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Twenty years after the most important U.N. conference on women, what – if anything – has changed?

- September 25, 2015

In this 1995 file photo, a Chinese volunteer hands out a copy of the official poster for the United Nations’ Women’s Conference in Beijing. (Mike Fiala/AP Photo)
On Sunday, more than 70 world leaders are expected to participate in a United Nations meeting in New York on gender equality, a 20th anniversary commemoration of the most important United Nations conference on women that was held in Beijing in September 1995 and attended by 37,000 national representatives, U.N. officials, and women’s rights activists. At the Beijing conference, first lady Hillary Clinton famously asserted, “Women’s rights are human rights,” which to this day has inspired women’s mobilization around the globe.
But while women around the world were energized in 1995 to take steps to improve their status, the United States has fallen behind in many key areas. When ranked according to women’s legislative representation, the United States slid from 53rd to 76th place in the world over the past 20 years.
One of the most enduring legacies of the Beijing conference was that its “Platform for Action” galvanized governments to start adopting measures to increase the political representation of women and to increase their capacity to participate fully in decision-making and leadership. As a result, the proportion of women parliamentarians jumped from 9 percent in 1995 to 22 percent today, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.
Inspired by the Platform for Action, women’s activists, party activists, and government officials lobbied for the adoption of gender quotas, mandates that increase the likelihood that women are elected to office, usually by requiring a certain percentage of women candidates or reserving women-only seats in the legislature. Countries adopting quotas include both dictatorships and democracies and range from very poor to very rich.
Some of the countries with the highest rates of women’s representation are post-conflict countries that adopted quotas. For example, after the genocide in Rwanda, the percent of female parliamentarians leaped spectacularly from 17 percent in 1994 to 64 percent in 2014, the highest level of representation of women in the world today.
Today, political parties or governments in more than 111 countries use some form of quota in legislative elections. According to the Quota Project’s latest information, in 49 countries, political parties that are represented in parliament have voluntarily adopted quotas; 52 countries have passed legislation requiring all parties to adopt a quota system; and 24 countries have reserved seats that only women can run for, regardless of party affiliation.
We examined the global impact of gender quotas on women’s representation in our 2008 study of 153 countries. Controlling for other factors previously shown to have an impact on representation (e.g., type of electoral system), we found gender quotas to be the strongest factor influencing women’s legislative representation.
Even in countries with predominantly Muslim populations that were seen as lagging behind other countries when it came to women’s entry into politics, we began to see significant changes as more countries adopted gender quotas, especially after 2010. For example, women today hold 43 percent of the seats in parliament in predominantly Muslim Senegal. In North Africa the changes are palpable, as women hold 32 percent and 31 percent of the seats in Algeria and Tunisia respectively, which is considerably higher than the 19 percent level found in the United States House (20 percent in the Senate).
In the United States and other countries, arguments are raised against gender quotas, but many don’t stand up to scrutiny. For example, the argument that only the most qualified individuals should hold positions of power ignores the fact that parties and leaders often take into consideration other factors, such as geographic representation, and unconsciously or consciously tend to recruit candidates from their own male-dominated networks.
In spite of what detractors say, studies show that women who benefit from quotas are as qualified as men. Research by political scientists Susan Franceschet, Jennifer Piscopo, and Diana O’Brien in a recent edited volume finds that male and female lawmakers have similar levels of education or previous electoral experience in countries as diverse as Argentina and Uganda. Both countries have used gender quotas for more than two decades.
Another concern about gender quotas is that once in office, female lawmakers may be too timid or too powerless to affect change, but this may have more to do with party dynamics or the national context – where not just female but also male lawmakers encounter obstacles in affecting change.
The concern that women may be too inexperienced or uneducated to hold office is challenged by studies of quotas in the world’s largest democracy, India. One widely cited study by Raghabendra Chattopadhyay and Esther Duflo finds that women in positions of power on local village councils respond to women’s demands more so than their male counterparts in the states of West Bengal and Rajasthan. Similarly, research by Lori Beaman and her colleagues finds that the mandated presence of women in politics has a positive impact on voter attitudes to female leaders and girls’ career aspirations and educational outcomes. The gender quotas in the local government gram panchayats were so successful that the government allowed states to increase female representation from 30 percent to 50 percent at all local government levels.
Today, quotas have expanded to other areas, such as corporate boards, election commissions, executive cabinets, and the judiciary. International bodies, such as the African Union and the International Criminal Court, have affirmative action principles embedded in them. Quotas have also been used to promote the representation of those living with disabilities and ethnic minorities.
Yet, even with increased efforts to boost women’s political representation, the gender gap in politics is one of the largest, especially compared with the gender gap in education and health, where according to the World Economic Forum, it has narrowed considerably. Still today, only 11 heads of state and 13 heads of government are female, while only 17 percent of government ministers are women according to UN Women.
An American sounded the clarion call for women’s mobilization two decades ago at the U.N. Beijing Conference. Yet ironically in the United States there is virtually no debate around how to increase women’s political representation as we fall further behind other countries. If something is to be learned from the rest of the world, it is that the introduction of gender quotas has brought more women into political leadership.
Aili Mari Tripp is professor of political science and gender & women’s studies at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. Her book, “Women and Power in Postconflict Africa,” will be available in November. Alice Kang is assistant professor of political science and ethnic studies at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln and author of “Bargaining for Women’s Rights: Activism in an Aspiring Muslim Democracy.”