Can women rule? Are gender quotas the way to find out?

In a wave of western post-feminism critics of gender quotas might claim that women typically choose more caring occupations that are lower paid or they choose caring for children over a career. As a result we hear statements that suggest men are better suited for the chief jobs within politics. However, how can we know if men are better suited than women to politics if women are not given the chance to participate?

It is a result of socio-cultural circumstances that we see women primarily as mothers, who have to fulfil an expectation in which their caring nature defines them. This therefore limits the types of work environments in which we typically find women. Successful women such as Margret Thatcher and Golda Meir are perceived as ‘unusual’ and their successes are accredited to their masculine nature. However, women should not have to be more masculine to fit into the men’s world that is parliament. Therefore the problem is not regarding whether men are better suited for the leading political jobs; it is rather that the political field is designed by men. In a system where men choose other men it is not surprising that women need help getting in. The labour party is an advocate for liberal feminist thinking and has put more women in parliament than other parties. However gender roles still affect the positions women achieve. For example Jeremy Corbyn’s new shadow cabinet appointments are controversial despite composing half women. This is because the top jobs in areas such as home and foreign affairs were given to men. Reinforcing ideas that women are more peaceful and cannot therefore deal with these issues[i].

Furthermore despite Thatcher’s ‘unusual’ qualities and her success she was criticized for not spending enough time with her children (an issue rarely, if ever brought up for male prime ministers). This critique of Thatcher holds an additional moral judgement based on expectations of her as a woman. The assumption that a woman who chooses their career over children, is ‘unwomanly’, epitomises the fact that women are seen as ‘mothers’ and are not equals in the political sphere. Ultimately it should not be shocking that a woman does not have children.

The majority of the public now accept that politics is not a level playing field and the need for change is abundantly clear. Quotas allow better representation of the nation and facilitate women addressing gendered issues. Consequently it is hoped this will empower other women, further breaking down problems of gender roles. Could quotas be the answer to an increasingly evident problem?

The introduction of mandatory gender quotas is not short of critics, one of the main concerns is that it limits the pool of selection. Therefore you get the best woman for the job, not the best full stop. It is positive discrimination where women are entitled to a job rather than earning it. This is evident in post-feminist campaigns where women claim they don’t need feminism. Creating backlash against feminist movements and questioning whether gender quotas are rather increasing inequality. The proposed introduction of ceiling quotas by the LSE may redefine quotas to solve this problem. The LSE report recommended establishing an upper limit for MPs of a maximum 70 per cent of either sex. This would attempt to shift the burden of the argument ‘from the underrepresentation of women to the unjustifiable over-representation of men’.

Will gender quotas actually help women rule? There is concern that quotas are not up to the task. Success stories of gender quotas in Rwanda also come with a downside. Quotas rather than inspiring women may be pressuring them into power. Despite this there is undeniable success for gender quotas getting women into power. Yet their efficacy in these positions is dubitable, for example, in Botswana.[ii] It appears that equality in numbers does not equate to equality in power; female chiefs do not have the same influence that male chiefs have. However I think gender quotas are the only way to start breaking down the barriers, gaining women access into politics. This should be mirrored by change to the socialisation and education of society to breakdown gender roles so that women can utilise this access.

[i] Fukuyama, 1998. “Women and the Evolution of World Politics.” Foreign Affairs. 77, no 5, 26-48.

[ii] Bauer, 2014. “’What is wrong with a woman being chief’ Women Chiefs and Symbolic and Substantive Representation in Botswana.” Journal of Asian and African Studies.

Krook, Lovenduski and Squires, 2009. “Gender Quotas and Models of Political Citizenship.” British Journal of Political Science. 39, no 4, 781-803.

Dahlerup, Drude and Lenita Freidenvall, 2005. “Quotas as a ‘Fast Track’ to Equal Political Representation for Women: Why Scandinavia is No Longer the Model.” International Feminist Journal of Politics. 7, no 1, 26-48.


About School of Politics and International Relations

This blog has been set up for the students of PO665, Advanced Topics in Politics and International Relations: Global Gender Justice, which is a course for final year Honours students in the School of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent. As part of their participation in the course, students submit blog posts that examine issues pertaining to gender justice within the family, the community, the state and global society. We aim to explore the extent to which gender inequality within the state has an impact on state behaviour, with a specific focus on state development and state security, and further aim to analyse the effectiveness and limits of international organisations, international human rights instruments, NGOs and activists to bring about greater gender justice.
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