More women in executive boards would change the prioritized policies, wouldn’t you think? New research shows us that may not be the case.

Quotas to get more women into boards have been used to promote gender equality in an increasing number of countries over the last years.

The assumption is that more women in board positions could lead to changes in how the world is ruled in both business and politics. As Barack Obama has put it, “empowering more women on the continent, that right away is going to, I think, lead to some better policies”. While this is a commonly invoked sentiment, real life is probably not be that simple.

Early mover, long-term effects

Norway was an early mover when it comes to implementing gender quotas. Already in the early 1990s, Norway legislated more equal gender representation in political, public- and private-sector executive decision-making bodies.

Economists Benny Geys and Rune Sørensen at BI Norwegian Business School have exploited the country’s 20 years of experience to get a better understanding of quota’s long time effects. Using local government data, Geys and Sørensen studied how the sudden increase in the number of women in positions of political power affected women’s overall political representation as well as local public policies across Norwegian municipalities.

No quick fix

For those with high hopes for the ripple effect of quotas, the study’s findings are disappointing. Although more women have entered executive boards, Geys and Sørensen found no consistent evidence for shifts in public policies due to this increased representation of women. This is true even for key social policy areas where female politicians profess stronger spending preferences.

These findings highlight that having more women in powerful political positions may remain ineffective without addressing other institutional, structural and organizational constraints restricting their influence on the policy process.

Geys and Sørensen’s research indicate that the empowering effects of the reform on female politicians appear to have been minimal in the Norwegian setting. The executive quota induced at best a modest increase in the representation of women in local councils, and did not affect the probability of selecting women for mayor or rådman (the top administrative position in Norwegian municipalities).

Possible explanations

Although the data does not offer clear reasons why the gender quota failed to generate an observable impact on public policies, Geys and Sørensen offer some suggestions.

One explanation might be that female politicians initially lack the political experience and networks to achieve their policy aims. Yet, such factors would automatically become resolved over time as women become embedded in the corridors of power. That does not appear to be the case in the Norwegian setting, even 25 years after the introduction of the original legislation.

Another possible explanation might be that other constraints prevent women reaching positions with executive power from shifting the course of public policies. Strong party discipline in Norwegian politics, for instance, limits the influence of individual politicians. Other parts of the local decision-making process remain controlled by men as most mayors and rådman (the top administrative position in Norwegian municipalities) remain male.

Key take-aways

The findings thus do not necessarily imply that getting more women in positions of political power cannot have substantive effects. However, any such impact can be forcefully undermined by the broader institutional context.

As more countries are introducing gender quotas around the world, policy makers should take these insights into account. They should search for additional – or alternative – approaches to enable women’s effective policy influence. Empowering more women is one thing, giving them an actual voice requires more than ‘just’ a quota.

Reference: 

Benny Geys, Rune J. Sørensen, The impact of women above the political glass ceiling: Evidence from a Norwegian executive gender quota reform,
Electoral Studies, Volume 60, 2019, 102050, ISSN 0261-3794,
https://doi.org/10.1016/j.electstud.2019.102050.

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