Author: Jamie Solomon
In both the United States and Mexico, 2018 has been called “the year of the woman,” an inspiring phrase based on the surges of female political activism across the globe. Despite using the same battle cry, the electoral landscapes for women in the two countries are drastically different: according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s measurement of women’s representation in parliament, the US ranks 102nd internationally, while Mexico ranks a striking 9th. Such an incredible gap cannot be simply explained by only one factor; however, Mexico’s mandatory gender quotas for political parties, along with a combination of proportional and winner-take-all districts, are indelibly crucial components, offering insightful lessons for visibly urgent change in the US.
Mexico has a history of legal support for parity in politics, but their most comprehensive and successive initiative has been the 2014 law requiring parties to ensure that 50% of candidates are female. Now, four years later, 42.5% of the lower house of Congress is female, an astounding number on par with Scandinavian countries. For contrast, the percentage of women in the US House of Representatives is not even 20%.
Quotas do more than simply increase numbers; they require a national commitment to investing in women. As the Wilson Center so keenly predicted, because of Mexico’s parity law, “the onus is now on the political parties to both encourage greater female participation and to invest in training women to either seek elected office or to serve as part of their party’s proportional representation in Congress.” In other words, the policy compels those in power to educate, encourage, and empower an equal amount of women. Such incontrovertible economic and cultural benefits are why OECD Secretary General, Angel Gurría, after watching Mexico for two post-quota election cycles, believes gender quotas are “international best practice.”
Along with gender quotas, Mexico has a mix of proportional representation (PR) systems and plurality systems, meaning that some seats in the House and Senate are elected by winning a plurality of votes, and some are allocated to a party by their share of national votes. Though less directly aimed at increasing women’s representation, PR systems have that positive externality. This is because, as the comprehensive Atlas of Electoral Gender Quotas explains, men and women are not competing for a single spot, so “parties are thus less concerned about a potential male bias among voters, which often leads them to nominate a male candidate over a female one in single-member districts.”
Mexico’s combination of gender quotas and a mixed representation demonstrates an effective, system-level reform that is clearly having an impact on long-term viability of female candidates. Data from the World Bank shows this clearly: in the same 27 years that women’s representation in the US Congress grew by only 12 points, in Mexico, that number grew at more than twice that rate, by 31 points.
Still, there continue to be barriers to women leading. Mayka Ortega Eguiluz, who recently ran for reelection in Mexico, credits the quota system with opening opportunities for women, including herself; however, she is clear that equal representation is only half the battle: “She says some men don't take her ideas seriously. And she can't be seen as too aggressive and risk being labeled as trouble.” Social barriers, like those Eguiluz describes, have tangible effects on the amount of women in power. This election cycle, for instance, no major party produced a presidential nominee, and in the Mexican Senate, only 19 out of 64 committee chairs are female.
Further, gender violence remains a very real deterrent to women seeking office. Especially in what has been one of the most violent elections in Mexican history, female candidates face another hazardous hurdle of harassment and threats. This sobering news highlights that both electoral rules and political culture matter for women’s representation. Nonetheless, mayoral candidate Magda Rubio, in response to violence directed her way, has stayed strong: “I cannot quit. I’m here because I want a change in my country.”
The lesson here is clear. While in both countries women are loudly calling for a change, with record numbers of women running, enthusiasm is not enough. The US needs fundamental changes to its political system, like the gender quotas and PR system that Mexico has so thoroughly implemented, in necessary concert with socio-cultural reforms, in order to chanel this year of women into a tangible, lasting parity.