Why PR systems might be good for women

Scholars often claim that having a proportional representation (PR) system leads to a better inclusion of women and other minorities of power in national legislatures. Typically, we refer to the larger districts found in PR systems (e.g. Lijphart 1994, Rule and Zimmerman 1994, Katz 1997). Why do we find an association between district magnitude (the size of the electoral districts) and including more women in the legislature?

At a superficial level, we know that more candidates are picked in larger districts. This increases the likelihood that one of the women among the candidates is elected. To understand this increased probability we need to make an assumption — something rarely spelled out: We need to assume that there are only a few women standing — which is quite reasonable in most contexts. We also need to assume that women are less likely to be at the top of the ballot — which is the same as assuming that men are more likely to be at the top of the ballot.

Here are three situations to illustrate this. In situation 1, men are more likely at the top than women. Stating the obvious, this means that the men are more likely to be elected. We can imagine majoritarian systems as districts where (by definition) only the candidate at the top is picked (and then only of one of the parties). In this sense, there is nothing inherently beneficial in proportional representation as a system, or the underlying larger district magnitude: the system interacts with the placement of candidates.

In situation 2, we have a larger district, thus a larger number of candidates are elected. In the graphic, this means we reach further down the list. We have the same ballots where men are more likely at the top, but by reaching further down a woman is elected.

In situation 3, we have the same district magnitude as in situation 2 (4 candidates are elected), but there is now a third party. In terms of picking women, this is equivalent to having smaller districts, because we no longer reach as far down the lists.

With these three situations, we can also understand the concept of party magnitude introduced by Matland (1993). He argued that causally speaking, party magnitude is closer to the inclusion of women in legislatures than the district magnitude. We can calculate the party magnitude by dividing the district magnitude by the number of parties in the districts. With this, Matland implicitly acknowledged situation 3 here, and made the same fundamental assumptions outlined above: Men are more likely to take the top spot of party lists than women are. The concept of party magnitude combines the two effects of (a) reaching further down the lists when the district magnitude is large, and (b) not reaching as far down the lists when many parties are competing.

Once we have understood these two mechanisms, it is clear why the effects of party magnitude are temporarily limited — assuming a general trend towards including more women in legislatures. Matland acknowledges this limitation, but does not spell out why it exists. When few women are included on the ballots, the effect of party magnitude is limited. In this case, the likelihood of electing a woman is low, irrespective of the number of parties or the district magnitude. As more women are included, we can observe a stronger association with party magnitude. This is because of the two mechanisms: (a) more women are elected where the districts are larger, and (b) more women are elected where the number of parties is smaller. However, if women are as common as candidates as men and women are equally likely to appear at the top of the ballot, the association is low. In this case, the likelihood of electing a woman approaches 50%.

PR systems might be good for women not because of an inherent advantage, but because the larger district magnitude (which is inherent in the system) combined with candidate selection and candidate placement can increase the probability of electing women into legislatures. Put differently, just like in majoritarian systems, candidate selection and candidate placement are driving the association. Beyond specifying the mechanism, this exercise also highlights that political parties and party elites play such an important role in making sure women get into electable positions.

The literature sometimes insists on closed PR lists. This is only relevant inasmuch as the parties and party elite include more women on the ballot than the population would support or — and that’s possibly quite important — with a population that does not care enough about gender to make it a priority in elections (i.e. gender is not sufficiently salient). If we imagine a society with conservative party elites and a progressive electorate (or where the party elite assumes the population to be more conservative as they are), closed PR lists would be detrimental.

Why do we care? Having a PR system in itself is a poor explanation for changes in the inclusion of women in legislatures as we observe them across the world. By focusing on the role of political parties and the political elite may be more fruitful in understanding changes. With this, we should also research why some countries have PR systems in the first place — it might be a reflection of a more inclusive culture or tradition, something which might still be reflected in present day political behaviour, but difficult to disentangle empirically.

Katz, R. 1997. ‘Representational Roles’. European Journal of Political Research 32: 211–26.
Lijphart, A. 1994. Electoral Systems and Party Systems: A Study of Twenty-Seven Democracies, 1945–1990. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Matland, R. 1993. ‘Institutional Variables Affecting Female Representation in National Legislatures: The Case of Norway’. Journal of Politics 55: 737–55.
Ruedin, Didier. 2013. Why Aren’t They There? The Political Representation of Women, Ethnic Groups and Issue Positions in Legislatures. Colchester: ECPR Press.
Rule, W., and J. Zimmerman, eds. 1994. Electoral Systems in Comparative Perspective: Their Impact on Women and Minorities. Westport: Greenwood Press.

What is individual representation?

Political representation is usually understood to be about groups: left-wing parties represent people with left-wing views (“substantive” representation), female MP represent women in the population (“descriptive” representation). When Matt Golder and Jacek Stramski examined ideological congruence, that’s what they did, too. They included a footnote to outline the possibility that individuals are represented by a parliament as a whole, but seemed to dismiss this perspective as irrelevant in practice — this was the same comment I got from an examiner once when still working on my doctorate. This did not discourage me to write up how to conceptualize and measure individual representation in 2012.

