Legislative Electoral Systems’ Effect on Gender Parity

Maya Efrati
The saying is that women hold up half the sky. But if that’s the case, they must be doing so silently – at least in government. Women’s representation, even in Western and supposedly equal nations, is dismal; gender inequality is a problem in legislative systems around the world. Worldwide, the average representation of women in national legislatures is below half of the actual proportional representation of women, at approximately 21 per cent. In the U.S., the average is even worse, at approximately 20 per cent. In the U.S. Senate, House of Representatives, statewide executives’ offices, and local government, women occupy less than 20 per cent of all seats on average; the number is only slightly higher in state legislatures at 24 per cent, but remains below half of real gender parity. In this context, the failure to elect Hillary Clinton, the first female presidential candidate of a major political party in the U.S., after a campaign marked extensively by sexism and voter perceptions heavily influenced by gender norms and societal restraints, should not be surprising. The continued nature of the problem suggests that it’s structural: the lack of gender parity is a built-in flaw of the system. For any believer in equality, it is clear that the status quo cannot stand.

The highest average of female representation is found in proportional legislative systems at 25.28 per cent.

Many argue that proportional electoral systems lead to high female representation, and some scholars have investigated this connection¹. Research has shown² that these systems lead to greater numbers of women elected into the legislature, with proportional representation especially successful in electing office holders who are representative of their constituents in gender, religion, race, and more. These claims are backed by data: when one distinguishes between electoral systems based on proportionality, a wide disparity in female representation becomes apparent. When categorizing countries by their electoral systems, majoritarian systems (in which oclintonne winner captures all) are significantly further away from gender parity than either proportional (in which the proportion of legislative wins reflects the proportional share of the vote), mixed, or appointed and indirectly elected systems. While the overall global average of female representation is 21.37 per cent, the average in majoritarian legislative systems is 15.78 per cent, the average in mixed legislative systems is 25.04 per cent, and the average in appointed or indirectly elected legislative systems is 22.25 per cent. Tellingly, the highest average is found in proportional legislative systems at 25.28 per cent. A similar and at times even greater correlation is found when countries with the same kind of electoral system are grouped by region, with only one region experiencing greater gender representation in a majoritarian legislative system. This vast disparity in female representation seen in different countries’ legislatures suggests that the system itself influences how gender is represented in the national legislature.

(Worldwide, by national legislative body) Overall Majoritarian Mixed System Proportional Appointed or Indirectly Elected
21.37% 15.78% 25.04% 25.28% 22.25%


(Regional, by national legislative body) Overall Majoritarian Mixed System Proportional Appointed or Indirectly Elected
Arab States 12.91% 8.08% 20.50% 21.70% 12.18%
CIS (Frmr Soviet Rep.) 12.81% 23.74% 14.10% 19.00% 15.10%
Asia & Pacific 15.65% 13.47% 19.71% 19.21% 16.30%
Africa 22.28% 16.65% 26.89% 27.39% 24.29%
Latin American 24.34% 17.81% 30.39% 27.04% 28.41%

*Both tables are original analysis of data collected by FairVote and the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

These findings indicate that majoritarian systems tend to be worse for women’s representation; with the U.S. as a prime example of this phenomenon. States with multi-winner districts, which are proportional in nature, elect more women. Research has shown that state legislatures with at least some seats won through systems of proportional representation elected approximately a third more women than those with solely majoritarian electoral systems. Some may try to dismiss this data with claims that American exceptionalism requires some other explanation, but while the interdependence of race, socio-economic conditions, and gender makes causal claims difficult, the reality is that these U.S. figures are actually reflected internationally as well. Over the past 50 years, proportional-based elections resulted in 35 per cent more women in national legislatures worldwide. As we look to improve the American political system, we must look to the international arena for lessons to apply.


Systemic barriers for women to hold elected office undermine both the principle of equality and the legitimacy of our elected government. The solution lies, in part, in electoral systems that enable more women to run for—and win—political office. Changes in electoral infrastructure should begin with local and state level elections. Voters can be educated thoroughly and quickly, ensuring elections in which unfamiliarity will not distort the will of the people; the changes can be implemented most easily, as it will be done on a case-by-case basis; the system can be tailored towards the specific needs of the community; new voting processes can be legally justified with states considered laboratories of experimentation and so subject to broader and more lenient legal interpretation doctrines; and finally, any problems can be quickly spotted, and so solved, without disrupting either the voting itself or the legislatures’ duties. One example of success accompanying these structural reforms is in the Bay Area of California, where proportional representation elections led to significant increases in the proportion of women elected.

In addition to infrastructure, two other major elements for progress toward gender parity should be implemented simultaneously. First, the actions of electoral gatekeepers – that is, those structures that potential candidates encounter before running for office – must be adjusted to eliminate obstacles to gender parity. For example, parties can do more to encourage gender parity; guidelines encouraging this goal have long been for party leadership committees, delegates, and state delegations. Second, legislative practices, particularly those which affect elected officials’ ability to serve as legislators, can help shift the overall dynamic toward eventual gender parity. This can range from changing internal legislature culture (such as holding small group meetings for officials from underrepresented groups) to laws regarding scheduling and compensation, and more.

The women who hold up half the sky must be sure they do so with an equal voice in the legislative arena.

On the road to true gender parity in politics, structural elements are critical. But so is civil society–public conversation on the topic must continue. The decision last year by Canada’s Prime Minister Trudeau to appoint women to half his cabinet positions – and his comment that it was done “because it’s 2015”– is exactly the kind of action needed. Continued conversation among political leaders is also essential for progress. We need a broad commitment to implement data-supported policies with the potential to encourage gender parity in legislative bodies. The women who hold up half the sky must be sure they do so with an equal voice in the legislative arena.

¹ Holmsten, S., Hughes, M., and Moser, R. (2016, August). PR Alone Is Not Enough: Proportional Representation and the Election of Women and Ethnic Minorities.  Paper prepared for the 2016 American Political Science Association Conference, Philadelphia, P.A.

² John, S., Smith, H., and Zack, E. (2016, August). The Alternative Vote: Reconciling Two Wisdoms on Single-winner Systems and Descriptive Representative? Paper prepared for the 2016 American Political Science Association Conference, Philadelphia, P.A.

Maya Efrati is a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School (J.D.) and the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy (M.P.P). Her work focuses on issues of fair representation and government accountability, including gender parity, as well as voting rights, criminal justice, and judicial and electoral administration.


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