Party Quotas: Nordic Countries and the United Kingdom

Party Quotas: Nordic Countries and the United Kingdom

Country Profile: Finland

Geographical location: Northern Europe

Population: 5 million (July 2010)

Majority religions: Lutheran Church of Finland 82.5%; unspecified or none 15.1%

Major historical developments: Finland was initially a part of Sweden from the 12th to the 19th centuries and then an autonomous constitutional monarchy within the autocratic Russian Empire. It eventually won its complete independence in 1917 from Russia. Finland is the only country of the first wave of democratization that granted suffrage to both men and women at the same time, as early as 1906. In the 21st century, the key features of Finland’s modern welfare state are a high standard of education, equality promotion, and a national social security system. Since March 2000 Finland has had a female president, Tarja Halonen, who was initially elected by popular vote for a maximum term of six-years, and was then re-elected in 2006. Since June 2010, Finland has also had a female Prime Minister,

Mari Kiviniemi.

Human Development Index (HDI) ranking: In 2010, Finland ranked #16 out of a total of 169 countries measured worldwide.

Political system: Finland operates as a Republic, and the president serves as the chief of state and is elected by popular vote for six-year terms. Finland also has a multi-party system, with numerous parties in which no one party often has a chance of gaining power alone, and parties must work together to form coalition governments.

Parliamentary system: Unicameral Parliament or Eduskunta (members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms).

Electoral system for parliamentary elections: Finland uses List Proportional Representation (List PR) system in which seats in the parliament are distributed to candidates or parties in proportion to the votes that they receive in the multi-member districts.

Quota type: Finnish parties have rarely adopted gender quotas for parliamentary elections, though Finland did adopt a legislative quota to achieve near gender balance by appointing additional women to various municipal and government bodies when not enough have been directly elected. In this regard, while gender quotas at the national level were not essential as enough women were elected to these positions on their own terms, the same was not necessarily true for the local level and appointed positions.

Female suffrage and standing for election: This right was granted as early as 1906 to both men and women. The first elections were held in March 1907, which saw the elections of 19 women to the parliament.

Voter-turnout for previous parliamentary elections: 65% (2007)

Voter-turnout by gender: For the 2003 parliamentary elections, 71.6% of eligible female voters turned out to vote in comparison to 67.6% of eligible male voters. The total voter turnout was 69.7%.

Women in parliament (2007 Elections): 80 women from a total of 200 members\ (40% women).


Country Profile: Sweden

Geographical location: Northern Europe

Population: 9 million (July 2010)

Majority religions: Lutheran 87%; other (includes Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Baptist, Muslim, Jewish, and Buddhist) 13%

Major historical developments: While Sweden emerged as an independent and unified country during the middle ages, by the 17th century it had expanded its territories into the powerful Swedish Empire. However, most of the conquered territories were lost during the 18th and 19th centuries to Russia. Since the early 19th century, Sweden has adopted strict neutrality, and hence avoided involvement in both World Wars.

Human Development Index (HDI) ranking: In 2010, Sweden ranked #9 out of a total of 169 countries measured worldwide.

Political system: Sweden is a constitutional monarchy, where the monarchy is hereditary. The prime minister serves as the head of government. Following legislative elections, the leader of the majority party or the majority coalition is usually appointed prime minister. Sweden has a multiparty system, with numerous parties in which no one party often has a chance of gaining power alone, and parties must work together to form coalition governments.

Parliamentary system: Unicameral Parliament or Riksdag (members are elected by popular vote to serve four-year terms).

Electoral system for parliamentary elections: Sweden uses List Proportional Representation (List PR) system in which seats in the parliament are distributed to candidates or parties in proportion to the votes that they receive in the multi-member districts.

Quota type: Voluntary Political Party Quotas adopted various Swedish parties, including the Social Democratic Party which adopted the Zipper system (one sex alternates the other on party lists) first in 1993, but had internal quotas since 1978; the Left Party which has a 50% minimum quota for women on party lists since 1993, but even before that had internal quotas since 1978 and other party quota rules since 1987; and the Green Party currently has a 50% gender quota on party lists, plus minus one person, adopted in 1997, but also had internal quotas since 1981 and the first party quota rule introduced in 1987.

Female suffrage and standing for election: Swedish women received this right in 1921; a decade after men over the age of 25 received it in 1911.

Voter-turnout for previous parliamentary elections: 82% (2006)

Voter-turnout by gender: For the 1998 parliamentary elections 82.8% of female eligible voters turned out to vote in comparison to 81.5% of male eligible voters (total voter turnout 82.1%).

Women in the parliament (2006 Elections): 162 women from a total of

349 members (46% women)

Country Profile: United Kingdom

Geographical location: Western Europe

Population: 62 million (July 2010)

Majority religions: Christian 71.6%; Muslim 2.7%; Hindu 1%; unspecified or none 23.1% (2001 census)

Major historical developments: The UK has played a leading role in the development of parliamentary democracy, through multiple reforms protecting the rights of citizens and limiting the power of the Monarch. The first was the Magna Carta signed in 1215; followed by the 1628 Petition of Rights granting constitutional power to the Parliament over the king; the 1679 Habeas Corpus Act granting protection to prisoners kept against the wishes of Parliament or the courts; and the 1689 Bill of Rights which reduced the Monarch’s right to levy taxes, suspend laws, or keep an army during peace times. Internal stability enabled the British Empire to colonize over one-fourth of the earth’s surface by the 19th century, exerting significant and long lasting political and economic consequences globally even after colonies’ gained independence during the first half of the twentieth century.

Human Development Index (HDI) ranking: In 2010, the UK ranked #26 out of a total of 169 countries measured worldwide.

Political system: United Kingdom is a constitutional monarchy. The Prime Minister who serves as the head of government is the leader of the majority party or the leader of the majority coalition. The UK has primarily been a dual-party system (with Labour and Conservative parties), however after the 2010 elections the Liberal Democrats, its third largest party, entered into a coalition government with the Conservatives for the first time.

