Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man

More than 100 countries have a gender quota, or an effort to increase gender equality and representation, in their political system. Many opponents of gender quotas argue that women elected via quotas are not always the most qualified candidates; the quotas may displace qualified men; and the quotas are not compatible with meritocratic principles and incentives. However, despite the years of debate, exactly how gender quotas affect the competence of elected officials – whether women or men – has rarely been studied.

Our study provides unique insight on quotas, while advancing the research and measurement of competence in political selection. We observe Swedish political organizations and find that quotas can actually increase the overall competence of politicians through the displacement of mediocre male candidates and leaders. Our study finds that:

• In a Swedish municipality where the quota raised female political representation from 35 to 50 percentage points, the proportion of competent male political leaders – measured by their private income, relative to a very tightly defined comparison group – increased by eight percentage points.

• In the first election after the quota, the share of competent political leaders serving in the highest ranks increased significantly, while the share of competent junior politicians increased in the following two elections.

• Mediocre leaders tend to resign, or are kicked out, in the wake of more gender parity. New leaders elected to fill these voids are (on average) more competent and also support more capable junior candidates within the party since they do not feel threatened.

Gender quotas can challenge an established, and sometimes less competent, political class, forcing mediocre leaders out while increasing the number of competent politicians elected to office.

Our results indicate that gender quotas can challenge an established, and sometimes less competent, political class, forcing mediocre leaders out while increasing the number of competent politicians elected to office. Even though the study is confined to political organizations, these findings may hold true in other settings, including the private sector.

To establish these findings, we took advantage of a natural experiment in Sweden when the Social Democratic party voluntarily introduced a strict gender quota for its candidates in local elections in 1993. During internal discussions of the reform, the party’s women’s branch observed that some men were more critical of the quota than others. The quota became known as the “Crisis of the Mediocre Man,” since the least competent men had the most to fear from an influx of women into politics.

In addition to gender quotas providing more opportunities for women, they can also have a strategic effect on the selection of political leaders. Mediocre political leaders have a strong incentive to surround themselves with mediocre followers in order to bolster their chance of remaining in power. A less acknowledged role of quotas is to threaten such mutually advantageous political arrangements, resulting in mediocre leaders being forced out of power.

Before the results of our research can be discussed in depth, it is important to understand how the gender quota changed Swedish local election procedures and how a measure of “political competence” was developed using unique data.

Local Elections in Sweden

Swedish candidates for local council are elected in rank order via a strict party-list system where political parties make lists of candidates to be elected, and seats are allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes received. The Social Democratic quota introduced in 1993 mandated that the ballot be “zipped”, which meant alternating male and female names throughout the list. Since a party’s elected representatives are counted from the top of the ballot, zipping ensures a 50-50 balance in the proportion of men and women. On average, the proportion of elected women increased by 10 percentage points after the quota was implemented. However, the starting point differed a great deal. Some localities were already near gender parity and were not significantly affected by the reform. Others had low shares of women – as low as 15-20 percent – and saw a dramatic effect with the quota.

Measuring Political Competence

In addition to assessing the effect of gender quotas on female representation, the study also utilizes a unique data set to develop a new way of gauging competence. Existing research measuring competence relies mostly on education levels, but education and social background tend to be dependent on each other. Instead, our measure of competence relies on a comparison of the private income levels across people with the same education, occupation, age, and residence in the same geographical region (municipal council positions in Sweden are part-time commitments and members typically keep their private job). We define a competent politician as a person who makes more than the median income amongst politicians with similar characteristics. This competence measure is closely correlated with results from military enlistments tests of the intelligence and leadership capacity of those who serve in the armed forces. Our competence metric also correlates closely to other measures of political success and the quality of municipal service delivery.

Using our measure of competence, we find strong evidence of complacent political arrangements prior to the quota, with mediocre leaders selecting mediocre followers. We find significant improvements in the political competence of both leaders and followers after a quota is implemented.

