which can take some years. Moreover, the problem of breaking down negative stereotypes is not resolved by introducing gender quotas. In order to generate an internal change of the political parties’ power structure, more time is needed.


Implementation of gender quotas and non-compliance

When it comes to controlling the implementation of quotas and sanctions for non-compliance, there has to be a distinction between voluntary party quotas and legal quotas. When a party decides to apply voluntary quotas, the central party organizations usually control whether the local party bodies are implementing the quota rules properly. Consequently, it is up to the central organizations to decide whether the local electoral lists should be reassembled or not.

Sanctions for non-compliance with legislative quotas can be stronger if the law implementing the quotas is legally binding. The most effective kind of sanction is the rejection of the concerned list, provided that the electoral authority has the legal competence to do so. This mechanism is used in Poland, Belgium, Slovenia and Spain. Countries applying these sanctions may take the risk that political parties feel obliged to ask female candidates to stand for the election last minute, in order to fulfil the quota criteria, which could result in choosing a person with less experience and skills. On the other hand, parties are informed a long time before the elections about the quota requirements and have the possibility to find qualified women corresponding to their party philosophy.

In other EU member states, financial penalties are imposed to parties not complying with the quota provision. In Portugal, lists which do not correspond to the quota rules are punished with a fine, calculated to the level of non-compliance. In Ireland, these parties lose 50 percent of their state funding. In France, financial penalties are applied at the national level and lists not corresponding to quota rules at the local level are rejected. It is interesting to mention that in France, at the local level, women are better represented than at the national level, which could be evidence for the effectiveness of the method of rejecting lists. The issue with financial penalties is that bigger parties rather pay the fine than apply the quota, which leads to an unfair competition and a misinterpretation of the objective.

Croatia, however, opted for financial incentives, instead of penalties. Parties complying with the quota rules receive 10 percent more funding from the state budget, but so far there is no evidence for the success of this system.

The way quotas are implemented also depends strongly on the individual political parties. Whether a party chooses to apply voluntary quotas or whether it is constrained to apply legal quotas imposed by the national law, completely changes the situation. Furthermore, a party’s share of female members depends also on its political ideology. The first party quotas were introduced in the 1970s and 1980s by social democratic parties and the Greens, which are still today, the forerunners when it comes to female representation in Europe. In 2013, after Swedish national elections, the representation of women in the parliament decreased, due to the fact that a new party, considered xenophobic and populist, entered the parliament, with mainly male deputies. In Iceland, the same phenomenon happened with the increase of the conservative party’s share in the Parliament.

Ideological shifts can indeed result in changes in female representation, but they always depend on the national context and changes in the voters’ behaviour, as further analysed in the following section.


The Italian approach of double preference vote

In 2013, a new electoral policy was introduced for Italian municipal elections in cities with more than 5,000 residents, establishing a double preference vote conditioned on gender on semi-open lists. In addition to the mere party vote, voters have the possibility to cast a preference vote for one or two individual candidates of the chosen party, provided that they choose candidates of a different gender. After the publication of the results, the parties’ lists are re-ranked, in accordance with the number of preference votes they received. This procedure is a supplement to the already existing gender quota in municipal elections. In cities with less than 15,000 inhabitants, the candidate getting the relative majority becomes mayor, and his or her respective party list gets two-thirds of the seats in the municipal council. Here, the gender quota applies, and neither men nor women, can represent more than two-thirds of the party lists for these councils. In the event of non-compliance, the names of male or female candidates exceeding the fixed percentage are removed from the party’s list.

The combination of gender quotas and a double preference vote has several positive effects. First of all, the system creates a direct link between voter and candidate, since the former can express his or her preference for one specific person. Second, candidates who may have been placed at the bottom of an electoral list have the possibility to surpass longstanding politicians in top positions. Moreover, politicians’ popularity can be tested thanks to preference votes. An unpopular candidate having a negative impact on the party’s image may move to the end of the list, while another one could be promoted to a higher position from one second to another. Voters are given a greater voice and get closer to more democracy. Finally, there is also evidence that in a single preferential system, the majority of voters are likely to vote for a male rather than for a female candidate. There are more gender-neutral voters expecting their preferred male candidate to be elected over their preferred female candidate than voters expecting the opposite. Thus, the number of gender-neutral voters voting for men is higher than the one of gender-neutral voters selecting women. Only by introducing the double preference system, female candidates have a real chance to be elected, since voters can express their preference for both sexes.

