Elect Women to Positions of Power, Get Positive Change

When quotas require that legislatures and businesses include more women, remarkable things can happen

by Amy Davidson • Senior Editor at the New Yorker
woman climbing snow covered mountain cartoon image
Photograph: Guy Billout

What if there were a blunt but effective way to fix America’s glass ceiling problem? Because despite the high profiles of such women as Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, we do have one: Only 3.8 percent of CEOs of Fortune 500 companies are women. If you look at the boards of those same companies, the number of women improves, though not by much. In 2011 they occupied 16.1 percent of board seats, according to a study by Catalyst. In politics the picture is equally disturbing. At the national level, only 17 percent of legislators are women; at the state level, the figure is 24 percent—and that percentage has flatlined. America ranks 80th in the world in terms of the percentage of women in our national legislature, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. Compare that with Vietnam (48th), Belarus (39th), Argentina (18th), Cuba (third) and Rwanda (first). The U.S. is tied with Morocco and Venezuela.“It’s an embarrassment,” says Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers. “We’re the country that’s the model of democracy in the world.”

Women are underrepresented around the globe. But a large number of other countries have begun to attack the disparity head on. The hammer they are using is quotas, and the results have been rapid and recognized. Quotas have become so common outside the U.S. that they now amount to no less than a giant, provocative worldwide experiment. And as the data from that experiment trickle in, there is a valuable lesson for us: Push legislatures and companies to put women in top positions, and remarkable things can happen.

When Women Get Elected
More than 100 countries—or more than half the world’s nations—now have some kind of quota designed to increase the number of women legislators. This has led to a dramatic boost in the number of women leaders around the world, and the ripple effects are clear: Political quotas result in substantively different policies; they create positive female role models, changing attitudes toward women; and they bring more women into politics.

Judith Schwentner was elected to the Austrian parliament in 2008, when she was 40. Austrian political parties have voluntarily adopted quotas—Schwentner’s party, the Greens, aims to choose women as 50 percent of its candidates—and as a result the proportion of women legislators is 27 percent. “There is always the cliché that women who have been given a job to fulfill a quota are less qualified,” Schwentner says. “But this is nonsense.” She sees women working just as effectively as men to pass laws—and quickly gaining experience.

When Esther Duflo, a professor of economics at MIT, began studying political quotas, she was not convinced that they were a good idea—or even that they mattered. Does having a woman in office make a difference? Do women govern differently than men? She found a way to explore that question in India, where quotas require that a third of the elected village chiefs be female. Before each election, “they count one, two, three, one, two, three,” as she puts it, and in every third village only women candidates can run. The data she gathered—the record of what the women did once elected—showed that villages with women chiefs made distinctive investment choices: “pro-woman, pro the weaker segment of society,” says Duflo. For instance, women, whose tasks traditionally include getting water, were much more likely than men to put money into wells. In contrast, “in Rajasthan,” says Duflo, “male elected officials put money into roads.”

First published in the December 2012/January 2013 issue

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