Effects of Gender Quotas

Within each local party, we compared the proportion of competent politicians in elections after the quota was enacted in 1993 to the 1991 level. The amount of competent female politicians did not change significantly after the quota. However, the share of competent male politicians increased in places where the quota had a larger impact, and the effect was concentrated to the three elections following the quota. In a municipality where the quota raised female representation from 25 to 50 percentage points, the proportion of competent men increased by 8 percentage points.

The left panel of Figure 1 (below) illustrates our estimates for politicians of both genders with black dots showing the change in the proportion of competent representatives in a party, which is forced to increase their share of women (by 100 percentage points). The right panel splits the results by men and women (blue dots for men and pink dots for women).

Figure 1. Effect of the gender quota on the competence of elected social-democratic politicians

Figure1aFigure1b

Note: Estimated impact of the bite of the gender quota on the fractions of competent municipal politicians (left) and competent men and women separately (right). Dots denote point estimates and bars 95% confidence intervals.

To better understand the results among male politicians, we gauge the effects by ranking in the political hierarchy. By comparing political “leaders” (the three highest ranked persons on the ballot) to “followers” (those elected from further down the ballot), we find that a more binding quota significantly raised the competence of leaders in the first election (in 1994), and significantly raised the competence of followers in the next two elections (in 1998 and 2002) (see Figure 2).

Figure 2. Effect of the gender quota on the fractions of competent male leaders and followers

Figure2

Note: Estimated impact of the bite of the gender quota on the fractions of competent male leaders (top-three people on the ballot) and followers (people elected further down the ballot) among the social democrats. Dots denote point estimates (black for leaders, gray for followers) and bars 95 percent confidence intervals.

The fact that competence increased for the top-ranked politicians shows that competence was affected through mechanisms other than pure competition, where the best men simply stayed on when fewer men were allowed on the ballot.

One of the other mechanisms at hand was leader resignation. A survival analysis comparing mediocre and competent leaders shows that mediocre leaders are much less likely to survive than competent leaders when their municipality is subject to a stricter quota. As Figure 3 illustrates, this is true for the three elections after the introduction of the quota in 1993. The results in Figure 2 and 3 suggest that quotas work in part by shifting incentives in the composition of party ballots. Mediocre leaders resign (or are kicked out) in the wake of more gender parity. Because new leaders (on average) are more competent, they feel less threatened by selecting more able candidates, which starts a virtuous circle of higher competence.

Figure 3. Effect of the gender quota on survival rates of mediocre and competent leaders

Figure3

Note: Estimated impact of the bite of the gender quota on the survival rate of mediocre leaders minus the survival rate of competent leaders among the social democrats. The estimates (based on a fully saturated triple-difference model) are shown as dots, and 95 percent confidence intervals are shown as bars.

Just as in politics, a quota has the potential to undercut the dominance of mediocre male leaders in private institutions, allowing more competent challengers to inject fresh and innovative ideas into the organization.

While the study focuses on politics, the results may be relevant when considering gender quotas in other organizations. Quotas for company boards currently exist in approximately ten countries and are being considered in others, including the European Union. Analyzing the impacts of board quotas are more complex than politics, especially since government mandated gender quotas often have long implementation periods as well as “pre-announced” plans or warnings. There are also ways for private firms to circumvent government rules such as delisting from the stock market. These factors make it difficult to identify who precisely is affected by the change and who to compare them with. However, some lessons from political parties can still apply. Many firms have a history of male-dominated leadership, with “locker-room” mentalities and biased selection procedures. This culture reinforces the selection of men, and leaders may feel more comfortable being surrounded by non-threatening mediocre males. Just as in politics, a quota has the potential to undercut the dominance of mediocre male leaders in private institutions, allowing more competent challengers to inject fresh and innovative ideas into the organization.

Further reading

Besley, Timothy, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson, and Johanna Rickne. 2017. “Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man: Theory and Evidence from Sweden.” American Economic Review107(8): 2204-42DOI: 10.1257/aer.20160080