Quotas for advisory committees, business, and politics: just more of the same?

Mann/Frau Figuren - Schablone
Teaser Image Caption
Die Geschlechterquoten für die Politik liegen bei 50%. Die Geschlechterquoten für die Wirtschaft werden von einer größeren Zahl unterschiedlicher Sanktionen begleitet als die anderen Geschlechterquotengruppen

Over the last decades, norms, rules and processes of regulation have appeared with the goal of fostering gender equality. They take many forms, of which gender quotas are a very widespread and frequently used version. In this context, Holli (2011b) speaks of different generations of gender quotas. The first generation of gender quotas are for legislative elections. Indeed, gender quotas became mainly known since the 1990s as a means to promote women’s political representation (Dahlerup, 2006; Krook, 2009). Today about half of all the countries worldwide have some gender quota law regulating the number of men and women candidates for parliamentary elections (Dahlerup and Freidenvall, 2011). A second generation of gender quotas are for advisory boards or committees. There is much less literature on these quotas, and referring mainly to the Finnish case (Holli 2011a, b; Holli et al., 2006), but there are some additional countries around the world with this type of gender quota. The third and so far last generation of gender quotas are for company boards, to improve the gender ratio in boards of listed and state-owned companies. Today 13 OECD countries have adopted gender quotas applying to corporate management boards (Armstrong and Walby, 2012).

This article compares these different generations of gender quotas, but replaces ‘generations’ with the term ‘groups’ since the sequence Holli (2011b) puts forward is not necessarily the same in all countries. However, is it relevant to distinguish between different groups of gender quotas depending on the sphere they target (political, social, economic)? The underlying question is whether gender quotas targeting different spheres intrinsically differ from each other or whether the difference mainly resides in the sequence of adoption. To answer this question this article studies the gender quota laws that have been adopted in Belgium targeting federal advisory boards, electoral lists of candidates, and boards of listed and state owned companies, focusing on the rules adopted and the underlying rational. (...)

Comparing groups of gender quotas

Belgium is one of the few countries imposing gender quotas in the political, economic and social spheres. This allows for a comparative analysis of gender quotas across different sectors with key background variables such as the landscape of political actors, citizenship or gender regime, to be held constant. Five generic laws fit in one of the three groups: the 1990 law adopting gender quotas for federal advisory boards (referred to in this article as AB.1990), and its successor in 1997 (AB.1997); the 1994 law adopting gender quotas for electoral lists of candidates (EL.1994), and the 2002 successor laws (EL.2002); and the 2011 law adopting gender quotas for boards of listed and state-owned companies (B.2011).

The question is whether gender quotas targeting different spheres intrinsically differ from each other or whether the difference mainly resides in the sequence of adoption. There is an argument for both. It is plausible that different spheres of society handle different norms. Electoral politics is not business. While an equal number of men and women representing the population is a plausible argument for politics, since the population is to be represented, the argument of the business case is a plea for diverse expertise, not for proportionality. However, one could also argue that men and women should share power, in which case proportionality would be justified for the economic sphere, too. But if one argues that politics is an issue of deliberation, proportionality is not required. All this means that the percentage of gender quota set can differ from each other or not across the different spheres of society, and that the same goes for their naming and for the arguments put forward in the debates. Similarly, the gender quotas can differ or not in other respects, such as sanctions and supplementary rules imposed. It is again plausible that different rules are applied in different spheres of society. The conceptualisation of the function or different practices in the various sectors may instigate the use of sanctions or not or the use of different types of sanctions. Also, politicians might be stricter for themselves than for other sectors, but the opposite may be true as well. Hence, next to the percentage of gender quota, their naming, the arguments put forward in the debates, sanctions in case of non-compliance and other supplementary rules may vary or not.

There are thus two possible hypotheses. The first runs that gender quotas targeting different spheres of society differ from each other with respect to their rules and underlying rational. The counterhypothesis reads that gender quotas targeting different spheres of society do not differ from each other with respect to their rules and underlying rational. Given the exploratory character of this article, both hypotheses are taken into account. While variation between the different groups of gender quotas is an indicator for an intrinsic difference between them, its absence points to the likeliness that the difference mainly resides in the sequence of adoption.

