Senegal & the US Struggle for Gender Parity

Senegal and the United States Struggle for Gender Parity

The map in the Museum of Black Civilizations was pleasantly startling:  there, in westernmost Africa, Senegal stood alone among its neighbors, shaded in green—denoting that over 30% of its elected assemblies were comprised of women.

“Startling,” because my initial observations of Senegal—admittedly superficial—suggested a gender-stratified society.  Indeed, statistics from the World Economic Forum bear out my observations:  their 2020 “Global Gender Gap Index” ranked Senegal 99th in overall gender equality, based on 4 categories of analysis: economic participation and opportunity; educational attainment; political empowerment; and health and survival (; see page 9).

Its worth noting that WEF ranked the United States only 53rd, with some of the “usual suspects” at the top of their list—Iceland, Norway, Finland, Sweden—along with some high-ranking surprises as well:  Rwanda (9th), the Philippines (16th), and Mexico (25th).  We Americans finished immediately behind Cape Verde, by the way.

Admitting that I was surprised by Mexico’s ranking is, of course, an advertisement for my ignorance.  More on that later.

When it comes to rankings of “Women in National Parliaments,” however, Senegal finishes well ahead of the United States.  In fact, in the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s rankings, Senegal placed 13th overall among world countries, while the U.S. finished an unimpressive 69th (more or less tied with Iraq) (

Is it possible that gender quotas—or a lack thereof—played a part in these rankings?

For many in the United States, the word quota rankles.  Some have substituted the word parity to avoid using the q word, but “parity” is merely a statistical way we can measure the effectiveness of quotas and other strategies for achieving gender equity.  In the United States, many people in power have been at best skeptical and at worst hostile to the use of quotas as a strategy for achieving gender equity.

Meanwhile, in the last 30 years, more than half the world’s countries have, according to Jaya Nayar of Harvard International Review, “modified their constitutions, electoral laws, or party rules to specify a threshold of women to be selected or nominated to a political body” (

One of those countries is Senegal.

During his presidency, Senegalese president Abdoulaye Wade oversaw passage and enforcement of the Law on Parity, which stipulates that “all lists of candidates shall be alternately composed of persons of both sexes” and that “All lists of candidates shall comply with this provision or shall be rejected.”

Cynics accused Wade of pandering for women’s votes, but it’s worth noting that the percentage of women members of Senegal’s National Assembly jumped from 22% in 2007 (before the Law on Parity was instituted) to 43% in 2012, two years after it was passed (

Perhaps the most compelling argument in favor of gender quotas is that implementing them will ensure that legislative bodies better represent their constituents, both male and female.  Güler Turan, a Senator in the Flemish Parliament, points out that, “In the political world, quotas ensure that parliament truly reflects the population it represents. When a parliament consists only or mainly of men, it becomes very hard to gain broad support for political decisions, and to demonstrate that every citizen can be elected” (; her article, titled “Why quotas work for gender equality,” is persuasive).

Moreover, some parity advocates suggest that an increasing number of women legislators will focus more attention of so-called “women’s issues,” like sexual harassment and reproductive rights.  (I use the phrase “so-called, because these issues are very much “men’s issues” as well.  But that’s another, longer discussion.)

Americans have long heard the “Daddy Party-Mommy Party” cliché about Republican and Democratic policy concerns.  Interestingly, when it comes to gender equity in legislatures, scholars have observed policy trends in governing bodies where gender equity prevails.  In Annual Review of Political Science, Amanda Clayton observes that “[s]tudies have found that women—both citizens and politicians—tend to report more concern about healthcare and poverty than men across Latin American, African, South Asian, and Western cases (Bhalotra & Clots-Figueras 2014, Clayton et al. 2019a, Gottlieb et al. 2018, Miller 2008, Schwindt-Bayer 2006, Swers 2002, Swiss et al. 2012, Tremblay 1998, Wängnerud 2000, Westfall & Chantiles 2016).  Men, for their part, also tend to consistently prioritize certain issue areas across contexts.  Cross-national research finds that men tend to prioritize national defense and military spending more than women (Clayton & Zetterberg 2018, Koch & Fulton 2011).”  (Author’s note:  I’ve included Clayton’s citations should you want to link to the academic studies she cites; her article, “How Do Electoral Gender Quotas Affect Policy?” is available at

As Jaya Nayar pointed out in the Harvard International Review, “Quotas are also associated with women being elected to government positions even more so than democratic ideals, economic development, or religious norms” (

Nevertheless, the United States seems willing to rely on “democratic ideals” to achieve gender parity—or perhaps to cite such ideals as a delaying tactic for social change.

