Gender Quotas as a Policy for Better Representation

Kongres Kobiet 2014. Photo by Lukas Plewnia. Wikimedia Commons.

“I think that I can represent women far more professionally than women can represent themselves in the Sejm.”

– Male parliamentarian in Poland, late 1990s

Communist-era Eastern Europe had more women in parliament than after Communism ended. After 1989, the number of women in parliament dropped dramatically across the region. Even though during Communism women had been strategically kept away from equal representation in the highest political positions and they had been stereotyped as caregivers, just like they are now, they were encouraged to work and take part in political life.

As Eastern European countries transitioned into democratic states under a predominantly male leadership, the drive to break all ties with the Communist past was so strong that it resulted in a radical traditionalization of gender roles. Democracy was a boys’ playground and women weren’t invited to most of the games.

As a result, in 1990s Eastern Europe, many men, and some women, did not think that equal representation in the parliament was important. By equal representation, we mean the same number of women in the parliament as men.

Meanwhile, many women, and some men, did believe it was important. These equality-focused women organized. They voiced their arguments to the public. Some of their main arguments were:

  • Women’s experiences matter for all policy, and especially for designing policy that impacts women.
  • Inequality between women and men is undemocratic.
  • We need a parliament that reflects the structure of the society, in which men and women constitute a half of the population each, i.e. a Sejm that looks like Poland.

Through organizing, women created a movement whose purpose was to bring more women into the halls of power. With the help of NGOs, they established formal partnerships between women’s movements and women MPs. They engaged in daily battles against gender stereotypes.

In this time, an idea spread throughout the world that had great success in putting more women into the legislative branch:

Gender quotas.

A quota, if we look in the dictionary, means “an amount of something that somebody expects or needs to have or achieve.” That “something to achieve” is equality. In democracy, and its parliament, that “something” should be an equal percentage of women and men.

One way to achieve equality is through gender quotas. These are rules designed to provide more opportunities for women to be candidates for office and to be in parliament.

There are many ways to create a quota. You can enshrine the quota in the constitution or in laws specific to elections. Political parties can simply say that they will include more women into their candidate lists. You can say that parliament has to be 50% women (as it is in France’s constitution), or that 40 percent of candidates for election should be women (as it is in Moldova’s election law).

As of 2022, there is some form of gender quota in almost every European country – but in Eastern Europe, most quotas are not mandated by law. Instead, most are a policy that parties voluntarily adopt. Parties self-regulate no one can punish these parties if they ignore their own policy. Of the 29 countries of Europe’s post-Communist world, only 14 have quotas as a national election law.

Poland’s Gender Quota Debate of 2010

We can illustrate how quotas became national policy by examining the case of Poland.

In the 1990s, Polish Members of Parliament (MPs) had been against gender quotas. They considered such policies as undesirable relics of the Communist era. But, as women’s movements inside and outside of parliament coalesced, sustained, and grew, they popularized the idea that gender quotas could be a short-term yet valuable step in the direction of equality.

In 2009, women activists, scholars, entrepreneurs, artists, journalists, labor union members, and regular citizens came together to establish an organization known as Women’s Congress [Kongres Kobiet], a grassroot initiative dedicated to gender equality. Right away, the Women’s Congress – which exists till this day – embarked on its first task to introduce gender quotas into the Polish law. To make it happen, the Women’s Congress had to submit a proposal of the legal act to the Sejm, the lower chamber of the Polish parliament, but only after collecting signatures of 100,000 citizens.

Sociologist and Women’s Congress activist Małgorzata Fuszara described this momentous time in a 2019 interview:

“To the very last moment, we had no idea whether we would succeed at collecting those signatures – it was nerve-racking! But it did engage a lot of women, a lot of people. Many people – and I heard it from my family and friends – took those [petition] lists to their workplaces, copied them, and collected the signatures. Those were very uplifting experiences and eventually we got more [signatures] than needed – I think they stopped counting at 120,000 officially confirmed signatures, so there must have been more; we estimate it could have been around 150,000.”

