Are gender quotas pointless?

Norway introduced quotas in the early 1990s to parachute women into top positions. Have they actually worked?

by Benny Geys
Last Updated: 10 Mar 2020

Women have historically been underrepresented in both business and politics. According to the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality (UN Women), only 24.3 per cent of national parliamentarians are women as of 2019. In the past 24 years, the number of women in parliament has only increased by 13 per cent. This is a small increase considering how far women’s rights are supposed to have progressed.

Governments are trying to resolve female under-representation by mandating more equal gender representation on, for instance, elections lists. Norway took one step further in the early 1990s by requiring that all executive boards in the public and private sectors included at least 40 per cent members of each gender. This gender quota was created explicitly to parachute women into top positions with executive powers, rather than waiting for a "trickle up" effect. (Pictured: Erna Solberg Norway's primeminister).

In the eyes of many, such quota are great news. Johanna Sigurdardottir, former Prime Minster for Iceland, recently remarked in the New York Times that “after a 35-year career in Icelandic politics, I have concluded that women are generally better than men at ensuring fairness in society. The world would truly be a better place if equal numbers of women and men were at the helm.”

While I agree that more women need to be in senior positions - not only in politics, but in all organisations - does introducing a quota actually make a difference?

Since Norway has been far ahead of others by legislating more equal gender representation in political, public and private sector executive decision-making bodies, my colleague Rune Sørenson and I decided to look into the long-term effects of executive gender quotas at the local government level in Norway. Our main interest was whether (and how) a sudden increase in the number of women in powerful political positions affected women’s overall representation as well as local public policy.

The research revealed that the quota increased the number of women in executive boards, as planned. Yet, it did not increase the likelihood that women would be selected for mayor or other top administrative decisions. Hence, there were no clear spillover effects to top political positions not covered by the quota.

More importantly, there was no evidence to suggest a shift in public policies despite the increase in female representation. We covered all major local spending categories accounting for 75 per cent of the total municipal expenditures, such as elderly care, childcare, healthcare, education and culture. Women generally have a stronger preference than men for prioritising government spending on these social policy issues. Yet, increased female representation yielded no significant impact.

Several institutional, structural and organisational constraints might explain why there was no change in public policy. For instance, the disciplining effect of political parties, whereby leaders incentivise rank and file politicians to maintain party discipline, may prevent women from being able to sway decisions in their preferred direction. Local policy decisions in Norway also require approval by the municipal council. This is a political body unaffected by the quota due to its directly elected nature. If (often still predominantly male) council members do not agree with the policy change proposed by the board, then it will not go through.

One might also wonder whether the women promoted as a result of the reform lacked the political experience or networks to cause change. Being new is never easy, and positive discrimination might also undermine one’s position in policy discussions. However, the quota has been around for over 20 years now. In theory, women should have had time to settle into the corridors of political power, which makes this an unlikely explanation, at least in our setting.

Over the past decade, many countries and companies have introduced some form of gender quota to improve gender representation and women’s presence has increased as a result. Our study highlights that having more women in decision-making positions, such as executive boards, may remain ineffective for changing policy if other institutional, structural, and organisational barriers remain unaddressed. Countries as well as businesses need to take these insights into account when considering the implementation of gender quotas.

Quotas alone will not be effective if other barriers are not tackled. Quotas may give women a seat at the table, but that does not automatically come with the power and authority to have a real influence.

Benny Geys is professor in economics at BI Norwegian Business School.

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Image credit: Laurent Hamels via Getty Images

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