Gender quotas, competence, and careers

Olle Folke Torsten Persson Johanna Rickne

“Our analysis indicates that gender quotas are not anathema to meritocratic principles”, conclude researchers Olle Folke, Torsten Persson and Johanna Rickne.

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In the SNS research brief “Gender quotas, competence, and careers”, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson and Johanna Rickne present the results of two studies of a gender quota adopted in 1993 by Sweden’s Social Democratic party: Gender Quotas and the Crisis of the Mediocre Man: Theory and Evidence from Sweden, by Tim Besley, Tim, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson and Johanna Rickne, in the American Economic Review (forthcoming) and Gender Quotas and Women’s Political Leadership, by Diana O’Brien and Johanna Rickne in the American Political Science Review (2016).

More than 100 countries use one form or another of gender quotas in their political systems ( While accepting that they are based on underlying biases in gender representation, many opponents argue that such quotas offend meritocratic principles: women elected on the back of quotas need not be the most qualified and may displace qualified men. Another criticism is that quotas undercut women’s long-term career opportunities by raising mistrust in their competence.

The studies provide a unique window on quotas and, at the same time, push forward the measurement of competence in political selection. The statistical analysis is based on a gender quota adopted in 1993 by Sweden’s Social Democratic party. The quota was a “zippered” one, demanding that all party ballots alternate male and female names. Upon noticing that some men were more critical than others of the reform, the quota became known colloquially as the “Crisis of the Mediocre Man” in the party’s women’s branch.

The research asks what happened when the central party organization of the Social Democratic party imposed this zipper quota on 285 local (municipal) political parties from the 1994 election and onward. On average, the proportion of elected women increased by more than 10 percentage points in these local parties. But the starting point differed a great deal. Some localities were already near gender parity and not affected that much by the reform. Others had low initial shares of women and saw a dramatic quota effect on the order of 25 percentage points. The studies exploit this large variation. The researchers compare the development of competence and careers over time in these local parties, relating those developments to the size of the quota effect.

On competence, they find that the quota raised the competence of the political class in general, and among men in particular. Moreover, the quota was indeed bad news for mediocre male leaders who left politics at a faster rate in localities with a larger quota effect. The mechanism behind this result, we argue, is that the quota upset an existing non-meritocratic appointment pattern with mediocre male leaders showing preference for mediocre male followers.

As for careers, the researchers find that the quota raised the likelihood for female leadership in local Social Democratic parties. This means that the fast-track to women’s representation did not undermine women’s long-term careers and influence in these organizations. Rather, the quota accelerated women’s access to political influence by raising not only their number but also their access to positions of political leadership.


Olle Folke, Researcher, Department of Government, Uppsala University
Torsten Persson, Professor of Ecnonomics, Stockholm University
Johanna Rickne, Associate Professor of Economics, Stockholm University

The report recieved wide spread media attention, inlcuding an interview with Johanna Rickne on Swedish national public radio and the seminar was also broadcasted by Sweden’s public service television.