Brazil, Sierra Leone, Kyrgyzstan, and Costa Rica do not have much in common beyond their female presidents. In the last decade, female representation in parliament and executive cabinet positions has almost doubled. Yet advances around the world are extremely varied.  Rwanda, where quotas guarantee women 30 percent of seats in parliament, tops the charts with women holding 56 percent of its parliament’s seats. On the flip side, more than a dozen countries have never had a female legislator. Quotas have played a largely positive role in the expansion of women’s representation in politics, but it remains unclear if women have garnered the political power needed to promote and act on issues of importance for women.

The Power of the Quota

Gender quotas require that a certain number of candidates in an election are women.  They are mandated either constitutionally or by electoral law. In parliamentary systems, where candidates take seats based on votes for a party, rather than votes for a specific candidate, quotas require that each party put a certain number of women on its ticket.  In “first-past-the-post” electoral systems in which the candidate with the most of votes wins the election, gender quotas reserve a certain number of seats for women.

Even though some countries have been unable to fill their quotas, all countries with quotas in place have seen an increase in female representation, and several countries have even exceeded their quota requirements. Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, a political science professor at the University of Missouri-Columbia, told the HPR, “It’s certainly true that quotas have helped to bring many more women into parliament, especially in east and southern Africa.”  Of the 24 countries with at least 30 percent female representation in parliament, nearly a third are in Africa. Worldwide, 19 percent of legislators are female. In many post-conflict African countries, gender quotas are viewed as important policy measures to improve women’s access to the decision making process.

How Far Can Nusu-nusu Go?

Beyond the numerical increases in the representation of women in parliaments, the women in power have certainly had positive influences on the female image and female empowerment. “There has been a large impact in terms of symbolic representation, where women are seeing other women and this is inspiring them,” Gretchen Bauer, chair of the Department of Political Science and International Relations at the University of Delaware, told the HPR.  In a trip of hers to Tanzania, a country that is considering a push for fifty-fifty representation in parliament, she spoke with a woman in the town of Bagamoyo: “This old, wizened, seaweed farmer woman stood up in Swahili and she talked about nusu-nusu which means ‘half-half’ and she said ‘now I can stand up and speak in my community.’”  The empowerment of women at the national level has encouraged women to become more involved in their local communities.

But quotas have only had a limited ability to change the perception of women in politics. Some have derided quotas, claiming that unqualified women, “quota women,” take seats of power simply because of the mandate for a woman fill that spot.  Bauer said of quota women, “On the one hand, these women are accused of being elite. So all we’re doing is electing more elite women who are going to fatten themselves by being in parliament. Or they’re accused of being unqualified and tokens.” To contest this argument, she explained how studies have shown that “‘quota women’ in Uganda are no more elite than the other women in parliament or than the men in parliament. And if anything, they might be slightly more educated.”

What also remains unclear is if these newly empowered women in power have been able to pursue issues significant to women. Farida Jalalzai, a professor of political science and women’s and gender studies at the University of Missouri, looks to Benazir Bhutto, the first female Prime Minister of Pakistan: “I think Benazir Bhutto wanted to do more for women. But she couldn’t because she had few fellow partisans who were supportive of her. I think in the end, she didn’t really achieve that much in terms of women’s larger status.” The support of broad women’s movements is important for female politicians to advance women’s issues. Schwindt-Bayer spoke about the role of women’s movements in helping to pave the path for women to access power. “Women’s movements have been hugely important in achieving women’s equality all around the world,” she told the HPR. “Without a doubt one of the reasons why the gender quota was passed in Argentina was that there was a strong… feminist movement that was drawing on international ties that really put the gender quota on the ballot.”  Women’s movements have helped shape the influence that women in power can have.

A Broader Movement

One example of the need for larger women’s movements to promote women in power is the limited access women have to executive positions in government even as women are increasingly gaining access to parliaments. Jalalzai explained, “More and more women are running for the presidency, but they almost never win. It’s interesting to examine this because there’s so much growth in other areas, but it still doesn’t seem to challenge this presidential power.” Fewer than 10% of countries have female heads of state. Bauer looked at it from another perspective, defining executives more broadly to include cabinets. She told the HPR, “It is true that women are not gaining access to executives as quickly as they are to legislatures, but they are also gaining access to executives at an increasing rate.”  Women fill 17 percent of cabinet positions worldwide, a small step behind legislatures, where they hold 19 percent of seats.  Nonetheless, women have had comparatively less success in achieving the highest position in a nation.  But, according to Jalalzai, “Change can only happen indirectly.  I can’t foresee countries saying at least so many women have to be candidates for the ballot.”  Without having quotas for women to gain executive positions, this change will have to happen organically, by more women deciding to run for office and more voters supporting female candidates.

Ultimately, the success of female participation in government is dependent on broader activism from women in society.  Women are increasingly feeling empowered and are realizing that they can pursue careers in politics, but there is still much to be desired. Asked what needs to be done to get even more women into power, Jalalzai said, “I think number one, the biggest thing is, you need to try.  Women need to put themselves out there.”

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