To be fair, there are legitimate objections to the use of gender quotas in elections.  In India, for instance, researchers found that women elected to office in order to fill electoral quotas were sometimes viewed as “proxy candidates” who, when elected, became spokeswomen for their husbands on matters political.  (An excellent analysis of political gender equity in India and Sweden can be found in part 2 of Jaya Nayar’s analysis:

Indeed, we must always be wary of unintended consequences.  While I support gender quotas and would like to see them instituted in the United States in some form (perhaps on ballots rather than in elective office), I must take seriously the reservations of “quota skeptics.”  Nayar’s careful summary of ways that quotas might “impair democracy” is worth considering verbatim (and at some length):

“While quotas may improve important metrics of representation, they are nonetheless often seen as anti-democratic.  Some argue that quotas elect people based on arbitrary opportunity, quotas bias elections in favor of women.  Studies demonstrate that this is a common perception of gender quotas across different fields: they unfairly advantage certain groups, thereby harming others.  For many, this anti-democratic sentiment is more important than any tangible benefits reaped through quotas, including substantive changes in policy-making.

Some articles argue that quotas manipulate voters’ choices. Instead of truly reflecting the political equilibrium, quotas artificially change the candidate pool. Therefore, voters decide between candidates who have been tailored to fit certain roles, restraining voters from making a completely free choice.

On top of this, some women’s rights activists claim that quotas are detrimental to women’s causes.  Quotas imply that women cannot be elected on their own because they need governmental or political party preference to succeed in politics.  This not only delegitimizes female candidates elected through the quota but also women elected without the help of quotas.  These advocates also claim that quotas are disrespectful in their assumption that women cannot get seats on their own and must instead rely on quota requirements.  These groups argue that as a result, women are less effective in their ability to govern because they are negatively labeled as ‘quota women.’

There are also concerns about how gender quotas affect the representation of other minorities.  People worry that gender quotas push other minority groups out of politics since only women from the dominant classes tend to be elected.  As a result, some people in society worry that every other minority group will also begin to demand quotas to improve their representation in government.

Finally, some evidence suggests that quotas are not that effective.  In a set of quantitative models, one study found that quotas do not explain variation in the percentage of women elected to parliament in different countries. For the most part, studies find that quotas are only effective under a limited set of conditions that many countries are unwilling to implement.  If quotas do not even help to elect women, then they create much controversy for very little gain.”

Will Senegal’s Law on Parity ultimately prove a boon to the nation, as it empowers women and challenges the formidable patriarchy of this complex culture—which, incidentally, can fairly boast of a long commitment to democratic governance?  Sitting at my desk 9000 kilometers away from Dakar, it’s easy for me to answer Yes!  Be that as it may, I would still argue that the benefits of gender quotas outweigh their costs.  When I encounter a story like PBS News Hour’s “Breakthrough law strives to bring gender equality to Senegal’s government,” I become a true believer.  (Highly recommended viewing at

To close my exploration of electoral gender parity, I will cite a case study that at first glance seems to counter my conclusions herein, “When quotas go wrong—and what to do about it.”  After citing several examples of “gender quotas gone wrong”—in El Salvador, Côte D’Ivoire, Kazakhstan, and Algeria, a writer for the Inter-Parliamentary Union offers the example of Mexico’s strategy as the most effective way to implement quotas:

Mexico paves the way

The above examples underline the fact that simply having a quota may not facilitate greater representation of women.  It is as critical to have clear, well-drafted quotas with enforcement mechanisms in place.  Mexico has shown how this can be done.

In Mexico, political parties are mandated by law to ensure parity among candidates. The mandate specifically prohibits selecting women in districts where the party is less likely to win, a familiar practice worldwide that sets women up to fail. 

Mexico’s election commission also introduced rules to prevent parties from discriminating against women regarding campaign finance, barring candidates convicted of committing violence against women, setting up hotlines to support women facing any violence during campaigns, and monitoring the media coverage of candidates for gender biases. 

There is also affirmative action in favour of other traditionally disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, including Indigenous peoples, people with disabilities, LGBTQI+ persons, with gender parity cutting across them all.

Putting these rules in place allowed Mexico to achieve a 50/50 gender split in 2021 among those elected to the lower house of parliament.  Three decades ago, only 21 women out of 300, or 7 per cent, were elected to the same chamber. 

Starting in 2003, Mexico began introducing enforceable quotas, with the aim of 30 per cent women candidates.  This increased to 40 per cent in 2009.  Then in 2014, the country targeted true gender parity, and got there, in just six years” (

Meanwhile, women in my home country lag far behind the women of Scandinavia—or for the matter of Mexico, when we consider our overall gender gap.  Perhaps Senegal and the United States are on not dissimilar journeys toward gender equity.  It will be instructive to plot our progress in the coming decades.


Author’s note:  I am aware that my discussion above is founded upon the notion of a gender binary that is being effectively challenged by many eloquent thinkers right now.  In the interests of argumentative coherence—and, I regret, possibly at the expense of others struggling for transgender equity—I have confined my argument to an analysis of the well-being of biological males and females, which is a construct we often use in our analyses of social justice, and about which I claim more familiarity as I opine.