Nation & World

Krook looks at how women fare in international political arena

6 min read

This past Sunday (March 8) was International Women’s Day, now in its 99th year. And March is National Women’s History Month.

So what better time for a scholarly look at how women are faring in the political arena? Mona Lena Krook did just that, outlining in a March 4 lecture at Radcliffe Gymnasium her years of study on how women are represented in lawmaking bodies worldwide.

The Washington University political scientist, a Radcliffe Fellow this year, is the author of “Quotas for Women in Politics,” which appeared from Oxford University Press this month. It’s the first far-ranging look at what her lecture promised: “The Global Diffusion and Impact of Candidate Gender Quotas.”

As a graduate student at Columbia University, Krook started investigating women in Nordic politics. (Her heritage is Scandinavian.) Sweden, Denmark, and Finland in particular have the reputation of empowering women in the political arena.

In 1906, Finland became the first European country — and only the third in the world — to recognize a woman’s right to vote. (New Zealand and Australia were first and second.)

By 1907, the parliament in Finland was 10 percent women, a fraction not reached in the United States until 1992 (the House of Representatives) and 2000 (the Senate).

Krook went on to explore Nordic patterns of voting and representation that seemed friendly to women. Was this inclusion of both genders just a case of Scandinavian exceptionalism? (That’s the idea in political science that a country’s actions don’t conform to accepted norms. It’s often a point of national pride.)

What Krook discovered, she said, was “a diversity of strategies” that women had employed to get a foothold in the political arena.

During the 1930s, women in Finland and Sweden focused on working with men. They offered a simple primary argument: that men and women were equal.

In Iceland during the 1980s, women tried to lobby existing parties for greater representation in office — then gave up and organized a women’s party. It no longer exists, but within a decade, the fraction of women in parliament went from 5 percent to 35 percent.

In the 1990s, women in Denmark and Norway began organizing outside political parties. If they wanted rights, they reasoned, “we must take them ourselves,” said Krook.

These diverse strategies, taken together, had dramatic effects. By 1997, Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark took the top four spots in a survey of women’s political representation worldwide. European countries took eight of the top 10 places. (Women in Sweden held 40.4 percent of political offices, compared with a world average of 12 percent.)

But a 2008 survey showed a change in patterns. The world average for female political representation had risen to almost 19 percent, but the Nordic countries no longer predominated.

In the top spot, with 56.3 percent representation, was Rwanda, a sub-Saharan African country once wracked by genocide.

Sweden, Finland, and Denmark were joined in the top 10 by a new and surprising mix of countries, including Angola, Spain, and Argentina.

Part of the answer lies in gender quotas, a “new political factor,” said Krook, and in the past five years the focus of global election scholarship.

From 1930 to 1980, 10 countries put some kind of electoral gender quota in place. Now there are more than a hundred.

In 2000, France adopted the strictest reform, a parity law stipulating that half of all candidates in most elections must be women. (At the time, over 90 percent of political offices were held by men.)

For scholars, the proliferation of gender election quotas adds up to “a huge data problem,” said Krook, who is using part of her Radcliffe year to grapple with that. (She is also studying the “mixed” impact of gender quotas, which she calls a “new frontier of research.”)

Quotas take on different coloration. Some are for “reserved seats” – places in parliamentary systems that men cannot hold. Such mandated minimums, first adopted in the 1930s, predominate in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, said Krook.

There are also “party quotas,” she said. Some political parties, especially in Western Europe, began adopting these in the 1970s as an expression of values.

And starting in 1991, parliaments in countries particularly outside Europe began adopting legislative quotas. Despite France’s example, said Krook, these legally binding gender electoral standards are more common in Africa, the Middle East, and southeastern Europe.

The push for quotas is in part due to pressure from international groups. In 2000, the United Nations called for 30 percent of women in decision-making roles in post-conflict countries like Rwanda.

Quotas are adopted for a variety of reasons: gender mobilization (as in the Nordic countries); strategic calculation by political elites; transnational idea-sharing on the Internet; and even simply from the political ideal of equality.

But whatever their inspiration, such quotas stir up controversy.

Some critics see them as an unfair practice, as affirmative action is sometimes seen in the United States. Some men see quotas as contrary to their self-interests (though Krook pointed out that such laws are nearly always passed unanimously).

And feminists bristle at the idea, reasoning that candidate quotas “ignore other aspects of identity,” Krook said, calling it “a new feminist issue internationally.”

Have quotas affected the number of women in power? The record is mixed, said Krook, and depends on how quotas are put into practice.

There were dramatic increases. In Rwanda, women hold a third of open seats — those in which they run against men. In Kyrgyzstan, the percentage of female lawmakers jumped from zero to more than 20 percent.

There was stagnation, or mild increases. In France, despite a 2000 law requiring that 50 percent of candidates be women, barely 12 percent now hold office — about the same percentage as a decade ago.

And there were decreases in the number of female lawmakers, said Krook, particularly in Latin America where a 30 percent standard is the rule. Brazil and Colombia hover at 8 percent, despite a 22 percent regional average.

Deception is sometimes part of the picture. In Bolivia, an election official got around the quota system by giving male candidates female names.

Impact? It’s hard to draw conclusions, said Krook. In the end, quotas may build up women as a political constituency — or may backfire as elected women try to out-male their male counterparts.

Quotas have engendered little policy change so far — but have increased the number of bills introduced on women’s issues.

Quotas draw in candidates who are increasingly poor and young in some places — but in other places attract candidates that follow an older model: high-class and highly educated.

Quotas have increased the rate at which female voters contact their representatives, said Krook, but have also in some places “decapitated women’s organizing.”

So far, she concluded, “the impact of gender quotas is mixed.”