Parliaments & Gender Equality

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Women usually make up a majority of citizens in a country, but in only a handful of countries do women’s numbers in the parliament reflect such equality. Without equality in representation, the voices and perspective of women cannot be fully reflected in the work of the parliament – laws are passed that are biased against women and the focus of any government scrutiny is less likely to focus on issues important to women.

However, parliaments across the globe have seen a slow increase in the numbers of women elected to serve as Parliamentarians. In some countries the increase in female representation is due to the implementation of gender quotas, while in other countries it is due to other factors including the efforts of one or more political parties or changing perceptions about the role of women in society.  

The increases in elected women representatives provide opportunities for women‘s voices and perspectives to be injected into the legislative process. It is important that women parliamentarians are given the same access to resources and opportunities as their male colleagues. For example, women parliamentarians have reported that they are disproportionately assigned to committees that have jurisdiction over subject matter that is deemed more in the sphere of women’s gender roles, such as education or health, rather than committees that handle finances or deal with foreign relations. They are also less likely to be provided with leadership posts within their parliamentary group or the parliament as a whole.

While increasing the proportion of women parliamentarians in parliaments is important, ultimately both male and female parliamentarians are responsible for processing legislation that will affect male and female members of the general public.  All parliamentarians, as well as parliamentary leadership, should be made aware of how the legislation and the budget they pass affect women in their society.  Mainstreaming gender issues should be the objective of all those working in legislation; to achieve this, knowledge must be transfered, quotas must be enacted, gender responsive budgeting must be reported, multi-party caucuses must be created, and other methods, all listed below, could be used.   

Gender Quotas:

Gender quotas are an effective, and functional in terms of implementation, means to warrant the representative function of parliaments. They set a minimum percentage of female deputies within party lists during elections. The rationale behind quotas is that an increased number of elected female deputies will reflect itself in the work of a parliament, engendering the latter’s oversight and legislative acts. Moreover, parliamentary quotas have an exemplary role for society at large, stimulating gender equality at all levels. The following lines divide quotas into three different types – voluntary, legislative and double quotas:

- Voluntary gender quotas. Political parties can impose upon themselves gender quotas on a voluntary basis. This practice is followed by some parties which see gender equality as integral to their identity and party programme. Still, voluntary gender quotas are not obligatory and a lot of parties often do not adhere to them.

- Legislated quotas. These quotas are enshrined in electoral law and oblige parties to include a certain number of female candidates in their electoral lists or face sanctions. One example of a strict sanction is denial of party registration for legislative elections, in place in Costa Rica where there is a 40% quota.

- Double quotas. Similar to legislated quotas, double quotas require parties to ensure “minimum obligatory presence to the under-represented sex on the candidate lists”. However, they also build upon this feature by necessitating from parties to guarantee that women are also well placed on party lists. In this way, double quotas certify that parties will include women not only at the bottom of party lists but also in electable positions. It should be noted, nevertheless, that legislative and double quotas are designed for proportional electoral systems and not for majoritarian ones.

Discussing the effectiveness of gender quotas:

As said in the introduction gender quotas are an effective, and functional in terms of implementation, means to increase the representation of women in parliament and set an example for society at large. However, to be truly effective and acknowledged by society at large, quotas have to be complemented by other legislative and political acts. Failure to adopt accompanying measures makes it more likely that society and political parties might perceive women elected via quotas as tokens or red tape. Thus, when adopting quota legislation, parliaments should consider establishing all women caucuses (put a link here), gender committees and/or sub-committees, training programs that develop the leadership and capacity of women as well as the setting of larger gender alliances composed of women CEOs, NGO activists, academia and other influential women.

On the same note, quotas should also be advocated as temporary and/or counter-balancing measures designed to address a perpetuated societal wrong such as gender inequality.  Once gender equality in parliament is achieved, legislative quotas can be removed. Additionally, to strengthen the argument for gender quotas, economic and legal arguments could be raised. Laws voted in the plenary often concern women who are approximately 50% of the population. Thus, in order to have effective and efficient government of female labor and human capital, it could easily be argued that more female deputies should be involved in law-making and government oversight.

For more information on this subject, please also see:

Gender and Constituency Outreach

Engendering legislation and budgets

Parliamentary women caucuses

Women’s Political Empowerment and Political Parties

Parliaments and Gender: Discussions, Films and Materials