Let’s begin with the different representational relationships:


Here, Z’ is an individual citizen, and R’ and individual representative (parliamentarian). ZZ refers to citizens as a group, and RR to representatives as a group.This gives us:

    dyadic representation: how well does a single MP represent citizens, e.g. how well does the MP of a district represent the views of the citizens in this district?
    collective representation: how well do parliamentarians collectively represent citizens, e.g. how well are the views of the citizens in a country represented in their legislature?
    direct representation: how well does a single MP represent a single citizen, e.g. does the president of a country represent the views of this particular person?
    individual representation: how well do parliamentarians collectively represent a single citizen, e.g. how well are the views of this particular person represented by their legislature?

Individual representation is expressed as a score for each individual. Rather than combining views and looking at averages or distributions, we consider the position of an individual citizen. To keep the information of all citizens, we first compare the position of each citizens vis-à-vis the positions of the other citizens. This gives us a measure of “marginality”. The intuition is that individuals are aware of their position among citizens to some degree, and a person with far-left views will not expect to have his or her views represented in a legislature if everyone else is centre-right or far-right. Similarly, a person with centrist views will expect his or her views represented in a legislature when many other citizens have centrist views. This is the comparison at the top of the figure.


Once we have figured out how common or marginal each citizen’s position is in the population, we do a thought experiment, and look at how common or marginal each citizen’s position would be among the representatives. This is the comparison at the bottom of the figure.

We can then simply compare (=subtract) the marginality among citizens and the (imagined) marginality among representatives to derive an individual representation score. Normatively, we assume that smaller Euclidian distances are “better”. This is an important note, because we could also assume that an individual only cares about having “perfect” direct representation through one MP. When moving beyond single issues, I think most individuals will cease to have a “perfect” direct representative who shares their views on all dimensions exactly, and considerations of minimizing positional distance will play a role.

Why should we care about individual representation? Because individual representation allows us to examine different aspects of representation than the other perspectives. For instance, individual representation is very flexible for exploring how membership in different socio-demographic groups (“intersectionality”) affects substantive representation. We can readily compare the level of representation of old women with that of left-wing men (if this makes sense, of course), or test whether individuals who are better represented also feel better represented – rather than make the assumption.

Golder, M., and J. Stramski. 2010. “Ideological Congruence and Electoral Institutions.” American Journal of Political Science 54 (1): 90–106.

Ruedin, Didier. 2012. “Individual representation: A different approach to political representation.” Representation 48(1): 115–29. doi:10.1080/00344893.2012.653248

Polrep package for R to calculated individual representation scores: http://polrep.r-forge.r-project.org/irs.html

Gender Quotas Become More Effective Over Time

In a forthcoming paper, Pamela Paxton & Melanie Hughes examine the effectiveness of legislative gender quotas. This is an important paper in many ways. Striking is for example their use of a latent growth curve model to overcome something I have always criticized, namely ignoring the trajectory a country is on — essentially the counterfactual. Substantively, they find that legal quotas have become more effective, they’re increasingly “having teeth”.

What I found a bit disappointing, though, is that there was no effort to capture changes in attitudes towards women as political leaders. While this particular analysis in my book is not as fancy as the Paxton & Hughes paper, I compare changes in attitudes with changes in quota provisions and changes in the number of women elected to national legislatures. Changes in attitudes were associated with changes in the legislatures; changes in quotas were not. Now, if quotas have become more effective after around 2005, this is entirely in line with the Paxton & Hughes paper, but what about the situation today?

Paxton, Pamela, and Melanie M. Hughes. 2015 forthcoming. “The Increasing Effectiveness of National Gender Quotas, 1990-2010.” Legislative Studies Quarterly.

Ruedin, Didier. 2013. Why Aren’t They There? The Political Representation of Women, Ethnic Groups and Issue Positions in Legislatures. Colchester: ECPR Press.

The Political Power of Legislatures and the Representation of Women

There are many papers that examine the reasons why there are more women in some legislatures than in others. Three kinds of mechanisms are usually identified: cultural reasons — as I highlighted in my ESR paper –, socio-economic reasons, and electoral reasons — principally PR systems. I was rather excited to see a recent paper by Leslie Schwindt-Bayer and Peverill Squire that highlights a new mechanism: the political power of legislatures.

While we could include the role of legislative power under the heading institutions alongside electoral rules, the approach is rooted in the insight that the characteristics of legislatures (as institutions) can influence the election of women into positions of power. Seen this way, the political power of legislatures (measured using the Parliamentary Powers Index) is just one aspect alongside other formal and informal rules and legislative norms.

Ruedin, Didier. 2012. “The Representation of Women in National Parliaments: A Cross-National Comparison.” European Sociological Review 28 (1): 96–109. doi:10.1093/esr/jcq050.

Schwindt-Bayer, Leslie, and Peverill Squire. 2014. “Legislative Power and Women’s Representation.” Politics & Gender 10 (04): 622–58. doi:10.1017/S1743923X14000440.