March 31, 2017

Gender quotas lead to more competent politicians, says new study

Gender quotas lead to more competent politicians, says new study

Gender quotas in political systems increase the competence of the political class by displacing “mediocre” men, according to a forthcoming study in the American Economic Review.

The authors looked at the case of Sweden’s Social Democratic Party, which introduced gender quotas for local council elections—which are based on a proportional representation system—in 1993. Under the new rules, local parties alternated male and female candidates’ names on the ballot, ensuring that half the party’s elected councilors were women.

They found that a higher female representation on local councils of ten percentage points raised the average proportion of “competent” men by three percentage points. The effect on competence was most pronounced in those districts where women were previously the most under-represented.

The authors of the study argue that, when party leaders are more competent, they are more likely to select competent electoral candidates as they feel “less threatened,” which leads to what they call a “virtuous cycle of higher competence.”

Writing for the LSE Business Review, the authors argue that their findings may be relevant for judging gender quotas in other contexts, such as company boards. They write that: “Many firms have a history of male-dominated leadership and are sometimes accused of having ‘locker-room’ mentalities and cozy selection rules. These reinforce the selection of men, and leaders may feel comfortable being surrounded by non-threatening mediocrity. Just as in politics, therefore, a quota has the potential to undercut the dominance of a mediocre elite.”

Nina Smith has written for IZA World of Labor about the evidence around gender quotas on boards of directors. She argues that the research does not support quotas on grounds of economic efficiency, and that policymakers should instead focus on “the much broader task of getting a more balanced gender division of careers within the family, for instance by encouraging more fathers to take advantage of parental leave schemes.”

Find more IZA World of Labor content about the gender divide.