The Italian double preference vote has been subject to many studies pointing out positive and negative outcomes. One of the results shows that councils subject to the policies are now more gender balanced, as the presence of female councillors has increased in these municipalities. Women represent about 40 percent of the total number of councillors, considering that in municipalities not subject to the law they represent only 28 percent. A discontinuous jump in the share of elected female councillors took place, with 18 percentage points more women in these municipalities. That jump corresponds to two more women per council on average, given that there are 6 to 16 seats in total, depending on the size of the respective population.

In municipalities subject to the double preference policy, preference votes cast for female candidates increased by 14 percentage points. 7 out of 10 voters usually choose to cast a preference vote, that means that 14 preferences are expressed when double preference vote is applied. Hence, voters do make use of the expanded set of choices guaranteed by preference votes, but their potential is not fully exploited yet.

However, many voters tend to cast their preferences for the candidates at the top of the list, which may be linked to simple ease or to a problem of communication and promotion originating from the individual candidates.

Nevertheless, since the introduction of the system in Italian municipalities, the women to men ratio has risen to 40 / 60 compared to a ratio below 30 / 70 in municipalities without the policy. That would mean that a simple change in the voting rules can affect voters’ behaviour to vote for a more gender-balanced political representation, creating a completely new approach to democracy. Voters usually are constrained in their choices by the existing voting rules and by changing them, they are given the possibility to shape new political realities. According to the working paper “Let the Voters Choose Women” (2017), “The effectiveness of the policy is consistent with the idea that the underrepresentation of women in politics is not an artifact of intrinsic gender biases of voters, but it is at least in part institution-driven, and thus modifiable.” Thus, laying the emphasis on voters instead of parties could result in an immediate and significant effect of female empowerment.

Gender quotas in Europe under a new perspective

Generally speaking, gender quotas have indeed contributed to more women in the European political landscape. However, every European country has its own electoral system and needs a specific policy design in order to succeed in increasing women’s share in politics. In some cases, it may be useful to rather consider a bottom-up approach, than imposing policies from above, laying more emphasis on the role of the voters’ behaviour. Gender equality does not only concern women, but their political participation has an impact on every citizen’s life and thus must be addressed by all layers of our society and from different angles. Moreover, it is crucial to take into account the role of the media. Although gender policies are an important element in fostering female participation in politics, also newspapers, TV channels and social media have to assume their immense responsibility when it comes to forming a gender balanced society.

In Germany, Angela Merkel, re-elected chancellor for the fourth time, just presented her new government, surrounded by many female politicians, a picture progressively becoming normality in the country, even if here again, women make up only 31 percent of German MPs. But these are the first steps to be made for the next generations, which hopefully will grow up in a society even more equal than the one we are part of today. The earlier we start shaping a new reality, the earlier we can reap the rewards.

Pia Dittmar



For further information:


Woman and Power: Unpopular, Unwilling, or Held Back?, Manuel Bagues, Pamela Campa:

Electoral Gender Quotas and Their Implementation in Europe, European Parliament:

Women in Parliament in 2017, Inter-Parliamentary Union:

Analytical Report – 2016 data, Gender Equality Commission:

Let the Voters Choose Women, CESifo Working Paper No. 5693:

The impact of Electoral Reform on Women’s representation:

CoR Recommendation Rec(2003)3 on balanced participation of women and men in political and public decision-making:

Le “salto” du stigmate. Genre et construction des listes aux municipales de 2001, Catherine Achin, Marion Paoletti :

Website Bundeszentrale Politische Bildung :

Website Inter-Parliamentary Union :

Website der Standard:

Website Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance:

Website European Parliament:

Website ARD:äsentiert-im-Bundestag/Das-Erste/Video?bcastId=314636&documentId=50889392



Adeline Silva Pereira

Après avoir effectué la deuxième année du master Sécurité Globale analyste politique trilingue à l'Université de Bordeaux, j'effectue un stage au sein d'EU Logos afin de pouvoir mettre en pratique mes compétences d'analyste concernant l'actualité européenne sur la défense, la sécurité et plus largement la coopération judiciaire et policière.

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