In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Electoral Institutions and Women’s Representation

  • Introduction
  • Candidate Selection

Political Science Electoral Institutions and Women’s Representation
Michael FitzGerald, Melody E. Valdini
  • LAST REVIEWED: 15 January 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 15 January 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0299


While there are many factors that drive women’s descriptive representation (i.e., the percentage of women in the legislature) the electoral institutions generate some of the most powerful and consistent effects. In the first breaths of this literature, the focus was firmly on the impact of majoritarian electoral systems versus proportional representation (PR) systems on women’s descriptive representation. Since then, the literature has grown to engage broader ideas regarding the complicated nature of analyzing institutions in different cultural contexts and under different social conditions. Particularly in the later decades of the 20th century, scholars found that structural factors, such as economic disparities between men and women and the balance of women in careers that are typical paths to political office, were important to consider in concert with electoral rules. More recently, as more women gain access to the economic elite, the literature has focused more on cultural factors such as the historical legacies of Communism and the general societal reactions to women’s leadership. These non-institutional factors are now widely engaged as an important component of understanding why and to what extent we can expect an electoral system to generate a certain outcome. Beyond the impact of the electoral system itself, there is also relevant literature that engages how electoral institutions such as gender quotas and candidate selection processes affect women’s descriptive representation. There is wide variation in the design of gender quotas as well as candidate selection processes, just as there is in the design of electoral systems, and therefore a fuller understanding of the relationship between electoral institutions and women’s representation requires consideration of the interaction of candidate selection procedures, gender quotas, and electoral systems. For example, the presence of a placement mandate (i.e., a requirement stipulating where on the list women candidates must be positioned) or a decentralized candidate selection process each has a different effect on women’s representation in an electoral system that includes a preference vote. The sections below highlight some of the existing literature on electoral institutions and their impact on women’s descriptive representation. This is by no means an exhaustive list but does offer insight into the general themes and research areas that are common in this field of study.

The Birth of the Field: The Impact of Plurality/Majority Versus Proportional Representation Systems

In the mid-20th century, scholars began to take note of the positive relationship between proportional representation electoral systems and the proportion of women legislators. But the critical step forward—and arguably the birth of this field—was when Wilma Rule and Pippa Norris introduced systematic analyses that engaged both multiple elements of the electoral system as well as the cultural and structural contexts. Their work established one of the most fundamental expectations of this research area that still holds true: the proportional electoral system is generally associated with increased numbers of women elected. As the field moved forward, scholars introduced more variables that moderated this relationship in new ways, including whether the list in PR systems is open or closed, the level of the electoral threshold and party magnitude, and the personal vote.

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