Gender quotas in politics are controversial – but global experience seems to show they work

Lidia Martins never dreamt of entering politics.

That was until the FRETILIN Bench party in Timor Leste tapped her on the shoulder.

In a country with minimal childcare and as a married mother of two, the 41-year-old was hesitant at first, before her family’s vision for the country’s independence eventually persuaded her.

That was in 2017 and she’s still a proud MP today.

“I’m very happy to assume this position because this is a good way in how to contribute in another way to my country,” she told SBS News.

Timor Leste MP Lidia Martins


She’s among 26 women in Timor Leste’s parliament, thanks to a quota system introduced in 2006 forcing political parties to nominate one woman for every three candidates at national elections.

At 38 per cent, the country has one of Asia’s highest rates of female representation in parliament.

“The quota of 30 per cent is a good policy to involve women in Timor, so it should be maintained,” she said.

Meanwhile, it’s a very different picture in neighbouring Papua New Guinea.

There are no women in parliament in PNG, despite a record number of female candidates at the last election.

Julie Bukikun, from the United Nations Development Program in PNG, says many factors are to blame, including culture, the high cost of campaigns and security.

“As in many countries in the Pacific … men dominate our society, men are seen as leaders and so it’s very hard for women to be recognised as leaders,” she said.

There are currently no women sitting in the PNG parliament

There are currently no women sitting in the PNG parliament


“We have a high rate of gender-based violence in PNG, so women face quite a big barrier when they come in. It’s not an equal playing field.”

To rectify that, parliament is expected to legislate the creation of five extra regional seats reserved exclusively for women in the lead-up to next year’s election.

Ms Bukikun says it’s small, but important progress.

“Five seats will not be enough, we all know that, but it’s to show that women can be good leaders, they can be in parliament and they can make very important decisions about the country’s development.” 

‘Extremely effective measures’

In 1998, women held 12.7 per cent of legislative seats around the world.

Today, that’s increased to 25.4 per cent.

Only four countries have achieved gender parity in politics: Rwanda with 61 per cent, Cuba and Bolivia, both with 53 per cent, and the United Arab Emirates with 50 per cent.

At the current rate of progress, gender parity in national legislative bodies won’t be achieved before 2063, according to the UN’s gender equality body.

UN Women’s Sabine Freizer credits gender quotas for being the single most effective tool for fast-tracking women’s political representation.

“We seem to see that quotas give a five per cent boost in the number of women in parliament, so … they have been extremely effective measures in many countries around the world,” she said.

She said political gender parity leads to better decision-making that reflects the whole of society.

“What we’ve found is that countries that have quotas, that have temporary special measures, overall do much better than countries that don’t.”

‘It’s about transforming mindsets’

However, quotas aren’t always simple.

Samoa was plunged into political uncertainty after last month’s election, in part because of rules surrounding female representation in parliament.

The country’s incumbent leader was on the verge of being ousted by Samoa’s first female MP, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, until the creation of a new seat to meet the requirement that women make up at least 10 per cent of MPs helped create a deadlock.

The idea also has its staunch opponents.

Critics say it’s tokenistic and undermines the selection of candidates on the basis of merit, a view voiced by senior members of Australia’s Liberal Party in recent years.

However, in the wake of revelations around federal parliament’s workplace culture, some high-profile female Liberals threw their support behind the idea in March.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison said he was open to it, something that appeared to mark a shift from the coalition’s long-held resistance to quotas.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack with female members of the government's cabinet in 2019.

Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack with female members of the government’s cabinet in 2019.


Only 25 per cent of Liberal MPs across state and federal parliaments are female.

Labor adopted gender quotas in 1994 and has increased its female representation in parliament to about 48 per cent.

Olga Shurchkov, an associate professor of economics at Wellesley College in the US, studies the effects of gender quotas.

“One argument against quotas you hear come up a lot is that there are just too few qualified or experienced enough women out there to choose from, so that when quotas are instituted, there could be some decrease in the effectiveness of governance, at least temporarily,” she said.

She said that thinking is largely attributed to bias and gender stereotypes, which quotas are designed to combat.


Rumbidzai Kandawasvika-Nhundu, from the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, said the more female leadership is normalised, the less gender quotas are needed.

“It’s about transforming mindsets, it’s about transforming perceptions and attitudes with regards to leadership. Democracy is incomplete if segments of the populations continue to be marginalised and excluded,” she said.

She said more men need to also take responsibility for gender parity in politics.

“We are looking at the need for male leadership, male engagement, male involvement in promoting and attaining gender equality, as much as we need that from women.”

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