For each of the five cases mentioned above, the gender quota and the parliamentary debates preceding their adoption will be analysed. Four major aspects of quota rules are examined: i) the quota (percentage) set, ii) its naming, iii) sanctions, and iv) eventual supplementary rules. The quota set and its naming are indicators for the goal put forward, sanctions and supplementary rules for the strictness of the quota. Next to this, the different arguments pro and contra gender quotas put forward are analysed in order to examine the rational underlying gender quota in the different social spheres. To this end a close reading of the parliamentary documents was undertaken, coding the different meanings of gender quotas. Meanings refer to the signification of gender quotas, to what they stand for or symbolize. For instance gender quotas can signify more (or less) democracy, a misrecognition of women’s skills, etc. This analysis left out other aspects put forward in the debates, such as the value of the advice formulated by the Council of State or other party initiatives related to the goal of gender quotas. Bills pass different stages before getting adopted. Each bill submitted is accompanied by a commentary (the so called toelichting or développements) explaining the motivation for that bill. The debates on the bill first take place within the parliamentary committee, then in the plenary, often preceded by an advice of the Council of State. While the plenary debates are integrally transcribed, the debates taking place within the parliamentary committees are summarized. (...)

Parliamentary debates on Belgian gender quotas

Similarly to the previous findings, the rational underlying the defence or rejection of gender quotas is to a certain extent similar for the three groups of gender quotas. A first rational for all groups of gender quotas is that of equality. Proponents of gender quotas present them foremost as an equal treatment of men and women and equal chances for women. In EL.2002 and B.2011 gender quotas also stand for a step towards or the achievement of equality, and in the latter also for the wish to overcome immobility in these matters. In two debates, AB.1997 and EL.2002, gender quotas are also framed as a step towards or the achievement of parity democracy, whereby parity democracy is understood in the French definition of the equality of men and women as the two basic components of human kind: ‘la femme fonde à l’égal de l’homme le genre humain et l’humanité’ (EL.2002). While occasionally referred to in AB.1997, the concept of parity democracy regularly comes back in EL.2002. The introduction of the zipper principle in particular stands for parity democracy tout court. In both debates and in EL.1994 reference is also made to an equal participation or representation of women in decision-making, which comes close to the logic of parity democracy. References to parity democracy are not found in the debates on gender quotas for the economic sphere, but extensive mention is made of the fact that one may not exclude on the basis of sex (B.2011).

A related rational for all groups of gender quotas is that of power. With the exception of AB.1990, gender quotas are explicitly defined in terms of power in all debates. They break up existing power networks and make women have more power (B.2011) o, half of the power (EL.2002), or simply redress the power balance (EL.1994), and lead to a shift in power between men and women (AB.1997). The debates also state that shifts in power do not arise spontaneously (AB.1997, EL.1994, EL.2002, B.2011) and that men have disproportionally more power (EL.2002).

A third and more normative rational for all groups of gender quotas is that of diversity. Gender quotas reflect esteem for the diversity of views present in society among women and men (AB.1997, EL.1994, EL.2002). Gender quotas reflect more attention to neglected groups and citizens as a whole (EL.1994, EL.2002). This issue is mainly raised in the debates on gender quotas for the political sphere, but it is also found in connection with the economic sphere, in that gender quotas symbolise a need for boards to reflect the composition of society (B.2011).

The counter rational to this one can also be found for all groups of gender quotas. In the eyes of opponents to gender quotas, the latter stand for the reduction of women to their sex and the prevalence of sex over merit. This construction is to be found in all debates except for the first one on AB.1990. Gender quotas ‘institutionalise’ sex (AB.1997) or the division of men and women into two sexes (B.2011). Gender quotas represent sex as being a more important criterion for the good functioning of advisory boards than competence, skills, interest, experience and professionalism (AB.1997). Gender quotas symbolise the association of women with exclusively their sex and not their competencies, interests, and other strengths (B.2011). Gender quotas stand for the fact that women have been recruited, selected or elected because of their sex and not their skills (EL.2002). Gender quotas only view women through the lens of their sex; they only count because of their sex (EL.1994). More generally, gender quotas symbolise the fact that women are not deemed competent (AB.1997, EL.1994, EL.2002, B.2011).

