Online-Symposium: Gender Equality and Gender Quotas for Political Participation in Europe – An introduction


An article written by Thomas Giegerich*

In April, the Europa-Institut – International Law School of the Law Faculty of Saarland University hosted an online conference entitled “New Quality in Education for Gender Equality”. It took place within the framework of the “Law and Gender – LAWGEM” project, an ERASMUS+ Strategic Partnership funded by the European Union. The objective of this project is to develop a master programme on law and gender. It is implemented by an international consortium of Belgrade University (coordination), the University of Cadiz, LUMSA University in Palermo, Örebro University and Saarland University. At the same time, the conference was one of the events celebrating the 70th anniversary of the Europa-Institut which was founded in 1951 and has since then educated many thousands of young people from all four corners of the earth who have enrolled in its LL.M. programme in European and international law.

An important part of our conference was a panel discussion on gender quotas for political participation in Europe. The participants have agreed to submit brief summaries of their positions which will be successively published online and ultimately collected in an expert paper. Philippe Cossalter explains the legal situation in France where a mandatory gender quota for electoral lists has been in force for two decades. Maria Jansson delineates the gender quotas effectively used in Sweden on a voluntary basis. In conclusion, I will take a look at the German situation within the framework of supranational and international precepts regarding gender equality.

More than 25 years ago, the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action of the Fourth World Conference on Women was adopted by 189 Member States of the UN.[1] There the importance of gender equality in political participation was explained thus: “Equality in political decision-making performs a leverage function without which it is highly unlikely that a real integration of the equality dimension in government policy-making is feasible. In this respect, women’s equal participation in political life plays a pivotal role in the general process of the advancement of women. Women’s equal participation in decision-making is not only a demand for simple justice or democracy but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women’s interests to be taken into account. Without the active participation of women and the incorporation of women’s perspective at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.”[2] This statement is aptly borne out by experience.

Already at Beijing in 1995, the participating governments committed themselves to “establishing the goal of gender balance in governmental bodies … including, inter alia, … implementing measures to substantially increase the number of women with a view to achieving equal representation of women and men, if necessary through positive action, in all governmental … positions; … [t]ake measures, including, where appropriate, in electoral systems that encourage political parties to integrate women in elective and non-elective public positions in the same proportion and at the same levels as men …”[3]

We have obviously not come far enough in the last quarter of a century. The following finding in the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report 2021[4] aptly describes the problem we are still facing: “The gender gap in Political Empowerment remains the largest of the four gaps tracked,[5] with only 22% closed to date, having further widened since the 2020 edition of the report by 2.4 percentage points. Across the 156 countries covered by the index, women represent only 26.1% of some 35,500 parliament seats and just 22.6% of over 3,400 ministers worldwide. In 81 countries, there has never been a woman head of state, as of 15th January 2021. At the current rate of progress, the World Economic Forum estimates that it will take 145.5 years to attain gender parity in politics. Widening gender gaps in Political Participation have been driven by negative trends in some large countries which have counterbalanced progress in another 98 smaller countries. Globally, since the previous edition of the report, there are more women in parliaments, and two countries have elected their first female prime minister (Togo in 2020 and Belgium in 2019).”[6]

The gender gap denotes the gender-related difference between theory and practice: For decades, equal rights of women and men have been clearly established in national, supranational and international law,[7] but the inequality of women in fact still persists worldwide in many important areas, including political participation, and seems poised to stay for further generations, unless developments are accelerated. Although the reasons for the cleavage between de jure equality and de facto inequality of women are well known, they have not yet been properly acted upon and therefore need to be recalled:

“There are many factors which lead to women’s under-representation in politics. The most important factor is probably the decade-old backlash against women’s rights. In Europe, societies remain characterised by attitudes, customs and behaviour which disempower women in public life, discriminate against them, and hold them hostage to prescribed role-models and stereotypes according to which women are “not suited” to decision making and politics. Unsocial meeting hours and a lack of child-care facilities for politicians can further deter women candidates – politics is tailored to fit men who do not bear even a minimum share of family responsibilities and who rely on their wives to keep the household running.”[8] Another factor is the male networks which still dominate many bodies and organisations, including political parties, and tend to perpetuate themselves.

For those who consider 145.5 years as too long to achieve effective gender equality in the political arena, the introduction of mandatory quotas in favour of women may be the instrument of choice to accelerate developments. This raises a number of questions such as whether gender quotas for political participation are permissible or even required from a constitutional, supranational and international perspective and – if permissible – whether they are appropriate and advisable: If the adequate representation of women in parliament is a legitimate objective, why not the adequate representation of LGBTI persons, persons with disabilities, young voters, religious and national minorities, persons with a migration background? All these groups have long been victims of discrimination including with regard to political representation. That slippery slope argument can of course be countered by reference to the fact that an express constitutional mandate such as in Art. 3 (2) sentence 2 of the German Constitution (Basic Law) to “promote the actual implementation of equal rights for women and men”[9] does not exist for any of the other disadvantaged groups.[10] The legitimate question whether we would need similar constitutional affirmative action mandates in their favour is beyond the scope of this paper. Suffice it to recall that of all those disadvantaged groups only women make up more than half of the population.

Finally, one needs to remember that

“… changing the electoral system is not enough: to be really effective, this change must be accompanied by measures such as gender-sensitive civic education and the elimination of gender stereotypes and “built-in” bias against women candidates, in particular within political parties, but also within the media. In some Council of Europe member states, constitutions also need to be changed in order to accompany gender equality and anti-discrimination provisions with the necessary exception allowing positive discrimination measures for the under-represented sex, without them being considered a violation of the equality principle.”[11]


* Prof. Dr. Thomas Giegerich, LL.M. is the Director of the Europa-Institut ( and holds a Chair for European Law, Public International Law and Public Law at Saarland University.

[1] Available at (accessed: 03.05.2021).

[2] Id., para. 181

[3] Id., para. 190 (a) and (b).

[4] March 2021, available at (accessed: 03.05.2021).

[5] The other three gender gaps are in economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment as well as health and survival.

[6] See note 1, p. 5.

[7] See, e.g., Art. 3 (2) of the German Constitution (Basic Law); Arts. 1 (3), 55 lit. c, 56 of the UN Charter; Art. 2, 7 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights; Arts. 1 – 16 of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women; Art. 14 of the European Convention on Human Rights; Arts. 20, 21, 23 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the EU.

[8] Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe (PACE), Resolution 1706 (2010) of 27 January 2010, para. 3 (available at, accessed 03.05.2021)

[9] English translation available at (accessed: 03.05.2021). See also the more specific Art. 1 (2) of the French Constitution (“La loi favorise l’égal accès des femmes et des hommes aux mandats électoraux et fonctions électives …”) and further the contribution by Philippe Cossalter.

[10] See, e.g., Hahn, Robert, Practicing Parity, Verfassungsblog of 7 July 2020 (available at, accessed 03.05.2021).

[11] PACE (note 8), para. 5.

Suggested Citation: Giegerich, Thomas, Online-Symposium: Gender Equality and Gender Quotas for Political Participation in Europe: An introduction, jean-monnet-saar 2021, DOI: 10.17176/20220523-102449-0

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