Electoral system for parliamentary elections: The UK uses the First Past the Post (FPTP) electoral system, in which the candidate with the most votes wins in single-member district elections.

Quota type: Political Party Quotas in the form of All-Women Shortlists (AWS) that required women’s nomination to at least half of the upcoming “inheritor” seats (vacant due to retirement) and in half of “strong challenger” seats (deemed most winnable), were initially adopted by the Labour Party in 1992. In 2001, Liberal Democrats adopted a 40 percent target of women candidates, but rejected All-Women Shortlists.

Female suffrage and standing for election: Universal suffrage with no Property restrictions was granted in 1928. Prior, suffrage had been granted only to propertied men (1432 for the elites, and 1832 for the landowners), and propertied women or those who helped in the factories during WWI (1918).

Voter-turnout for parliamentary elections: 61.36% (2005) and 65.1% (2010)

Voter-turnout by gender: For the 2005 parliamentary elections 61% of eligible female voters turned out in comparison to 62% of eligible male voters. Total voter turnout was 61%.

Women in the parliament (2010 Elections): 144 women from a total of 650 members (22% women); according to the Center for Women and Democracy, the breakdown of female parliamentarians by political parties is as follows: Labour-82 women from a total of 256 members, Conservative- 49 from a total of 306 members, Liberal Democrat-7 from a total of 57 members, plus six additional women, each from a different party.


The Historical Context

Rising out of a patriarchal society run by a strong state, the early Nordic women’s movements promoted their cause as part of the necessary condition for the advancement of society as a whole, tactfully pointing out the contradiction between social democratic ideals and promises and women’s status. In this way they gradually politicized issues of universal suffrage, and female education, employment, and parliamentary representation as the responsibilities of the state to deliver. The road to success was long and challenging, as the state and conservative political forces considered gender inequality a manifestation of natural gender roles. While suffrage was achieved in the early 1900s in all the Nordic states, other legislations which targeted injustice based on “traditional” gender role ideology were not achieved till later. For instance, until 1938 Swedish women in middleclass professions such as nursing or teaching were likely to be fired either upon marriage or pregnancy (Hassim 2008).


Feminism, understood here as the adherence to equality of men and women, has been a particularly strong social force in the Nordic contexts, relative to the more intellectual early feminism in other parts of Europe and in North America. Questioning the so-called “natural” inequalities maintained through systematic discrimination, feminists launched a multi-dimensional campaign to rectify several exclusionary laws concerning education and employment policies as well as decision-making processes. That their hard won successes are now often attributed to the “inherent” egalitarian culture of Nordic countries, especially by male researchers, simply attempts to belittle women’s ultimately successful resistance and struggle for gender equality.


In the early 1960s, amid widespread public debate on sex roles, feminist scholars arguing that gender roles were primarily the outcome of socialization formed radical socialist “Women’s Liberation” movements that challenged traditional sex-role stereotyping. Mobilizing young women by the thousands, along with some young men, in the 1970s and 1980s feminists from all five Nordic countries contested the patriarchal political institutions, decrying all-male political assemblies as undemocratic and unacceptable. The women’s movements lobbied around social justice issues, focusing on gaps between political party rhetoric and practice, particularly those of left leaning parties invoking principles of social justice for all. One of their winning strategies was not just lobbying political parties, but actually joining them, making alliances and whenever possible placing feminists and women activists in party structures and other political bureaucratic positions – working within the institutions they hoped to change as well as from outside through re-shaping public opinion (Hassim 2008). Gradually, many feminist organizations turned into women’s committees of political parties (mostly leftist parties), while some women’s organizations remained independent from the party structure, devoting their energy to campaigns for gender equality. These various strategies politicized women’s concerns, raising public awareness and support for the idea that women’s exclusion from politics and the benefits of democracy was anything but “natural”, and was in fact a result of man-made legal systems and an insidious gender ideology perpetuated by male-dominated political structures and cultures.


As such activity continued to influence public discourse, Nordic feminists also campaigned to increase female voter turnout, recognizing its key importance in both debunking the widespread belief that by nature women were uninterested in politics, and increasing political response to women’s demands. Gradually the gap between the rates of male and female voter turnout began to close in all Nordic states, as well as in most of Western Europe. In fact since the 1970s women have generally outvoted men in the Nordic region and the U.K.; for the few countries for which data on female voter turnout is available, Sweden is notable in that since its 1976 national elections women have consistently voted in numbers equal to or surpassing men (IDEA 2008). In Iceland women have been outvoting men since the 1988 elections, and in Finland since the 1987 elections. Even prior to this, in both of these countries women and men voted at similar rates in the 1960s. In the United Kingdom women have generally voted at similar rates to men since 1974, and in some elections have outvoted men (Kittilson 2006). For instance in the 1997 UK elections an estimated 17.7 million women voted, compared with around 15.8 million men, while the 2005 parliamentary elections had 61 percent of eligible female voters turnout compared to 62 percent of men (IDEA 2008).


When official statistics on male and female voter turnout are not available, research institutions turn to surveys carried out by interest groups. Although not as reliable as official government statistics, they nonetheless give a good indication of voter turnout by sex. The statistics clearly show there is no credibility to any argument that women lack interest in politics, or that low female voter turnout is the cause of low levels of women in political office; discriminatory practices have kept women out of formal politics and it was in this context that the demand for a minimum percentage of women on electoral lists, on committees or in government steadily increased in most of these countries.