A fifth and final rational to be found for all groups of gender quotas is related to democracy, but constructed differently depending on whether gender quotas are defended or not. In the first case gender quotas are argued to symbolise the existence of a structural democratic deficit (EL.2002) or the failure of democracy to achieve equality (AB.1997; EL.2002). But they also signify that democracy is functioning well, being self-correcting (AB.1990, AB.1997, EL.1994, EL.2002), and that men and women decide together on how society should evolve, which is also a way of making democracy function (B.2011). Gender quotas are thus not only a representation of the fact that democracy is working well, but they also stand for progress (EL.2002) and civilisation (B.2011). To opponents, gender quotas mainly symbolise a limitation (EL.2002) or violation of democracy (EL.1994), in particular the principle of liberty. Gender quotas signify the violation of the liberty of political parties to constitute their lists of candidates as they wish. This construction is mainly raised in EL.1994, but also appears eight years later in EL.2002. Even more dominantly, gender quotas are defined as a violation of the liberty of entrepreneurship, the main construction of gender quotas by their opponents in B.2011, as well as a violation of the public private divide (B.2011). This negative construction in relation to democracy and the state is only to be found in the debates on gender quotas targeting the political or economic sphere.

Two further rationales only to be found in the debates on gender quotas targeting the political and economic sphere focus on the role of the state and questions of justice. Gender quotas stand for positive (EL.1994, B.2011) or state driven discrimination (B.2011). The state is doing something it is not supposed to do, namely creating equal outcomes, whereas its role is limited to creating equal chances. Gender quotas thus symbolise a coup de force and authoritarian attitude of the state (B.2011). More vaguely, gender quotas are constructed as representing the patronizing attitude of the state, or its ‘mania’ for steering and organising (EL.2002, B.2011). Gender quotas symbolise the overall lack of trust in business (B.2011) and the lack of recognition of the capability of those composing electoral lists to be competent enough to select the right candidates (EL.2002). The juxtaposition is that gender quotas suggest that self-regulation does not work, an issue much emphasized in B.2011, involving the need for the state to regulate and steer that which does not occur spontaneously. In EL.2002 this was put more explicitly, whereby gender quotas are meant to stand for the duty of the state to intervene in order for women to carry out the highest responsibilities to the same extent as men. In this context gender quotas are also constructed as a sign of justice (EL.1994, EL.2002, B.2011).

A final rational, which is also only to be found in the debates on gender quotas targeting the political and economic sphere, refers to the (causes of) the existing gender imbalance. Gender quotas symbolise the current over-representation of men (EL.2002) and lagging behind or exclusion of women (EL.1994). In B.2011 gender quotas are extensively and repeatedly framed as the recognition of a glass ceiling and the fight against the glass ceiling and other thresholds. In B.2011 gender quotas also represent a step against conservatism and machismo, which again reflects the idea of such measures standing for the fight against mechanisms of discrimination or exclusion. In the debates on gender quotas for electoral lists, gender quotas reflect recognition of the fact that thresholds needed to be overcome (EL.1994), and, more generally, the wish to fight discrimination (EL.1994, EL.2002), recognising not only discrimination but also a willingness to act against it.

Table 2: Overview arguments parliamentary debates, per group of gender quotas

Meaning of gender quotas

Social sphere

Political sphere

Economic sphere


Equal chances/treatment

Equal chances/treatment

Equal chances/treatment, no exclusion on basis of sex


Equality (2002)

Equality, overcome immobility in matters of  equality

Parity (1997), Equal participation (1997)

Parity (2002), Equal participation (1994) or representation (2002)



Shift in power between sexes (1997)

Redress power balance (1994), more/half power to women (2002)

More power to women


Men have disproportionally much power (2002)


Power stuck to (1997)

Power stuck to

Power stuck to, power networks


Value diversity (1997)

Value diversity

Reflect composition society


Attention for neglected groups


Sex and skills

Prevalence of sex over skills (1997)

Prevalence of sex over skills

Prevalence of sex over skills

Women reduced to their sex (1997)

