Gender Quotas and International Reputation

The forthcoming article “Gender Quotas and International Reputation” by Sarah Sunn Bush and Pär Zetterberg is summarized by the author(s) below.

“The RPF’s [Rwandan Patriotic Front] pro-women policies…give members of the diplomatic corps in Kigali liberty to overlook the regime’s authoritarianism and human rights abuses” (Burnet 2008, p. 371). 

Do authoritarian leaders successfully exploit gender equality policies to gain international recognition and enhance their chances for regime survival? We address this question by analyzing one of the most significant institutional developments of the last thirty years: the global spread of electoral gender quotas, which has transformed the composition of legislatures in more than 100 countries, including many non-democracies. A prominent explanation for autocracies’ embrace of quotas is that quotas and women’s political representation, by being intimately connected to democracy, enhance countries’ international reputations for democracy and therefore deflect external pressure to democratize 

Case studies from a range of non-democracies — including BangladeshCameroonEthiopiaJordanMoroccoRwanda, and Uganda — emphasize how political elites have sought to improve their countries’ international reputations for democracy, and leverage improved reputations into increased foreign aid, through quotas and women’s representation. Yet a key question has remained unanswered: Do electoral autocracies really improve their reputations through the adoption of gender quotas?  

Wanswered that question by conducting original surveys in Sweden and the United States. In both countries, we asked respondents to evaluate a hypothetical developing country that was an electoral autocracy. We varied two traits about the country: the presence or absence of a gender quota, and the proportion of women in the parliament. This design enabled us to identify the separate and combined effects of the existence of quotas and the level of women’s descriptive representation. We then asked people how democratic the country was and whether they supported giving it aid.  

Our findings support the idea that non-democracies secure benefits through reforms designed to increase women’s representationWomen’s descriptive representation increased support for aid in both Sweden and the United States, and the mere existence of a quota increased support for aid in the United States, though not in Sweden. This pattern suggests that for Swedes, it is an improvement in women’s representation, one desired effect of quotas, rather than the existence of quotas, that mattered. Women’s representation also enhanced perceptions of democracy in Sweden. This relationship did not hold, however, in the United States, perhaps reflecting the fact that less than 20% of representatives in the U.S. Congress are women but the country is widely considered (including by its citizens) to be democratic.  

Since an improved performance in terms of women’s political inclusion spills over to countries’ reputations for democracy, it may strengthen non-democracies and help them survive. Though the survival benefits may come in many forms, one clear example comes from the effects we identify in terms of support for foreign aid. As a consequence, international organizations and donor countries should be cautious when evaluating and engaging with these regimes.  

About the Author(s): Sarah Sunn Bush is Associate Professor on term at the Department of Political Science, Yale University and Pär Zetterberg is Associate Professor of Political Science at the Department of Government, Uppsala University. Their research “Gender Quotas and International Reputation” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science. 



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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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