Reigniting the Debate on Gender Quotas


Promoting women’s representation in decision-making bodies has been a priority of international organizations for almost four decades. This blogpost makes the case for the necessity of gender quotas.

Promoting women’s representation in decision-making bodies has been a priority of international organizations for almost four decades. In 1979, the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) was the first to highlight the need for states to address gender inequality in leadership. The Beijing Platform for Action (1995), and the Millennium Development Goals (2002-present), followed, showing that women’s empowerment and gender equality in leadership are still on the international agenda.

In part responding to this call, a number of countries around the world have sought to “fast-track” women’s representation in political bodies through the implementation of national targets. As a result, gender quotas for political office spread rapidly and are currently in place as legislation in over 50 countries in the world, 14 of which are in Europe—including France, Belgium, and Spain. Most often, the policy has sought to address gender imbalances in legislative bodies, but the policy’s principle has also been used to advance women’s representation in executive bodies, as well as in other male-dominated institutions in the public and private spheres.

With women occupying 32.5% seats in the National Council and 15.2% of seats in the Council of States, Switzerland currently ranks 36th in the world in terms of women’s political representation in parliament. This means that Switzerland stands behind a number of countries that have quotas, such as France, Belgium, and Spain—as well as Rwanda, Bolivia, Nicaragua, Mozambique, and Ethiopia (to name a few).

Popular initiatives to implement a gender quota for political offices in Switzerland have been proposed in two occasions, in 1996 and 2000, but neither advanced. Recently, the gender quota debate was rekindled when Justice Minister Simonetta Sommaruga advocated for a quota to be applied to the Federal Council, which is currently occupied by five men and two women.

Critics have generally sought to discredit quotas as a solution to gender inequality in leadership by arguing that the policy goes against democratic and meritocratic principles, and that it does not yield the expected positive gains for women. The academic literature provides evidence to the contrary.

As a number of studies has shown, women’s underrepresentation in politics stems not from voter bias, but from parties’ unwillingness to recruit outside of their traditional pools. In fact, candidate selection in many contexts is often described as an opaque process, led by a select few. In this sense, Switzerland is no exception. By forcing parties to diversify their nominations, quotas therefore open-up the candidate selection process—thus rendering it more democratic.

Contrary to popular expectations, quotas have also been shown to improve the quality of representatives, with highly qualified women replacing weaker men. This reinforces the notion that women’s underrepresentation does not derive from their incapacity to hold office, but from institutional barriers, and that quotas have the potential of enhancing (and not hindering) democratic outcomes.

Finally, when well-designed, gender quotas have not only been associated with an increase in the presence of women in elected office, but also to other positive changes in women’s representation, as understood more broadly. This includes: breaking negative gendered stereotypes, shifting budgetary spending, and even promoting women’s lasting political presence after the policy is withdrawn. Quotas, however, have often fallen flat in increasing women’s substantive representation, or in securing women’s full incorporation in political bodies.