When the Indian Parliament passed a bill earlier this month requiring that a third of the body's seats be reserved for women, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh described the vote as a "historic step forward toward emancipation of Indian womanhood." But if anything, the Indians are late to the party. More than 100 countries already have gender-based quotas in their legislatures, and if the experience of these nations is any indication, Singh announced Mission Accomplished a little early.
That's because, in most cases worldwide, an influx of female legislators has led to few noticeable changes in policy. To be sure, individual women leaders around the world have proved very influential -- look no further than U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who played a pivotal role in ushering health-care reform through Congress. But in countries that adopt quotas, female legislators tend to be junior players who can be stymied by misogynistic old boys clubs. And the unintended consequences range from culture shock to retrenched anti-feminism to, every now and then, progress in surprising areas.
In Argentina, the transition from an almost all-male parliament to including 30 percent (now almost 40 percent) women was rocky at first. Some female legislators were turned away when they tried to enter el Congreso through the entrance reserved for deputies: The guards would explain that girlfriends needed to use a different doorway. "That particularly happened to the attractive deputies," Mark Jones, a Rice University political science professor who studies Latin American electoral politics, observes wryly.
One questionable custom -- converting the dining hall, popularly known as the anexo, into a bar in the evenings where male legislators could rub shoulders with young women -- was eventually discontinued after more women took up seats as deputies. Once the congressional gender composition was altered, running what was effectively a nocturnal meat market within the country's most august legislative building began to look less seemly.
When it comes to policy, however, change isn't always as easy to come by. For one, a double X chromosome doesn't guarantee that a representative will champion issues like access to contraception and subsidized child care. And even if she does, party bosses often stand in the way of getting things done. Part of the problem is inherent in the quota system itself. As I wrote in an article for Slate, women who enter politics through a quota system often have to keep their higher-ups happy because they are generally elected in countries where citizens vote for parties rather than for individual candidates. That means if a candidate runs afoul of party bigwigs, she can be expunged from the ballot, as in the case of former Argentine national deputy Marcela Durrieu, who was kicked out of the party along with her allies when her push for women's rights antagonized Buenos Aires's male old guard.
The female dependence on male party leaders is underscored in some countries by ugly nicknames. In Britain, where Tory leader David Cameron has actively recruited female candidates, the press has tagged some of the new pols "Cameron's cuties." In Argentina, women parliamentarians are occasionally referred to as "mujeres de," or "women of," the implication being that they owe their jobs to the men heading their parties.