Party Quotas in the Nordic Countries

The voluntary quotas eventually adopted by a number of Nordic political parties were not implemented until the 1980s, when women already occupied about 20 to 30 percent of parliamentary seats, the highest rate in the world at the time. Hence, party gender quotas were adopted to reach “gender balance” rather than to meet minimum requirements – their primary function in most contexts today (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006). Despite this fact, feminists from other regions, such as Latin America, often advocate for quotas using the Nordic states as models. This is because for late twentieth century feminists aspiring to reach Nordic women’s level of political representation and empowerment, using women’s quotas, particularly voluntary party quotas, is simpler and faster in addressing women’s underrepresentation than modifying other major obstacles such as the state’s electoral system or cultural attitudes that relegate women to the private sphere.


Interestingly, Scandinavian feminists only lobbied for gender quotas in the 1980s and 1990s when their optimism that social progress would eliminate prejudices against women faded away. With promised changes failing to materialize, women’s movements began focusing on systematic discrimination against women through extensive research and documentation. They brought these debates to the public sphere, and successfully politicized the issue of the reproduction of sexual hierarchy through the generations, while also pointing to the failure of political processes to include women. Galvanizing public opinion, pressure from civil society inspired movement within the wider society and party structures to seek solutions to the systematic exclusion of women from the public sphere. In other words, the women’s movements across Nordic countries tactfully organized campaigns “from below” as well as “from above”, which eventually resulted in strong “state feminism”, or state support for gender parity within political institutions (Lovenduski 2005). For instance, grassroots women’s activism in Norway led to the creation of a strong state machinery that eventually prioritized women’s equality in decision-making. In this regard Norwegian state feminism included the institutionalization of women’s interests by establishing consultative bodies overseeing the implementation of equality legislation and policy. Beginning in the 1970s, such councils ensured that members of both genders are nominated to all governmental committees. Prior instances of pressure on political parties included female voters in the 1967 municipal elections crossing out the names of candidates on the Socialist People’s Party ballot and instead writing in the names of female candidates from other parties. This confrontational, yet legal move not only led to the increase in female representatives in that municipality from one to fourteen, but also sent a strong message to political parties that it was time to let women. When male politicians protested, accusing women of using “undemocratic procedures”, the Norwegian women’s organizations joined together to launch a campaign urging women to vote for female candidates. The success of such coalitions became clear in the 1977 parliamentary elections, in which a group of 400 women, consisting of representatives from political parties, the private sector, and the feminist movement, united and through their efforts increased the number of female representatives from under sixteen to twenty-four. One of the major goals of Coalition 400 was to introduce quotas within the political parties to end women’s exclusion and to ensure their access to politics (Lucas 1990).


State feminism also became a reality in Finland, as women’s right activists pressured the state to establish the Council for Equality whose mandate would be to remove exclusionary practices from all political, economic and public institutions. Once the Council was established the onus was on women’s rights activists to network and develop policies addressing women’s inequality at various levels. The Council provided a legitimate and direct channel to the state for women activists, through which women managed to pressure state institutions to introduce gender quotas at the local level (Raevaara 2005). Given the close ties between the Nordic countries, feminists and women activist leaders networked across borders, learning from each other’s experiences. Furthermore, the period from 1985-1995 was the height of transnational women’s movement activity, which Nordic feminists vigorously joined. They also pressured their countries to make gender equality part of their development aid packages. Other factors were also at play in the adoption of gender party quotas in the 1980s and 1990s, the most significant of which will be discussed below. Close analysis of these factors demonstrates the important role that social and political contexts play in shaping specific strategies, as well as the significance of taking advantage of the momentum and opportunities that arise, sometimes unexpectedly.


The Social and Political Context of Nordic Countries

Although many of the Nordic countries’ political parties have adopted gender quotas, it is important to note that this only occurred beginning in the 1980s after women’s representation had already reached a high level, and only a few parties accepted these measures. Therefore we have to examine other factors that initially enabled high levels of women’s representation. The Women’s Movement: Scholars analyzing these cases agree that one of the most important factors that assisted women’s political representation in Nordic countries was the presence of a sustained, strong, multi-dimensional and committed women’s movement that advocated gender equality in all spheres of public and private life. The movement carried out research on women’s concerns and popularized its results in public discourse, raising demands for gender equality in education, employment, child-raising and women’s political representation (Giddens 2003). Once they had established a base of support within civil society they launched wider strategic campaigns, often also working from within the state structure and political parties. Indeed what sets these movements apart from women’s movements in most other regions is the early cooperation that Nordic feminists sought with the state and the country’s political institutions, particularly political parties. While they criticized the state, they also treated it as a potential ally, emphasizing the responsibility of every democratic state to equally represent women and men. Hence, women’s rights activists within the Nordic region used the state as a means to advance women’s rights, through continuous pressuring and lobbying of state institutions, political elites and parties, while also mobilizing the public to support their demands. The long history of such civil society involvement with the state has resulted in the evolution of a responsive and democratic state structure, which is reflected in each country’s culture and constitution. Today, the Nordic model considers various social movements as democracy’s primary “actors” and “agents” (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006), and values their participation in governance.


Electoral System: The electoral system of the Nordic states was a key factor assisting women’s access to political representation. All five states  have, since their first democratic elections in the nineteenth century, used the proportional representation electoral system in which voters vote for parties rather than individuals (List PR). The PR electoral system is considered to be more “woman friendly” than majoritarian/plurality electoral systems.


There are two variations of the List PR electoral system: open List PR and closed List PR, both of which are used in the Nordic Region.


Open List PR refers to a proportional representation electoral system in which voters can vote for any candidate on the list and the candidates with the most votes are elected. In some countries the open list aspect of the electoral system may be voluntary, in that voters may choose to vote for the party but are not obliged to select specific candidates; open list systems may also be mandatory whereby voters are obliged to choose specific candidates from the list or their vote is considered invalid. In closed List PR, the party candidate lists are pre-ranked by the party leadership. In this system, once the party knows how many seats it has won, seats are allocated accordingly based on the list ranking, from top to bottom. Generally, Sweden2 and Norway3 use closed List PR systems, while Iceland and Denmark leave each party to decide whether to present the electorate with either a closed or open party list before the elections. Only in Finland, a country with a very high percentage of female parliamentarians and no parliamentary quotas, is the usage of open party lists legally mandated, whereby the electorate can vote for any candidate on the list regardless of their party ranking. Observers consider this aspect of the Finnish electoral system as a key factor in women’s high parliamentary presence, since the majority female electorate tends to vote for women from within the lists. However overall, the success of women’s representation in the Nordic region is mostly credited to its PR electoral system, regardless of the type of party list system in use, since each variation has advantages and disadvantages.


