So what difference might women make? A lot. We examined experiences across the globe and learned that when women enter politics, governments change their spending priorities — shifting money away from the military and toward public health.
Here’s how we did our research
We looked at how government spending changes after countries implement electoral gender quotas that require a certain minimum proportion of women in political institutions. Most countries in the world have adopted electoral gender quotas, with the majority doing so in the past 25 years.
Governments and parties implement quotas in different ways. In some countries, such as Uganda and Morocco, citizens vote for female candidates to fill special district seats reserved for women. In other countries, where parties field many candidates for districts with several representatives, quotas require parties to have a certain minimum proportion of female candidates on their slate. By requiring this, a government can ensure that every party sends more women to parliament. Most countries in Latin America have candidate quotas like this.
To see whether female representatives change government spending, we looked at annual government budget data that the World Bank collected from 139 countries from 1995 to 2012 in three categories: public health, education and the military.
During this period, 65 countries adopted new electoral gender quotas. On average, we find that women’s representation doubled — from 10 to 20 percent — after quotas were implemented.
For instance, before implementing a gender quota in 1999, Belgium’s national legislature had 13 percent women. After implementing the quota, that percentage climbed to 23 percent. Some examples are even more dramatic. When Namibia’s ruling party implemented a voluntary gender quota in 2014, women’s representation increased from 24 percent to 42 percent in one election cycle.
Countries that adopt quota policies — increasing female representation — spend more on public health in the years that follow.
What’s more, health spending increases as the percentage of new women who have entered politics through the quota policy also goes up.
Countries whose quotas increase women’s representation by more than 10 percentage points see the most dramatic increases in health spending — jumping, on average, from 10.3 percent of total government expenditures in the budget years before quotas to 13.1 percent in the budget years afterward. That increase is more than a full percentage point higher than in countries that did not implement quotas during comparable periods.
Costa Rica, for example, implemented a gender quota in 2002 — and saw female representation jump from 19 percent to 35 percent of parliament. Before that jump, from 1995 to 2002, Costa Rica was spending 22.7 percent of its budget on public health on average every year. In the decade following the quota, health spending increased, on average, to 25.4 percent each year. That’s about $120 million more in government health funding each year.
We also examined two other budget categories: education and military spending. We see that military spending went down after quota adoption, changes that are relatively minor when measured as a percentage of total expenditures. But when we measure military spending relative to health spending, we see that ratio of health to military spending increases significantly after quotas are adopted, particularly in countries where quotas dramatically increased female representation.
We see no changes in education spending after countries adopt gender quotas.
Why do women make health a priority?
Research from a variety of countries shows that women, both as politicians and citizens, tend to list health as a top government policy priority; men tend to prioritize military spending. We’re not entirely sure why this is the case. It is possible female politicians prioritize increased attention to health issues that predominantly affect women or affect family caregiving, such as maternal or child health.
Of course, we don’t know exactly how women change the budget. We suspect female lawmakers influence spending priorities when a party writes up its annual budgets or when members of legislative committees oversee parts of the budget. Women may also add their voices when whole legislatures discuss whether to amend or approve annual budgets.
What might this look like in practice? Consider Uganda, which reserves 30 percent of national legislative seats for women. In 2013, female parliamentarians successfully pressured the county’s president to increase spending on public health, particularly to combat maternal mortality. The women did this by organizing an influential women’s caucus; the cause was championed by the parliamentary speaker, the first woman to hold the post.
Or take an example closer to home. In two books, political scientist Michele Swers shows that women in Congress are more likely than men to advocate for issues that affect women’s rights and welfare in legislative speeches, including on women’s health care.
The U.S. has a strikingly low percentage of women in Congress, compared with the rest of the world
The U.S. House of Representatives still has a lower-than-average percentage of women in its seats, just under 20 percent — ranking the United States at 102 out of 188 in the percentage of women in the national legislature. The Senate — at 22 percent — is not much higher. At the high end of the global rankings, Rwanda has more than 61 percent women, while the Nordic countries’ parliaments average more than 40 percent. Even Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Sudan and Pakistan have a higher percentage of women in their national legislatures than does the United States.
The record number of women expected to enter Congress after November’s election may not bring the leaps in representation that often come with quota policies. But if other countries are any indication, they may bring with them a new set of government priorities.
Amanda Clayton (@abclayton24) is an assistant professor of political science at Vanderbilt University.
Pär Zetterberg (@zetterberg_par) is an associate professor of political science at Uppsala University in Sweden.