Women reduced to their sex

Women reduced to their sex

Institutionalisation of sex (1997)


Institutionalisation of division m/f

Women not deemed competent (1997)

Women not deemed competent

Women not deemed competent


Functions (self-correcting)

Functions (self-correcting)


Fails (to achieve equality) (1997)

Fails (to achieve equality) (2002), existence of structural democratic deficit (2002)



Fails (violates principle of liberty)

Fails (violates liberty of entrepreneurship; separation public/private divide


Progress (2002)




Assumes its role (2002)

Assumes its role, auto-regulation does not work



Exceeds its competence in steering society, authoritarian attitude


Patronizing (2002),lack trust competence to select candidates (2002)

Patronizing, lack trust competence to select candidates






Positive discrimination (1994)

 Positive discrimination



State organised discrimination

(Causes) imbalance


Lagging behind/exclusion of women, over-representation of men (2002)



Thresholds (1994)

Glass ceiling and other thresholds






Conservatism and machismo

Arguments in italics are those pronounced against gender quotas. Years between brackets indicate that only that case of a specific group of gender quotas is concerned by the argument.


This article is interested in the different generations or groups of gender quotas, wondering to what extent they vary beyond the fact that they target different spheres of society – the political, economic and social one – and have been adopted at different moments in time. To this end five generic gender quota laws have been analysed, which have been adopted in Belgium since 1990 and target these three distinct spheres. The results reveal a clear picture: at least for the Belgian case, gender quotas do not differ fundamentally across spheres of society. There are differences when it comes to the rules set. The gender quotas applied to the social sphere allow for no phasing in implementation, whereas the others do. The latter gender quotas for politics impose a 50%. And the gender quotas applying to the economic sphere are accompanied by more and different sanctions than the other groups of gender quotas. However, at least the latter two differences have to be put into perspective. There does appear to be an overall evolution over time when it comes to the Belgian gender quotas rules. Gender quotas became more strict, imposing gender equality or targeting the composition of the body as such, with sanctions in case of non-compliance. The differences between different groups of gender quotas might then be explained by the fact that the latter gender quotas targeting the political sphere and those imposed upon the economic sphere are of a more recent nature.

Findings are similar when it comes to the rational underlying the different groups of gender quotas. The debates on the different groups of gender quotas share many rationales. The biggest exception to this finding is that the first gender quotas (AB.1990) involved much less debate than the other cases did. Only very few arguments were found within the debates on AB.1990. For the rest, arguments mainly known from gender quotas debates in the political sphere are also found in the other spheres and there is a great deal of overlap and parallels between the debates on gender quotas in the various spheres. Interestingly, the framing of the gender quotas for the economic sphere differs from that of the other groups of gender quotas. It is unclear to what extent this was a conscious choice on behalf of the actors submitting the bill. But the fact that there are similarities when it comes to the debates shows that according to many actors partaking in these debates, there are many similarities between the different groups of gender quotas.

What does all this tell us? It makes us wonder to what extent these gender quotas, although targeting different spheres, are in fact dissimilar. They target distinct sectors and were adopted in different moments in time. And there are differences in the rules set and slight differences can be found in naming and in the rational underlying them. But it does not seem as if they differ intrinsically. The findings thus support the counterhypothesis that gender quotas targeting different spheres of society do not differ from each other with respect to their rules and underlying rational. Still, these findings have to be adopted with caution. This article focuses on a single country, with the advantage of keeping a number of background variables under control. The next step would consist in a cross-national comparison, comparing different groups of gender quotas across a range of countries. This would allow us to see to what extent the differences found in Belgium among groups of gender quotas are meaningful. Can similar differences be found across countries? In that case they might be more meaningful than they seem at first sight and we would dispose of an indicator for the fact that different groups of gender quotas differ intrinsically. Or do different groups of gender quotas within one country show more similarities among each other than with their peers in other countries and what factors would account for that? In that case, the counterhypothesis now supported by the Belgian case would be confirmed; different groups of gender quotas would not intrinsically differ from each other.


(Full version of the article has been published in International Political Science Review, Volume 35, Nr.1, January 2014,

see: http://www.ipsa.org/publications/ipsr/volume-35-number-1-january-2014)


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