A Social Democratic Political Culture: Another important factor is the long history of social democracy in the Nordic states. From early on, the political culture – or the set of values within which the political system operates – of these states emphasized social democratic values, which intensified after World War II. Social democracies operate under close and integrative alliances between social movements, parties and the state, in which formulation and representation of public interest is at the forefront of state party structure – often dubbed “movement democracy” (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006). Also related to the region’s political culture are long established secularism and Protestantism, which scholars suggest have also influenced gender relations and enabled women’s access to education, employment and politics, which in turn democratized the society (Morgan

2006). It is also suggested that the region’s homogeneity and little ethnic diversity mean there is relatively little social inequality (Hassim 2008), and that furthermore, Nordic countries have democratized along their particular trajectory in part because they have never been colonized (though they have colonized their own aboriginal populations). Clearly, a lively civil society including women’s movements, vertically diffused from the grassroots to the state structure, helps explain the egalitarianism of Nordic political culture, including the prevalence of a comprehensive welfare state. Women, as an integral part of larger civil society, were instrumental in bringing about such democratic and egalitarian cultures, and are not simply beneficiaries, as scholars sometimes imply.


Voluntary Party Quotas: The Swedish Case

The above mentioned factors played a key role in the establishment of voluntary gender party quotas in most of the Nordic states, with the exception of Finland, where gender quotas are in use only for local elections and are mandated by law. Party quotas were primarily adopted by left leaning, social democratic, centrist and green parties, but gradually expanded to more right leaning parties as well due to party competition in the PR system. As a brief case study, we will now examine the adoption and implementation of such quotas in Sweden.


In Sweden women achieved the right to vote in 1921, last among all Nordic states. Swedish feminists, a real and growing presence within all political parties, particularly in the Social Democratic Party (SDP), began to advocate for “gender equality” in various spheres of life (Hassim 2008). Campaigns for the adoption and implementation of gender quotas span a period of more than thirty years, beginning in the 1960s. While the main actors in the early campaigns mostly consisted of women’s movement organizations, later campaigns have engaged a much wider range of actors, extending to cross-party networks, the prime minister, party leaders, party congresses, civil society movements, and to a lesser extent international and transnational influences. As noted earlier the women’s movement had already mobilized the mass of female voters to use their franchise, and ensured that political parties and leaders took heed of the value of women’s votes. Thus party leaders and prime ministers supported the idea of gender quotas, at least in part because they feared the electoral consequences and the loss of women’s votes if parties refused to take steps to increase women’s representation. Furthermore, political gender equality advocates threatened to establish an all-women political party if existing parties did not accommodate their demands; a prospect political parties did not appreciate.


The women’s organization Fredrika Bremer Association (FBF), took the lead in increasing women’s parliamentary presence by encouraging women to vote and run for office, as well as pressuring political elites to increase women’s representation. In the late 1960s the FBF formed a coalition with other women’s organizations within political parties, and demanded a 50% increase in women’s representation in every election until women had attained equal representation in parliament, followed by a demand for

legislative quotas in 1980. While initially these demands faced considerable resistance from Swedish political parties, which declared gender quotas to be an infringement on democracy, many parties by the 1970s and 1980s began to adopt recommendations and targets for the selection of female candidates. This in turn led to growing differences among the parties in terms of the proportion of elected women representing them in the parliament.


Eventually, the various party efforts to increase women’s representation led to the achievement of critical mass (30% +) of women in parliament in 1985. In the same year, the government appointed the Commission on the Representation of Women to investigate existing nomination practices and proposed measures to foster gender balance at different levels of government. Starting with women’s appointments to local and national committees, this Commission recommended that the government pass legislation to address women’s low levels of underrepresentation in these bodies, for which a set of quotas were approved by the parliament in 1988. These quota discussions moved from the appointed committees to elected bodies when for the first time since winning the vote, the proportion of women in the Swedish Parliament (the Riksdag) declined from 38 percent in 1988 to 34 percent in 1991(Bergqvist and Findlay 1999). This reversal sent shockwaves across Sweden, where the common belief was that the trend of increased female representation was irreversible. Quotas for the Swedish Parliament would not in fact have entered public discussion if a decline in women’s political presence had not occurred. This decline proved women’s demands that political institutions, in this case political parties, must actively take measures to increase women’s presence in the parliament; it also politicized the discussion on the public level.


Thus, in the 1990s a group of women called Support Stockings began to secretly meet to discuss the reasons for the fewer numbers of female parliamentarians, and then lobbied using the slogan “a whole salary and half the power” – meaning equal pay for equal work and women holding half the political power. This group threatened the established party structure, as many women inside the parties supported the goal of varannan damernas (a requirement that parties alternate men and women on their candidate lists), and party leaders feared they would defect to form a new women’s party. These efforts eventually led to most parties agreeing to alternately list men and women in their party lists by the late 1990s, although many still refused to refer to this as a “quota”. There were a number of arguments presented by the parties for their refusal of gender quotas. The most frequent was that quotas infringed on democracy by interfering with public choice. Thus, many party leaders preferred the term varannan damernas as it alluded to equal division between men and women, while they feared quotas could imply that the women selected might not otherwise be qualified. The supporters of this measure tactfully emphasized its equality provision rather than the fact that it was essentially a 50 percent quota. This is referred to as “framing” the issue in a way as to gain supporters, and can be an important strategy for quota advocates, depending on the contexts. Currently, the major Swedish parties have adopted different types of quotas, ranging from the Social Democratic Party’s 50% quota of varannan damernas (also referred to as the Zipper style as it alternates between a man and a woman’s name on party lists), to the Left Party’s 50% minimum quota for women on party lists, and the Christian Democratic Party’s 40% gender neutral recommendation which means both genders have to be represented by the at least 40% on electoral ballots (International IDEA 2006).


