Electoral Quotas for Women: An International Overview



Electoral quotas for women: an international overview
Australian Parliamentary Library


Joy McCann's wide-ranging research paper reviews recent global trends in women's political representation, describes different types of gender quotas, summarises the arguments for and against quotas, and discusses key issues about the potential impact of implementing such quotas. It also includes a comparative survey of quota systems across the 54 member states of the Commonwealth.

The concept of greater gender balance in electoral representation is 'internationally recognised as a fundamental element of transparent and accountable governance, sustainable development and social cohesion'. This principle has been embedded in such documents as the United Nation's 1979 Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination (CEDAW), the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action from the 1995 Fourth World Conference on Women, and the 2010 UN Millennium Development Goals.

There are three main types of electoral quotas:

  • Reserved Seats: reserves a number of legislative seats for women.
  • Legislative Candidate Quotas: reserves a number of places on electoral lists for female candidates.
  • Voluntary Party Quotas: rules or targets set by parties to include a minimum percentage of women as election candidates.

Constitutional or legally-mandated quotas are seen more in developing countries, where women have not traditionally had access to political resources.

Voluntary party quotas are the most common type of quota system in advanced democracies such as Australia, the United States and New Zealand.

Over the past two decades roughly half of the world's countries have adopted mandatory or voluntary quotas to increase women's political representation. In 1997 the world average for female electoral representation was 11.7%. By 2013, it had rose to 20.9%.

Though this is still well short of the 'critical minority' of 30% required for 'women as a group to exert a meaningful influence in legislative assemblies' called for in a 2005 report by the UN Division for the Advancement of Women. 

Nine of the ten countries that had the largest increase in female representation in their lower houses over that time had adopted some type of quota system. Seven of the nine countries that saw a decrease had no quota system.

The limits of what quotas alone can accomplish have been well recognised by academics and practitioners alike. For example, the former Speaker of the Swedish Parliament has noted that the process of change in her country included 'political parties, the educational system, NGOs, trade unions, churches' all sharing in the responsibility to 'systemically promote women's participation'. It will also, she said, 'take one or two generations to realize significant change'.


Thumbnail image: European Parliament/Flickr

Joy McCann

Australian Parliamentary Library

Published Date
November 14, 2013