Whether in the board room or the legislative chamber, policymakers concerned with equality often support gender quotas, or mandates that women hold a certain percentage of available positions.
SPA Associate Professor Kimberly Cowell-Meyers and Lori Younissess (BA/SIS & SPA, ’21) analyzed the push behind gender quotas in Italy, France, Norway, Spain, and Belgium. A paper presenting their results, “Expanding Democracy: Debating Legislative and Corporate Board Quotas in Five European States,” was recently published online in the journal Politics, Groups and Identities.
Those in the U.S., used to candidate-centered elections, may struggle to understand the concept of legislative gender quotas. In European countries, political parties forward slates of candidates, and representation of women is more of an intentional step.
Nineteen European nation-states use legislated gender quotas for political candidate lists. Meanwhile, 18 require that women comprise a certain percentage of corporate boards, or that corporations work toward meeting such a threshold. Examining this emerging trend in the private sector, Cowell-Meyers and Younissess found that corporate board quotas evolved separately—only half of the European states that adopted corporate board quotas had national legislative quotas in place.
The authors further compared related parliamentary debates in these countries, finding that the two policies reflect similar concepts of equality and democracy. While the goals are more straightforward in the legislative context, using these same theoretical concepts and frameworks to talk about corporate board composition expands their typical applications.
“Despite the fact they’re regulating different arenas, these quotas are more similar than different in the way they are talked about,” Cowell-Meyers said. “It’s an interesting pivot in terms of what then is meant by equality and democracy. Now your expectations of democracy and equality impose certain burdens on corporations, not just [on] traditional public bodies like parties or legislatures.”
The authors write that these new conceptions take women’s equal qualifications to participate in decision-making bodies as a given, and expand the agenda for dismantling unequal power structures. The example of countries with successful gender quota policies, and the surrounding discussions, can be instructive to other places considering such mandates, Cowell-Meyers said. The analysis found that the experience of other countries factored into the debates, infusing international norms: policymakers wanted to champion outcomes that were viewed favorably by others.