The Implementation of Quotas in Sweden: Similar to other Nordic states, the implementation of party gender quotas in Sweden varied according to the degree of party commitment to adopt the voluntary quota. Those parties (majority leftist) that adopted alternated lists (varannan damernas) were able to increase the number of women elected to parliament, from 34 percent in 1991 to 41 percent in 1994. Among the most important factors that led to successful implementation of quotas in Sweden was the commitment of quota advocates, namely the women committee members of left leaning parties who continuously campaigned for increased female representation. In the subsequent 1998 election, the remainder of the major parties (mostly right leaning) established various gender thresholds which enabled them to elect at least 30 percent women; increasing the overall percentage of women parliamentarians to 43 percent. While some parties did not adopt the alternated list system, a slight modification in the electoral system compensated for the absence of party quotas by allowing voters to choose women candidates, regardless of their ranking on the candidate list. Thus, through trial and error, quota advocates sought a system that was a better “fit” for the Swedish electoral system, whereby the closed list system was altered to allow “limited personal votes,” though completely open lists were not adopted (Ferrara 2003).6 Needless to say, this act alone helped increase women’s elections to the Swedish Parliament. Concerning the wording of the quota measures, party quotas differ from other types of quotas in that they are voluntary and thus lack legal mandates. Their implementation therefore depends on the commitment of the particular party to gender equality. In Sweden, women were able to politicize “sex” as a central criterion of candidate selection, which thus pressured parties to increase the proportion of women elected in order to adequately “represent” women as a constituency.


Party commitments to female representation increased following the decline in the number of female parliamentarians elected for the 1991 elections, thanks to feminists successfully pressuring party elites to adopt quotas to prevent another reversal. Nevertheless, the progress of women’s increased representation has been a gradual one, currently at 47 percent, despite the long history of women’s and various parties’ efforts.


Pros and Cons of the Swedish Gender Quotas: As illustrated, gender party quotas became a priority for Swedish feminists and women’s activists when women’s representation in parliament declined in the 1991 general elections. The subsequent adoption of quotas led to a gradual increase in women’s representation; all parties had at least 30% female candidates in the 2002 general elections; six parties had 40 percent, and two more than 50 percent women (Krook 2009, p. 128). The initial commitment to quotas by the left leaning parties politicized the issue of a balanced presence of female politicians and engendered widespread public support, forcing right-wing parties opposing quotas as undemocratic and anti-meritocratic, to themselves adopt gender quotas. Thus, although the quota debates began with leftist activists, more conservative parties were eventually pressured to accept quotas


In order to gain women’s votes. Party quotas do however have several limitations. The major concern is that since they are voluntary and not legally mandated, a party may abandon the quota at any time, potentially resulting in a decline in women’s representation. Secondly, since quota implementation is left up to the party, a party not truly committed to advancing women’s representation can still place women candidates in unwinnable positions or too low on the party list. Swedish activists recognized this problem early on, which is why they advocated the Zipper style quota. Lastly, gender quotas, similar to other affirmative action measures, are considered by some as undemocratic and thus less than ideal for addressing women’s underrepresentation. This controversial aspect of gender quotas has led many parties to adopt recommendations or targets instead, which may result in weaker implementation.


High Representation without Gender Quotas: The Case of Finland

Finland is one of the most interesting and key cases for feminist activists engaged in promoting electoral gender equality. Finland did not implement gender quotas at the national level and yet it was the first country in the world to reach a critical mass of women in national parliament. What has distinguished Finland is that, unlike most other established democracies, women received the right to vote at the same time as men and women’s issues have been debated in the Finnish Parliament from the start. Finland’s case indicates that where women were not excluded from the initial democratic political processes when political culture was being formed, their issues and concerns would have been present in parliament, since the delegates would have needed the support of women voters to elect them. As a successful case study, Finland is important for gender parity advocates to pay close attention to, as it holds valuable lessons for the kinds of argument as well as strategies that can be adopted in other contexts. Indeed, Finland’s unique experience of granting suffrage to men and women simultaneously impacted the legacy of democratization in the country as women were never subject to political exclusion.


However, looking at countries with higher levels of women’s representation beside Finland, there seems to be a range of strategies that have been adopted. As of 2010, six of the 24 countries that have achieved critical mass in their national parliaments, namely Cuba, Finland, Denmark, New Zealand, Andorra, and Belarus, do not currently use gender quotas for their national legislatures; though some may have adopted targets or non-formal quotas, as is the case in New Zealand. Aside from these various case studies point to other strategies that were adopted in hopes to increase women’s parliamentary presence, some more successful than others. For instance, some countries, such as Pakistan, India and France, adopted quotas for local elections on the assumption that this would eventually lead to women’s increasing success in national elections. However the very successful municipal quotas in India (Baviskar and Mathew 2009) did not lead to an increase of women MPs, and it was only after many attempts and a somewhat bitter struggle by women’s rights activists that a gender quota was finally adopted by the upper house of the Indian Parliament in March 2010 (International IDEA and Stockholm University 2010).


