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  • Emily Yates

Gender Equality: To quota or not to quota?

Updated: Dec 14, 2020

Gender quotas. Perceived by some as a political ploy, yet hailed by others as a progressive initiative, it’s fair to say that gender quotas have split opinions on all sides of the political landscape.

It might seem wild that despite making up pretty much half of the world’s population, women remain unequal and at a disadvantage - but this isn’t new.

So, what’s the deal with gender quotas? Who uses them? Do they even work? All valid questions, and all issues which we’ll discuss in this article.

What are gender quotas?

Essentially, gender quotas are employed to ensure that women constitute a certain proportion of members, candidates or employees. Typically, this is set at 30 percent, but this is very much dependent on who is enforcing the quota.

Political gender quotas have previously been implemented through All-Women Shortlists (AWS), which were introduced by the Labour Party in 1993. These mandate that only women can stand in particular constituencies, which are usually ‘safe’ meaning that there’s a slim chance of another party securing that seat. For the Labour Party, AWS have proved to be quite effective, with the election in December 2019 returning more women than men for the first time in its history. With 104 women and 98 men, it seems the Labour party has not only reached but gone above and beyond expectations of gender parity.

You probably won’t be surprised to hear that AWS are criticised. They’ve been described as discriminatory, a preventative measure to block the best candidate from being selected, patronising towards women and even sexist. Certainly divisive. Regardless of these comments, the Equality Act 2010 states that the purpose of selection arrangements- like AWS- is to ‘reduce inequality in the party’s representation in the body concerned’, and if you’re looking at the Labour Party, AWS certainly have reduced gender inequality at first glance. If the aim was to increase the number of female Labour MP’s, then this has happened. However, the truth remains that the number of female MP’s across the whole House is still vastly disproportionate.


Why do we need them?

Okay, so now that we’ve established what gender quotas are, you might be wondering why gender quotas need to be enforced. Surely the right person for the job will always get elected, right? Wrong. There are actually a number of barriers which might prevent women from being elected, even if they are the best and most qualified candidate. Seems crazy that this is still happening in 2020, but it’s true.

Particularly in politics, supply and demand theories have attempted to justify the female deficit. This means that broadly, fewer women choose to run for political positions. Consequently, there isn’t as large a supply of female candidates and it therefore makes sense that more men get elected (the supply side of the argument). What doesn’t, however, make sense is that fewer women run for political positions in the first place and there are a number of possible reasons for this.

Some have questioned whether political parties have overtly discriminated against women who do run for such roles, and therefore more women are averse to entering politics (a demand theory argument). Moreover, British politics has long been characterised by a white, middle class and male environment which has unsurprisingly become a barrier to women. Additionally, the sheer cost of running as a candidate is largely unknown to the average person, but in 2018 it was revealed that the average personal cost was £11,118 across all seats. So, if you’re a female working part-time, have childcare responsibilities, working in a low-paid sector or care for another (all roles typically associated with women), you’re much less likely to be able to take on such a huge financial burden.


Does a higher percentage of female politicians mean more support for women's issues?

With all this in mind, it’s therefore clear that gender quotas are contentious despite the need for change with regards to gender and politics, and the debate doesn’t stop there. Perhaps more complex is the question of whether gender quotas actually lead to more ‘female issues’ being addressed- traditionally consisting of childcare, health, education and abortion rights or issues seen to disproportionately impact women. As it happens, maybe not. Of course, there’s no guarantee that females elected to political roles will lobby on behalf of or support typically female issues- you only need to look as far as Margaret Thatcher’s time as Prime Minister to see this.

There is certainly an assumption that more women working in politics will lead to an increase in such ‘women’s issues’ being addressed, and a favourable change in policies as a result. This is a fairly inconclusive area of research, given that it’s difficult to assert what the impact of an increased number of women in parliament will be. Previous studies have suggested that there are different thresholds for change. Having 15 percent of elected roles filled by women might allow female politicians to impact the political agenda, but that number might need to be as high as 40 percent before policies conducive to the female agenda are actually introduced. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, male dominated networks may already (and do) exist, meaning that female-focused issues just aren’t as prominent. Secondly, working conditions for female politicians and representatives may also not be particularly family-friendly towards women with children- only in 2019 did Parliament agree to implement a pilot proxy voting system for MP’s on maternity leave.

According to the British Council, since women were granted the vote in 1918 there has been an increase in female politicians and major shifts in women’s roles, policies and leadership have been celebrated. In 1970, Barbara Castle, Labour MP and former Secretary of State, worked to implement legislation on the principle of equal pay, which is now a legal requirement despite the gender pay gap. National Minimum Wage and the National Childcare Strategy were initiated by Harriet Harman, Theresa May acted on human trafficking and modern slavery, Stella Creasy campaigned to improve abortion access for Northern Irish women- this is just to name a few. There’s a long list of elected women who have fought for women’s issues. The point here is that progress has been made, and will continue to be made, but there’s no guarantee for change.

The debate surrounding gender quotas and the number of female politicians is undoubtedly divisive, difficult and ongoing. What is important here is that the number of women in politics is still disproportionate to the number of women in the UK. Complex structural, social and cultural mechanisms are influencing factors at play, and despite the progress that’s been made, there is still a long way to go. Hopefully, the intricacies of this topic now seem a little clearer and, if anyone asks…no, politics isn’t a ‘man’s world’.

For more resources on fairness in the workplace, head to our article on Why Workplace Equality isn't Just About the Gender Pay Gap.

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