Gender Quotas Aufmacher
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How Gender Quotas Work

Women are still underrepresented in politics. As a possible means of achieving parity, women’s quotas are frequently discussed. A new study by WZB researcher Jessica Kim shows that gender quotas can significantly improve attitudes towards women in politics. However, not all quotas have the same effect.

Gender quotas are disputed. Just before the introduction of a minimum gender quota for supervisory boards in Germany in 2016, two opposing perspectives dominated the discussion: gender quotas were either seen as a tool of feminist politics or as an unfair advantage, manipulating competition. While the discussion often centers around the question of the fairness of quotas, their actual impact on the perception of women in leadership positions is often neglected.

WZB sociologist Jessica Kim and her colleague Kathleen M. Fallon from Stony Brook University (USA) have now investigated how public opinion of women in politics changes as a result of the introduction of gender quotas. Using data from 87 countries on attitudes towards women in politics and a global dataset on gender quotas, they show that quotas can have a significant influence.

Visibility plays a central role

One of the main reasons for this is the greater visibility of women politicians through quotas. By initializing significant changes to the gender composition of the legislature, quotas create the visibility necessary to spur changes in public perceptions of women’s roles. Quotas that fail to generate such visibility, however, fail to have a substantial impact on beliefs. Support for women in politics via quotas additionally varies depending on social context: individual reactions to quotas—both in favor of and against women in politics—is particularly pronounced in more democratic regimes.

Candidate quotas are the most effective

However, these findings don’t apply to any kind of gender quota: The researchers differentiate between four different types of quotas, depending on whether they ensure high or low visibility. Another decisive factor is whether the quota stipulates a certain number of female candidates or whether a certain number of seats are reserved for women only (regardless of the candidates). The study shows that gender quotas have a significant impact on public opinion when they are “robust” (i.e. they require 10% or more women candidates and are rigorously enforced, thus fostering greater visibility). Although reserved quotas of this nature are linked to backlash against women politicians, candidate quotas are linked to advances in public approval of women. For instance, compared to a political arena without gender quotas, under “robust candidate” quotas, respondents are up to 38.6% more likely to approve of women in politics in general.

Good news for all feminists who argue in favour of gender quotas: The researchers show that, despite frequent criticism, gender quotas work and increase the population's confidence in women as leaders.