Party or state ideology also seems to contribute to high female representation without gender quotas. The political culture of communist states, for example, tends to enable higher percentages of female representatives – as was illustrated by the sudden drop in the worldwide average of women parliamentarians, which fell from 14.3 percent in 1988 to 10.3 percent in 1993, due to the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989. It is also argued that a strong and sustained women’s movement in the Nordic states has played a key role in increasing the number of women in office (Freidenvall, Dahlerup, and Skjeie 2006; Dahlerup 2005). Some scholars claim that Nordic societies are inherently gender equal, with a cultural openness to women’s presence in the public sphere (Inglehart 2003). This argument downplays the very real efforts of women and civil society that contributed to making these cultures more women-friendly, while at the same time suggesting the exclusion of women is based on “culture” as opposed to state institutions that systematically discriminate against women. Culture is not fixed, but is continually contested and changing. It is necessary to analyze why the political structure in a given state can be so resistant to women before proceeding to explore which factors can result in higher proportions of female parliamentarians in a given context. With reference to this, we discuss the case of Finland.


Finland is a state of many political firsts: in 1906 Finland was the first European country to grant universal suffrage to all citizens, regardless of gender, above 24 years of age, and in March 1907 held the first elections for its unicameral parliament. The significance of these general elections for women is illustrated by advertisements that urged Finnish women to ensure the election of a sufficient number of women, stating “…women are best at interpreting women’s wishes” (Eduskunta 2006). In that election, women outvoted men in many districts, and nineteen women were elected to the first Finnish Parliament out of a total of two hundred female candidates. Although the number of female representatives dropped in the next dozen general elections, it gradually rose once again in the 1960s. In 1983, 77 years after women were enfranchised, Finland became the first nation in the world to achieve critical mass of women in parliament. Currently, among the Nordic states, Finland has the third highest percentage of female parliamentarians, after Sweden (45%) and Iceland (42.9%). Overall, the women of Finland have had a remarkable level of participation in politics, particularly as voters and members of parliament. According to a 2006 Parliament of Finland report, since the 1907 parliamentary elections women have accounted for more than 52 percent of the electorate and the turnout of eligible female voters has ranged from 52 to 84 percent. This has ensured that Finnish Members of Parliament have remained very attentive to female constituencies. Strong women’s rights advocates in parliament have continued to raise women’s issues and tackle gender specific problems, helping to promote women’s concerns. For instance, during the very first Parliament in 1907, female parliamentarians presented 26 bills, including an initiative concerning women’s safety in the streets. In later parliaments women legislators across party lines have successfully fought for maternity care, women’s property acts, child custody, and more.


Although female MPs have raised the possibility of forming a women’s party, the majority of female parliamentarians have concluded that women’s issues are best furthered through collaboration with their male colleagues. And because an active women’s movement has continued to highlight the significance of the female vote, male MPs have tended to support legislation promoting women’s equal rights. However, in order to enhance cooperation among members of parliament across party lines, in 1991 female MPs set up the Network of Women in Finland’s Parliament (Eduskunta 2006). This has increased the voice of women MPs and enhanced their ability to gain support of male colleagues on gender equality issues. As opposed to creating an adversarial or segregationist dynamic that might have resulted from the establishment of a women’s party, this approach has increased parity and cooperation between male and female legislators.


Factors that Contributed to the High Levels of Female Representation

Various factors may have contributed to the high levels of female parliamentarians in the Finnish Parliament, the most significant of which will be briefly outlined here.


Finland Set the Trend: Finland was first country where women gained both the right to vote and to stand for election. Finland is unique in that suffrage was granted to men and women at the same time (in 1906), whereas most other European nations first enfranchised men, with women gaining the vote at later stages, the exception being some of the countries that won independence after World War II. The simultaneous enfranchisement of men and women certainly helped shape a culture of gender equality in Finland, wherein politics have never been perceived as an exclusively masculine arena and women’s interests have always been represented.


The Women’s Movement: A strong women’s movement, including the establishment in 1884 of the Finnish Women’s Association – which lobbied for voting rights for educated women – has continuously prioritized women’s issues (Sulkunen 2007). The movement’s strategy to work from within the party structure was significant; women activists saw parties as the true site for decision-making power, and thus party politics provided the best opportunity for the movement’s goals to be translated into reality. This strengthened ties between women activists and parties, helping advance women’s rights, as is further discussed below. The fact that Finnish women accounted for a majority of the electorate gave women’s rights activists the leverage to successfully pressure parties to adopt women’s issues. Thus, from the first parliament bills were passed supporting women’s issues.


The Electoral System: The design of Finland’s electoral system, formed with the input of the women’s movement, has greatly contributed to women’s political presence. As a result of the historically high female voter turnout and support of female candidates, explained earlier, parties have always had great incentive to have women on their party lists under the proportional representation electoral system. In establishing the electoral system in 1906, Finnish women’s movement opposed a closed List PR system wherein party officials rank candidates, and Finland adopted open party lists, whereby voters can select an individual candidate from the party list, allowing any candidate to receive individual preference votes. Seats are allocated to parties in proportion to the votes received and the candidates with the highest number of votes win the available seats. Under this system, women have performed remarkably well, evidently elected by a distinct women’s constituency.


This has been credited in large part to the women’s movement campaign urging women to vote for female candidates. The (majority) female electorate, presented with an open party list, has tended to vote for female candidates, sending women to parliament, as opposed to in a closed list system where parties rank the candidates regardless of the number of votes each receives. The open list system, combined with an active female constituency, have in the case of Finland rendered gender quotas unnecessary. Interestingly, according to research done by Elina Haavio-Mannila (1979), since 1906 Finnish women have stood for both parliamentary and local elections, but have generally been more successful in getting elected to the national parliament. According to her, this is primarily due to the lower visibility and campaigning efforts of individual candidates at the local level (Haavio-Mannila 1979). This trend may explain the state’s move to adopt a legislative measure to achieve near gender balance by appointing additional women to various municipal and government bodies when not enough have been directly elected, as further explained blow.


