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There’s no ‘silver bullet’ in bringing more women to parliament in Asia

Asia’s economy in the last half a century has soared from 12% of global GDP in the 1960s to 31% in 2015. East Asia in particular witnessed the biggest reduction (40%) in the Human Development Index gap among developing regions from 1990-2014.

This growth has allowed more women to be educated, have better health and income. Yet despite these gains, women in Asia continue to be poorly represented in the political arena.

The growth of women’s parliamentary representation in Asia is slower than in other regions in the world, moving only 5.3 percentage points from 13.2% in 1995 to 18.5% in 2015. While the Americas had improved 13.7% (from 12.7% to 26.4%), Sub-Saharan Africa earned 12.5% hike (from 9.8% to 22.3%), Arab states marked 11.8% increase (from 4.3% to 16.1%), and world average is 10.8 percentage points of improvement.

My research, recently published in Contemporary Politics, shows that providing a quota for women in elections and having a proportional representation electoral system, which is more likely to support female candidates, are not “the silver bullet” in ending disparity.

It’s noteworthy to highlight, for example, that there are Muslim or Muslim majority countries with gender quotas, but continue to experience severe gender disparity in parliament. Countries in this particular group include Kyrgyz (19.2%), Uzbekistan (16%), Indonesia (17.1%) and Jordan (15.4%).

What influence the level of women’s parliamentary representation are instead, combinations of interactions between seven socio-political variables. These comprise of gross Domestic Product (GDP) per capita, electoral system types, gender quotas, the share of Muslims in the population, the female-male ratio in the workforce, the degree of democracy, and perceptions of corruption.

Studying combinations of conditions

For this research, I used Qualitative Comparative Analysis (QCA) method to find out how these seven variables interact and influence women’s representation in parliament. This analytic technique combines quantitative and qualitative methodologies as a complement to regression analysis.

If regression analysis estimates the relationship between a dependent variable and one or more independent variables (or “predictors’), QCA uses the logic of set relations to address causal complexity where outcomes do not arise from a single cause but rather a combination of conditions.

I compared 47 countries in Asia by analysing women’s share in a single or lower house of parliament at a single point in time. I collected data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) website ( as of 1 December 2016.

I selected the countries based on prior research and the availability of comparable socioeconomic status, level of democracy and perception of corruption data. Thus territories like North Korea, Hong Kong and the State of Palestine were excluded from the analysis.

Wealth, culture and democracy

From my analysis, a country’s material wealth is not a good indicator for women’s political representation. In cases of both high and low representation of women in parliament, low GDP appears in almost all configurations. This finding supports previous research that shows economic development has little impact on reducing gender disparity in Asian politics.

In regard to the impact of culture and ideologies to women’s representation in politics, I measured the proportion of Muslims in 47 countries in Asia. Some studies state that more women get elected in Protestan-majority countries and fewer in Muslim-majority countries. But, my research shows that women’s high parliamentary representation exists in five countries with Muslim-majority populations and four countries with insignificant Islam adherents. The results show that religion alone does not determine women being elected or not.

Muslim societies with a significant number of female MPs all have a reserved seat policy as a form of gender quota: Afghanistan (27% of seats reserved for women), Saudi Arabia (20%), Iraq (25%), Pakistan (17%), and Bangladesh (14.3%). The reserved seat policy in Afghanistan was mainly driven by the top-down efforts of the United Nations, while in Iraq it emerged mainly from the bottom–up mobilisation of women’s groups. Another condition shared among these countries is a low level of democracy, and this situation is salient in post-war countries such as in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In non-Muslim societies, women’s share in parliament is also supported by the provision of gender quotas in combination with a high level of democracy. The best example of this path is Timor-Leste, where women comprise 38.5% of seats in the state legislature. Its constitution requires one out of every three candidates on the list to be a woman, and the country is also applying proportional representation (PR) electoral systems.

Another example is the People’s Action Party (PAP) of Singapore which has an informal quota to nominate at least 20% female candidates in the last three elections. Also, Taiwan has legislated candidate gender quotas at the national level and reserved 25% of seats at the local level. The only non-Muslim country in this group without a quota is Israel, but it has proportional representation electoral system and the country is regarded as having high transparency.

On the other hand, Muslim societies perform poorly in electing female legislators when their level of democracy is considerably low and they are neither applying gender quotas nor proportional representation. Countries in this group include Syria, Yemen, Tajikistan, Iran, Azerbaijan, Lebanon, Maldives, Bahrain, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Malaysia.

Kyrgiz, Uzbekistan and Indonesia have gender quotas for political candidates. Meanwhile Jordan reserves 12% of parliamentary seats for women. But they continue to experience severe gender disparity in parliament. This finding offers a venue for future research in examining types of quotas that bring different results in different environments.

For example, Indonesia and Timor-Leste both require 30% of political candidates to be women, but women’s share in parliament between these two countries is 20 percentage points apart.

This study offers no support to a revised modernisation theory, which claims Islam impedes on women’s representation because its religious leaders are perceived to embrace traditional views regarding women’s rights.

The study also suggests that levels of democracy and perception of corruption do not have causal relationship to women’s legislative representation. Countries with a relatively low level of democracy can still elect more women into parliament as long as other conditions, namely gender quotas, PR electoral systems, or both, are present.

Having said that, it is important to note that nearly 60% of cases with high women’s representation do have a significant membership score in the subset of a democratic state. In other words, this study indicates a country’s level of democracy is playing a crucial role in electing female legislators.

Research caveat

I only studied seven explanatory factors influencing women’s parliamentary representation. These factors have been examined in previous studies. This means, my research certainly has a couple of limitations.

First, there is always a possibility that the analysis overlooks other aspects which are not suggested in prior works but could offer an important causal impact on women’s parliamentary representation. That’s why it’s important to to identify and analyse new leading conditions in further research.

Second, as a cross-sectional study, the data here were collected on a whole population and at a single point in time. Future research will benefit from a longitudinal approach, by observing women’s share in national parliaments over the years, as well as more in-depth comparative case studies drawing on interviews and field research.

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