Do Parliamentary quotas influence legislation? Lessons from France

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With the Coalition’s ‘woman problem’, representation of women in Australia’s Parliament has been at the forefront. While Labor has a self-imposed gender quota (see page 6) that means women are at near-parity in Parliamentary representation at 46.3 per cent, the Liberals are at 22.9 per cent (percentages calculated in January 2019). With an overall female representation in Parliament of 33.2 per cent, here’s the question: does representation matter? One way to answer this is to look to countries which have a quota system, to identify any changes to policymaking. In today's analysis, Quentin Lippmann of the Paris School of Economics provides evidence from France. This summary draws on Quentin’s presentation at the Australian Gender Economics Workshop in February of this year; his full presentation notes can be found here.   

For a long time, women were largely absent from the political sphere. To reduce this inequality, over 100 countries have introduced gender quotas. Worldwide, the proportion of seats held by women in Parliaments increased from about 11% in 1997 to 24% in 2019. But while women are to be found in increasing numbers in politics, do female members of Parliament (MPs) focus on the same issues as their male colleagues?

In theory, there are two opposing views on the role of politicians' gender in the work they do. On one hand, MPs should represent the interests of all of the electors in their constituency in Parliament. Their gender should not therefore have an influence on their legislative work. However, another set of arguments maintains that politicians' gender could play a decisive part, arguing that MPs listen more attentively to or share the priorities of the electors of the same gender.

These two theories have different implications in terms of public policy. If, instead of representing solely the interests of the electors in their constituencies, MPs also represent the interests specific to their gender, then putting in place parity obligations in politics would ensure that the interests of women are equally represented in Parliament.

This article aims to answer these questions by studying gender-based differences in legislative focus in the parliamentary work of the Lower House during the period from 2002 to 2017 in France.

The French experience

In 2001, the French Parity Law came into force, encouraging political parties to make 50% of their candidates women for general elections ("élections législatives") by withholding funding if they did not. The proportion of French MPs who are female has thus increased considerably, moving from 10% in 2000 to nearly 39% in 2017.

To measure whether there is a gendered difference in areas of interest amongst French MPs, we chose to focus on the production of amendments for two reasons. Firstly, because the right to amendment currently constitutes in France the main form of expression for MPs' right to initiative. It consists in deleting from, drafting, changing, or adding to the bills examined in Parliament. Secondly, since the right to amendment is free and unlimited, it constitutes one of the main activities of parliamentarians. By way of illustration, over the period studied from 2002 to 2017, over 200,000 amendments were initiated at the Lower House, averaging nearly 30 amendments per MP every year.

The topics of the amendments are not indicated. Therefore, in order to identify them, we used a text analysis method based on construction of dictionaries. This method consisted of manually grouping together sets of words related to a topic and then classifying an amendment by topic if it contained one of those words. For example, for the topic related to gender equality, the dictionary contained the words "woman", "gender", and "sex". If an amendment contained any one of those words, it was classified as concerning the topic related to gender equality. This simple method operated very well in practice. For identifying the topic as related to gender equality, it was observed that nearly 90% of the amendments classified as being on that topic were indeed aimed at reducing gender inequality or more generally at improving living conditions for women.

Does representation matter in politics? Lessons from France, which implemented a quota system in 2001, indicates that it does.  Photo credit: Quartz.

Does representation matter in politics? Lessons from France, which implemented a quota system in 2001, indicates that it does. Photo credit: Quartz.

Findings on the entire set of amendments

Firstly, we studied the gender-based differences in all of the amendments debated during the period from 2002 to 2017. For each topic, Figure 1 represents the relative difference between the women's share and the men's share of MPs having initiated at least one amendment.

Gender differences in Parliament Q Lippmann 0419.png

Gender equality, childhood, immigration and health among the topics that were the most feminine

The topic in which the gender-based differences were the most marked was legislation concerning gender equality. On average, during one term of office, the women's share of MPs initiating at least one amendment on those topics was about 40% while the men's share was less than 23%. Thus, the first line of Figure 1 shows that, during one term of office, the probability of a female MP initiating at least one amendment on topics related to gender equality is 75% higher than that of a male MP doing so. Importantly, this difference cannot be explained by greater investment from women in the work of the Parliament since, during their terms of office, they initiated a number of amendments equivalent to the number initiated by men (namely about 125 amendments per term, see Lippmann, 2019, for more details).

The second topic on which the gender differences were the most marked was legislation pertaining to childhood. On this topic, women were 25% more likely than men to initiate at least one amendment. For the topics related to immigration and to health, female MPs were about 10% more likely than men to initiate at least one amendment. These topics outperformed legislation pertaining to family, for which the gender-based differences were relatively small.

Defense, Overseas France, and elections among the topics that were the most masculine

Men were more active on defense-related topics, i.e. military-related and armed-forces-related topics. On average, during one term of office, the probability of a man initiating at least one amendment on those topics was 25% higher than that of a woman doing so. In second position came topics related to Overseas France[i], and, on those topics, men were about 10% more likely to initiate at least one amendment. Finally, for topics related to elections and to the environment, men were between 5% to 10% more likely than women to initiate at least one amendment. The differences on the latter two topics are, however, not statistically significant.

No difference on many topics

For the majority of topics, there are only very small or no differences in the involvement of female versus male MPs. The absence of difference is interesting here because it sometimes goes against certain stereotypes. For example, education is often assumed to be a field that is of greater interest to women, in particular because the teaching profession is female-dominated, and yet no gender-based differences on this topic are evident. In the same way, agriculture, often considered to be a topic of greater interest to men, does not show any gender-based differences.

How can gendered differences of focus in parliament be explained?

The existence of gendered differences in the work of the French Parliament is undeniable. But what does this division reflect? Several mechanisms are possible.

A first explanation would be that, since the women were not elected in the same constituencies as the men, they did not defend the same policies as the men. For example, the women might have been elected in constituencies that were more egalitarian and more inclined to press for measures in favour of gender equality. That could explain the higher involvement of women in certain topics. This explanation did not stand up to further empirical analysis. In particular, when we looked at constituencies in which a woman had replaced a man, we found a very similar division. In the same way, when we limited the analysis to elections won closely by a woman against a man, and for which it could be considered that the outcome could have gone either way, we observed a similar division of interest in the work done by Parliament. These two points suggest that our findings did not capture how female and male MPs belonged to different constituencies (see Lippmann, 2019, for more details).

The second explanation could be that the political parties position women strategically on certain topics. For example, they might anticipate that amendments on women-related topics are more likely to be accepted when they are defended by a woman rather than by a man. However, when the study was restricted to the amendments that were more likely to reflect the individual preferences of the MPs and less those of the political party, we observed a gendered division that was even more marked. For example, when we limited our focus to the amendments initiated by an MP from the governing majority and rejected by the same majority, we observed gender-based differences that were even larger on the topic of gender equality, and that could not be explained by strategies by the political parties.

The third explanation is the difference in personal objectives between the women and the men. Such a difference could be motivated by desires to act on different topics. Female MPs might have intrinsic motivations that differ from those of the men, and that could be reflected in their parliamentary work. That difference could also be due to anticipations of success in passing certain policies. For example, the women might have taken on board the idea that they are more credible on certain topics and thus might have specialized in them. These two explanations are probable but it is difficult to distinguish between them.

Towards different public policies?

Since the women's share in the Lower House grew from 12% to 26% between the 2002 election and the 2012 election, we might expect that that growth has led to a higher prevalence of certain topics. To study this question, Figure 2 describes the change in the share represented by gender equality amendments and the share held by women in the Lower House for the three legislative terms from 2002 to 2017.

Over the period, the share represented by gender equality amendments grew by nearly 70% going from 1.08% of the amendments over the legislative term from 2002 to 2007, to nearly 1.85% during the legislative term from 2012 to 2017. In the same way, the share held by female MPs doubled, going from 12% to over 26%.

Figure 2 Q Lippmann 0419.png


Analysis of the amendments initiated at France's Lower House reveals a gendered division of focus in the parliamentary work. Women initiate more amendments on topics related to women, childhood, immigration, and health. Men are more active on topics related to defence, Overseas France, and elections. This division was found both among the amendments accepted and incorporated into laws and also among those that were rejected. An analysis of the underlying mechanisms would suggest that this division appears to be due, to a large extent, to differences in personal objectives between female and male parliamentarians.

These results would suggest that the presence of women in politics has enabled a change to be made in the contents of the public policies passed by Parliament. Most striking, the prevalence of the topics related to gender equality among the initiated amendments thus grew by nearly 70% at the Lower House over the period from 2002 to 2017.

This article is based on the working document: "Gender and Lawmaking in Times of Quotas. Evidence from the French Parliament", 2019, Quentin Lippmann.

This post is part of the Women's Policy Action Tank initiative to analyse government policy using a gendered lens, and this piece is part of our Federal Election series 2019. Photo credit for the voter’s box in our logo: Flaticon. View our other policy analysis pieces here and follow us on Twitter @PolicyforWomen

[i] Overseas France is a reference to territories which France administrates outside of the European Union.