Do political parties that represent ethnic minorities tend to exclude women? This article examines patterns of female representation across 260 parties from 21 countries. It finds that ethnic parties – particularly those appealing to a religious minority – do tend to elect fewer women, but only under proportional representation (PR) systems that do not involve gender quotas. In single-member district elections ethnic parties actually elect more women than non-ethnic parties. Thus, a key conclusion is that PR elections facilitate the under-representation of women in ethnic parties. This could be because they centralise nomination decisions in the party elite: in ethnic and religious parties, the elite might be particularly patriarchal.
Ethnic parties are those that appeal to one ethnic category or set of categories to the exclusion of others. They are viewed as the primary vehicle for the representation of ethnic minorities in legislatures.
Why might ethnic parties exclude women? The comparatively small size of ethnic parties could exclude women, especially under PR. Further, the subcultures of many ethnic minorities are often patriarchal. Finally, an ideological fixation on ethnicity within ethnic parties could marginalise subminorities within the target group.
A new cross-national data set was used to examine the degree to which ethnic parties represent women, controlling for party size, electoral systems, gender quotas, ideology, and democratic development. On average, non-ethnic parties elected 3.5 per cent more women than ethnic parties. The percentage of ethnic parties that elect no women at all was more than twice the percentage of non-ethnic parties electing no women. Factors that influence ethnic parties’ propensity to elect women include:
- Party size: Ethnic parties are, on average, more than four times smaller than non-ethnic parties. The literature suggests a positive correlation between party size and the election of women, particularly in PR systems. However, the size of the party is not as important as party magnitude – the number of seats a party fills in each district. The more seats a party fills within a given district, the greater the likelihood that the female candidates on the party’s list will be reached.
- Electoral system: While PR seems to increase women’s representation for non-ethnic parties, it fails to do so for ethnic parties. Ethnic parties actually elected slightly more women under single-member district (SMD) systems than under PR.
- Gender quotas: Women’s representation increases in the presence of gender quotas, even among ethnic parties.
- Party identity: Significant variation was found among ethnic parties in the election of women in accordance with the type of cleavage that identifies the ethnic minority. Ethnic parties based on religious differences (rather than regional or linguistic, for example) are least likely to elect women.
The impact of ethnic parties on the election of women is therefore conditional on both institutional and cultural factors. Religious ethnic parties are significantly less likely than other types of ethnic parties to elect women. This effect, however, is found only under PR electoral systems. The surprising finding that single-member district electoral systems appear conducive to women’s representation, even among ethnic parties, merits further study.