Cross-Party Collaboration among Female MPs: Although Finland has a multiparty system, female MPs have often cooperated across party lines on women’s issues as opposed to rigidly adhering to party platforms. This relative independence of female legislators and the alliance of female parliamentarians through the Network of Women in Finland’s Parliament is in part the result of the open list electoral system, as women representatives know that if they serve their constituencies well, they will likely be re-elected regardless of party politics. However, in recent years voting patterns in Finland show that both men and women vote for candidates of either sex (Kittilson 2006); whereas previously women were more likely to vote for female candidates, men are increasingly voting for female candidates as well. However, women’s parliamentary presence has been nearly stagnant in Finland since the 1980s (Kittilson 2006), and, according to a 2006 Parliament of Finland report, there continues to be significantly fewer female than male candidates, which impacts women’s proportional representation (Eduskunta 2006). Thus, in recent elections women have accounted for slightly less than 40 percent of all parliamentary candidates (Hellsten 2007).

Strong Social and Welfare Policies: From its earliest parliament, Finland has adopted strong social welfare policies supporting women’s concerns. These include policies concerning education, maternity welfare, healthcare and much more. Such legislation reflects the impact of the women’s movement and the high numbers of female parliamentarians. Increasingly, women MPs are responsible for social welfare sectors, in which many have the required expertise. About 23 percent of current female MPs have worked in the social welfare and health sectors, while many others have expertise in the educational

sector (Eduskunta 2006).


It is notable that though Finnish women have accomplished much in terms of access to politics and the ratification of women friendly laws, they nonetheless lag behind men in terms of political leadership positions, political candidacy, government-appointed positions, as well as in non-political areas such as business, unions, academia, media, etc. (Hellsten 2007). To address such gender imbalance in these areas, the state of Finland adopted the Act of Equality between Women and Men in 1987, which was an important response to the demands of the women’s movement for state commitment to gender equality.


This Act, which was amended twice in 1992 and 1995, not only banned direct or indirect gender discrimination in educational or professional entities, but also established a 40 percent minimum quota for both sexes in state committees and local level executive bodies. Although this quota does not apply to party lists or candidacy levels but rather to appointed positions, it nonetheless illustrates the state’s commitment to increase women’s presence across all areas. Thus, although Finland has accomplished substantive female representation, with women’s rights supported through state legislation and women-friendly laws, it still lacks descriptive female representation in that men continue to outnumber women in many leadership and managerial positions in both state and nonstate sectors. Thus, even as activists in many nations strive to reach levels comparable to Finland’s in terms of female representation, Finnish activists continue to push for enhanced female representation, particularly in terms of important decision-making positions.


Party Quotas in the United Kingdom: An Unsuccessful Case

While the United Kingdom (UK) also adopted voluntary party gender quotas, it has failed to reach a critical mass of women in parliament or the House of Commons. There are similarities and contrasts between the UK and the Nordic states in terms of history, socio-economics and politics. For instance, similar to women in the Nordic states, British women received the right to vote and to run for public office in the early 1900s (specifically in 1918). In common with other Western states, the UK has the important characteristics of a stable representative democracy in which women’s socio-economic position is relatively high. Party competition in the UK has also been conducive to enabling the push for gender quotas, and similar to other states, gender quotas were first adopted by left oriented parties and subsequently adopted by others in order to compete for the female vote. Women’s committees of the leftist parties were also influential actors in quota adoption (Kittilson 2006). Lastly, the level of female voter turnout in UK has been very similar to men’s since the 1970s, and at times even higher.


On the other hand, the democratic institutions and electoral systems of the Nordic states differ from those of the UK. While Nordic states use proportional representation, the UK currently utilizes the First Past the Post (FPTP) system, which is a type of majoritarian/plurality system, though that may change in 2011 if the public decides to reform to the Alternative Vote system which is a particular form of majoritarian system. Traditionally, UK’s political structure has supported a two-party system, wherein mostly two parties – Labour and Conservative – dominate; though in 2011 we witnessed a major shift as the Liberal Democratic Party, UK’s third party, entered into a coalition with the conservatives. Nonetheless, UK’s political culture differs from the Nordic context which functions under multi-party systems in multi-member districts. As explained earlier, UK’s current “winner takes all” FPTP electoral system negatively impacts women’s political representation, as they compete directly with systemically advantaged male candidates. The remainder of our discussion in this section will analyze the primary reasons why party gender quotas in the UK failed to substantially increase women’s representation. Specifically, we examine why the same type of quotas that were successful in the Nordic cases, failed in the UK.


In both Sweden and the UK, the campaign for gender party quotas began in the 1960s and gained momentum during the 1990s. Prior to the adoption of their first quotas, both states had low percentages of women in parliament: 14 percent in Sweden in 1970 and 9 percent in the British House of Commons in 1992 (Krook 2009, p.107). Currently, although both states have used quotas for several elections, the percentage of female Swedish parliamentarians has reached 47 percent, while in Britain it is at 22 percent. While the difference can in part be attributed to the number of years the quota has been in place, British women have also faced more obstacles: the FPTP electoral system, which has not been revised since the 19th century despite significant social and demographic change; and the relative absence of an organized campaign by women’s rights activists directed at political representation; in combination with a competitive dual party structure. The central reasons for the shortcomings in the British case can be summarized as follows:


The Electoral System and Legal Barriers: Much of the comparative research concerning party quotas in the UK blames their failure on Britain’s First Past the Post system (which may result in either majoritarian or plurality outcomes depending on number of candidates running) and its related institutions. Under this system voters vote for individual candidates rather than party lists, so voluntary party quotas cannot apply to party lists. The UK women’s movement thus advocated another strategy, pushing for an “All Women Shortlist” (AWS), which was adopted by the Labour Party in 1993- 94, mandating that in 50% of upcoming “inheritor” seats (seats vacant due to retirement) and in 50% of “strong challenger” seats (seats deemed most winnable), the party would put forward a short list of only women candidates, to ensure an increase in the election of women. However, though the AWS applied to only half of specific types of seats (about 40 districts or ridings), many male politicians within the Labour Party saw the AWS as an infringement and took the party to court. Eventually, in 1996, the measure was declared illegal, in violation of the 1975 Sex Discrimination Act, on the grounds that it discriminated against men (Kittilson 2006). The UK’s First-Past-the-Post electoral system was blamed in part for the vehement challenge by male Labour politicians to the AWS; since each party can nominate only one candidate for each single-member district, male politician’s saw their dominance and sphere of influence would be limited by the requirement to appoint women. Interestingly, despite the legal defeat of the AWS, the Labour Party was able to garner enough support from its members to partially apply the quota in about half of its “winnable seats” in the 1997 elections. Even with this marginal application, the AWS helped double the percentage of women in the national parliament, from 9.5 to 18.2 percent. Sixty-four percent of female representatives elected to parliament that year were from the Labour Party.


