Do Gender Quotas Really Reduce Bias? Evidence from a Policy Experiment in Southern Africa

There is weak evidence suggesting that young women in communities with a female quota changed their gender biases surrounding women's participation in politics.


Based on a 1993 policy experiment in India, scholars have argued that an increase in the presence of women in local leadership positions increases the engagement of women in politics, as well as the likelihood that women will run in future elections.

In addition, academics have also suggested that increased exposure to women in political positions can combat gender biases by changing citizens’ preference for the gender of their leaders, and by giving citizens more information on women’s political capabilities.  

The author of this article aimed to find out whether the previously observed effects could be generalized to contexts outside of India. To test this, she used data from a 2005 randomized policy experiment in Lesotho where 30% of electoral divisions (EDs) were assigned to women councilors. Then, she used figures from the 2012 Afro-Barometer Lesotho survey to deduce whether the exposure to women serving in community councils in Lesotho had had an effect on the community’s gender biases.


There is weak evidence suggesting that quota-induced increases in women’s representation caused a move toward more gender-egalitarian attitudes among young women.

  • Women under 25 who lived in an electoral division (ED) that was assigned a quota for women’s representation were 30% more likely to report they strongly agreed with the statement, “Women should have the same chance to be elected to political office as men,” compared to young women in EDs that did not implement a gender quota.
  • Women under 25 who lived in an ED with a female quota were also 35% less likely to strongly agree (11% compared to 17%) that “Men make better political leaders than women, and should be elected rather than women,” compared to women under 25 from EDs with no gender quota.
  • However, neither of these findings reached conventional levels of statistical significance.
  • There was no evidence that quota-mandated exposure to women representatives affected average levels of public gender biases. The quota did not change explicit taste-based discrimination nor implicit gender biases on the sample as a whole, including women and men of all ages.

The author used data from a nationwide randomized policy experiment in the southern African nation of Lesotho. In 2005, Lesotho’s Ministry of Local Government divided the country’s 10 main local administrative districts into 129 newly created community councils. Each community council was divided into 9-15 single-member electoral divisions (EDs), each of which elected a community councilor through a first-past-the-post election. The councilors elected from each ED were mandated to represent the villages in their ED at council meetings, typically once a month.

The experimental nature of the quota system was based on the fact that between 2005 and 2011, the Local Government Elections Act required that 30% of all newly created single-member EDs be reserved for only women councilors. Reservation status was assigned randomly by Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission.

Explicit bias

To measure explicit gender bias, the author regressed Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission data, which randomly assigned which EDs were reserved for women councilors, with the results of the 2012 Afro-Barometer survey, which included three questions related to gender biases. The author measured agreement with the following statements on a 4-point Likert scale.

Explicit bias question 1:

  • Statement 1: Men make better political leaders than women, and should be elected rather than women.
  • Statement 2: Women should have the same chance of being elected to political office as men.

Explicit bias question 2:

  • Statement 1: In my country, women should have equal rights and receive the same treatment as men do.
  • Statement 2: Women have always been subject to traditional laws and customs, and should remain so.

Explicit bias question 3:

  • Statement 1: If funds for schooling are limited, a boy should always receive an education in school before a girl.
  • Statement 2: If funds for schooling are limited, a family should send the child with the greatest ability to learn.

Implicit bias

To test for implicit bias, the author applied a computer-based Implicit Association Test across 92 electoral districts (EDs) with and without female quotas. The IAT, taken by 101 participants, tested for implicit bias in gender stereotyping of occupations by using images of a Mosotho man and a Mosotho woman and pictoral or auditory prompts in Sesotho associated with leadership or domestic concepts and male or female Sesotho names.  

Related GAP Studies