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This study examines how the use of gender quotas for candidate selection in Sweden’s Social Democratic party increased the competence of the party’s elected politicians. Comparing the competence of politicians before the quotas went into effect (1982-1992) to after they went into effect (1993-2014), the authors find that the use of quotas is not at odds with principles of meritocracy, as is often argued. After the introduction of gender quotas, the average competence of female candidates did not decrease (as opponents of quotas might fear) but instead remained stable. In addition, the use of quotas raised the average competence of male politicians. The authors argue that this effect was driven by the resignation of mediocre male candidates, thereby raising the bar for all candidates and giving women a level playing field.

Rather than thwarting principles of meritocracy, this study shows that quotas complement meritocratic principles by weeding out mediocre male candidates.


The use of gender quotas to increase women’s representation in public office and corporate settings is a contentious topic. Those in favour of gender quotas argue that greater representation on boards leads to more robust deliberation, effective risk management, and a greater diversity of ideas. In addition, the slow pace of change is cited as justification for quotas; in the case of representation on corporate boards, for example, 45% of Canadian companies still have no women on their boards. Many have argued that quotas may be necessary to accelerate women’s representation both in corporate and political settings.

Those opposed to quotas suggest that they may have the adverse effect of stigmatizing women. The underlying assumption is that quotas detract from meritocratic representation. In this line of thinking, women who are otherwise unqualified are offered a seat at the table, at the expense of more qualified men. Women that are appointed on the basis of quotas are thus presumed to be less competent.

The present study analyses the use of gender quotas in Swedish general elections. It offers new insight into the quota/meritocracy debate by measuring political candidates’ competence before and after the implementation of gender quotas. Candidates’ competence was measured by their income earnings relative to other people of similar age and similar labor-market characteristics (occupation, education level, geographic location, and age).

Sweden’s electoral system uses proportional representation, whereby each political party selects candidates to appear on a voting list. Seats in government are then allocated to each party in proportion to the number of votes they receive, starting at the top of the list and going down. In 1993, a “zipper” quota was introduced by the Social Democratic party, whereby local parties had to alternate male and female candidates on the list, thereby ensuring women’s equal representation in elected office.

Following the introduction of quotas, female candidates’ competence stayed roughly constant and the competence of male candidates went up significantly.

This improvement also extended to local party leaders.  Presumably, mediocre male leaders saw the writing on the wall and were provoked to drop out of the race (due to the increase in competition), thereby raising the calibre of the remaining male candidates. The removal of mediocre male leaders has a cascading effect, whereby their more competent successors picked more competent candidates to represent the party, increasing the overall competence of Social Democratic party candidates.


  • Reframe the conversation – This study provides powerful evidence that gender quotas do not stifle meritocratic selection practices. Proponents need to reframe the utility of quotas; not only do they ensure women’s greater representation. They raise the overall level of competence among all those who are selected.
  • Adopt learnings from other industries – The same electoral logic may also apply to representation on corporate boards; women’s presence on corporate boards does not come at the cost of losing more highly qualified men. Quotas may, therefore, increase the competence, and by extension, the performance and effectiveness of corporate boards.


Gender quotas and the crisis
of the mediocre man: theory
and evidence from Sweden


Timothy Besley, Olle Folke,
Torsten Persson, and Johanna


London School of Economics,
Uppsala University, Stockholm


American Economic Review


August 2017




Research brief prepared by

Kim de Laat