Furthermore, the legal defeat of the AWS fuelled the women in the Labour Party and women’s movement to come up with innovative strategies to ensure women’s election to the newly devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. The first strategy was to mobilize support for the establishment of parliaments in Scotland and Wales, with emphasis on adoption of a women friendlier electoral system than the one used in the UK. The result was the adoption of a mixed electoral system for both assemblies, in which a portion of the seats are filled through the FPTP plurality system and the remainder through List Proportional Representation. Also thanks to continued mobilization the advocates of gender equality were able to make alliances with the Scottish and Wales nationalist movements and gain a commitment to equal representation in the new assemblies from political elites, and ensure provisions for women to be included to achieve this goal. Consequently, for the first elections for Scottish Parliament and the Welsh National Assembly in 1999, the Labour Party used a candidate selection system for the seats to be filled by the plurality system by “twinning” neighboring seats, whereby electoral districts were paired according to geography and “winnability”, with a woman selected to run in one of the paired districts and a man in the other. Therefore, this strategy which was used for the plurality seats coupled with a list proportional representation electoral system for the remainder of the devolved assemblies’ seats, resulted in significantly high percentages of women’s representation. Also the “twinning” strategy was more difficult to denounce than the All Women Shortlist system, since it could not be claimed to discriminate against men. This led to the election of 38% women to the Scottish Parliament and 43% women to the Welsh National Assembly, which sent a powerful message to the political elites that the public was willing to vote for female candidates over males. Interestingly, women performed better in terms of election to the plurality seats than in the proportional representation seats since parties tended to nominate women low on party lists whereas “twinning” was a firmer commitment to nominate women for the single-member districts. The Labour Party election inspired other parties in Scotland and Wales to slightly adjust their candidate selection procedures in 2003, which led to a jump in women’s representation to 43% in Scotland’s parliament and 50% in the National Assembly in Wales.


Back in England, women in Labour focused on legal rather than institutional strategies to increase women’s representation, emphasizing revision of the Sex Discrimination Act as a means to avoid future legal contestation of measures to counteract discrimination. This strategy was deemed more realistic than demanding institutional modifications, such as attempting to lobby for a switch to proportional representation. Their primary thrust included lobbying for legal recourse to address the importance of increasing abysmally low minority representation along with addressing political gender imbalance. Since European Union law allowed provisions to counter historical discrimination in various arenas, including political candidacy, this provided the Labour women with ammunition to demand change of the Discrimination Act. Eventually, efforts paid off when, after the 2001 general elections (in which women’s representation dropped), parliament passed an amendment to the Sex Discrimination Act, which allowed (but did not require) political parties to adopt measures to boost women’s election. This reform enabled Labour to reintroduce All Women Shortlists for the 2005 elections, but only in 30 “winnable” constituencies; however, the party did not win all of these. Thus, women are still underrepresented

in the House of Commons.


Political Party Structure: Related to the UK’s majoritarian electoral system is the state’s political party structure whereby in practice it is only the two main parties that compete for representation of single-member districts. The emerging third party, the Liberal Democratic Party, has yet to assume a real presence in the House of Commons, although it entered into a coalition with Conservatives after the 2010 parliamentary elections. From the 143 women (out of 650 total MPs) that were elected to parliament in 2010, only seven were from the Liberal Democratic Party. Concerning gender quotas, the Liberal Democrats initiated the debate as well as the use of the All Women Shortlists, but the party’s small size and lack of influential actors meant that no formal quotas were ever adopted. The Conservative Party has always resisted any form of quota, using the argument of merit based nominations.


However, this shifted significantly in February 2010, when for the first time a Conservative leader, David Cameron, acknowledged the importance of All Women Shortlists to address the abysmally slow increase in female MPs. This is credited to the fact that Conservatives can no longer ignore the female voting bloc pressuring for increased women’s presence, and are likely to be forced to pay at least lip-service to demands for a quota of some sort. The Conservatives won the May 2010 general elections which saw the election of 143 (22%) female parliamentarians, of whom an unprecedented 48 are Conservative. However, the majority of the women in the House of Commons are from the Labour Party, which currently has more than 80 female MPs. A two or three party, single-member district system, where one party dominates during a given mandate, is in general less vulnerable to pressures to increase women’s representation.


Overall, the British voluntary gender quota case faced many obstacles that the Nordic cases did not. These ranged from a majoritarian/plurality electoral system, to legal and institutional barriers, as well as limited strategizing from key actors. Considering that quota adoption, implementation, and impact on increasing women’s representation are multi-faceted, experts and activists advocate harmonized reforms to ensure that quota systems match the political and structural institutions. In the case of the UK, quota initiatives should have been matched with institutional and practical reforms, such as altering the electoral system, as occurred for the elections to the National Assemblies of Scotland and Wales; or alternatively adopting a quota measure that is more gender neutral (hence less controversial) such as Scotland and Wales’ “twining strategy,” which nominated a man and a women to each of the twinned neighboring seats according to geography and “winnability”. As mentioned above, UK is currently in the process of reforming its electoral system to one in which minority or third parties have better chances of gaining votes. Hence, this is opportune times for the British women’s movements to push for further structural or institutional reforms that also address women’s political underrepresentation.

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