After a long campaign, a gender quota bill for local, national, and European Union Parliament elections was up for consideration in the Sejm. In 2010, there were three historic debates on the quota bill. After Professor Fuszara presented evidence about women’s under-representation in politics and the benefits of a gender quota bill, the MPs debated the topic.

Some of the debates voiced classic gender stereotypes. One MP, who was against the quota bill, said, “Dear ladies, believe me, I respect women, because they are active, educated, nice and amiable. I could multiply these adjectives.” (p. 183) Another, also against the bill, said, “I speak as a man who frequently kisses ladies’ hands, who gives them flowers, who kneeled when proposing to my wife…” (Gender Quotas Book p. 127) Another said, “But I like to look at women so much! Look how lovely it is when parity is fulfilled. We would like parity to exist, to have more and more women – let me say this again – but we don’t want to be backed into a corner” (p. 195).

Some argued that quotas would bring unqualified women into parliament: “It shouldn’t be the case that, in a completely unnatural way and just to achieve parity, we would choose women who are completely unprepared for politics.” (p. 129). Research has shown that women, brought in through a quota rule, are no different than any other parliamentarian (p. 26)

Many of these opponents pointed to the constitution. In Articles 32 and 33 of Poland’s constitution:

“Article 32

All persons shall be equal before the law. All persons shall have the right to equal treatment by public authorities.

No one shall be discriminated against in political, social or economic life for any reason whatsoever.

Article 33

Men and women shall have equal rights in family, political, social and economic life in the Republic of Poland.

Men and women shall have equal rights, in particular, regarding education, employment and promotion, and shall have the right to equal compensation for work of similar value, to social security, to hold offices, and to receive public honors and decorations.”

Since the constitution grants everyone equal rights, some argued that, ironically, a gender quota is an anti-equality measure because it gives women an advantage over men. On this basis, they maintained that gender quotas are unconstitutional.

Yet, as we know, equal rights do not guarantee equal access. No matter the constitutional guarantees for rights of representation, women were not equal in actual representation. Not one quota in the world has been declared unconstitutional.

To further justify the legality of quotas, some reached beyond the Polish constitution to the international scene: “I would also like to note,” said an MP, “that article 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union states that the rule of equality does not hinder taking measures to ensure specific advantages for the underrepresented gender” (p. 193)

Some believed that it would be difficult to find enough women to run. MP Iwona Guzowska, a former professional boxer, said:

“I have never had to prove anything to anyone and don’t have to now. I have always felt a free person above all, who has the right to do what I wish to do. When I boxed, I cut new paths, because it didn’t fit with the accepted image of femininity, but I knew how to do it and derive immense pleasure from it, without forfeiting my femininity. I am aware that women fighting for parity are looking for long term solutions. They are active women, who want to have a say in politics, in public life. But I cannot believe that 50% of Polish women want to sit in the Parliament.”

Other proponents believed that the political scene would improve if there were more women in it: “And I am convinced of it, and certain that the quality of Polish politics will only change when more women sit in the Polish Parliament.” (189).

One way the political scene would improve is that the very legislative priorities of parliament would change. A woman MP asked, “Why is the gambling bill passed in less than 48 hours and why is it more important than the bill on daycares, where legislative work is going at a snail’s pace?” (p. 186) The implication was clear.

In December 2010, the Sejm MPs voted on the bill. Out of 404 MPs who voted, 241 were in favor, 154 were against, and 9 abstained. The gender quota bill passed. President Komorowski signed the bill into law in January 2011.

Are Quotas Effective?

Quotas are effective, but it is a long-term phenomenon. At the start, quotas tend to put fewer women in parliament than the policy intended, and they tend to put more ethnic majority women in parliament.

Yet, quotas have a larger societal impact: by placing more women in places of power, quotas lead to changes in parliament and parties, to new legislation that benefit women, and to transformation of society as whole.


All quotes are from the book, Gender Quotas in the Post-Communist World: Voice of the Parliamentarians (2020, IFiS PAN Publishers) edited by Joshua K. Dubrow and Adrianna Zabrzewska. You can download the book for free: