Gender quotas and the crisis of the mediocre man

A common criticism against gender quotas is that they are anathema to meritocratic principles. This research on Sweden by Tim Besley, Olle Folke, Torsten Persson and Johanna Rickne shows that the opposite can be true: Quotas actually increased the competence of politicians by leading to the displacement of mediocre men whether as candidates or leaders. The results may also be relevant for judging gender quotas in business.

More than 100 countries have a gender quota of some form or another in their political system (www.quotaproject.org). While accepting that they lean against 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. It would be nice to resolve these debates with hard evidence. However, relatively little is known about the impact of quotas on the competence of elected candidates – whether women or men.

Our study provides a unique window on quotas and, at the same time, pushes forward the measurement of competence in political selection. It uses the fact that, in 1993, Sweden’s Social Democratic party voluntarily introduced a strict gender quota for its candidates. In internal discussions of the reform, the party’s Women’s branch observed that some men were more critical than others. The quota became known colloquially as the “Crisis of the Mediocre Man,” since the incompetent men had the most to fear from an influx of women into politics.

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