Gender equality legislation: will it work?

Manuel F. Bagues, Berta Esteve-Volart, 27 July 2007



Women and men are not equal in the labour market – not in terms of high-profile jobs or in terms of pay. Since equality of the sexes is considered a fundamental human right in all European nations, many countries are looking for policies that would reduce the gender gap. In Norway, since 1988, there must be a minimum of 40% of each gender in publicly appointed committees, boards, and councils, and from January 2008 females will have to make up at least 40% of all shareholder-owned companies' boards of directors. The French Parliament passed legislation in 2001 mandating gender parity in party lists for a variety of elections. In Spain, in 2004, 50% of the newly elected Prime Minister Zapatero's cabinet appointments were women. Furthermore, in March 2007, the Equality Law was passed, imposing gender parity (at least 40% of members of each gender) in all selection committees in the state administration, party lists, public organisations and related firms. Private corporations also received governmental guidelines towards greater participation of women on boards.

Given all these policies aimed at imposing gender parity in top positions, it is worth asking whether there is any evidence that such policies work.

How might gender quotas work?

The starting point is the well-known fact that extremely few women hold high level decision-making positions in either the public or private spheres. A gender quota at the top level automatically equalises the numbers of men and women in top positions. This helps close the gender gap quite directly, but a further motivation for imposing gender parity in top positions only (as opposed to all positions) is the rationale that once more women fill those positions, it should be easier for other women to get to the top. This idea is that gender parity in decision-making positions could break the ‘glass ceiling’ from above. But do such quotas have knock-on effects for lower echelon jobs?

There are several ways in which this could happen. First, women at the top could become role models. If women are not currently getting to top positions because of social norms, having more women at the top might help change the social norm. Second, women in top positions can affect choices in ways that might help other women get to the top. For instance, they could choose more flexible working hours or public expenditure that benefits women more (in line with evidence in Chattopadhyay and Duflo 2004).

More directly, women who get to top-level positions because of gender quotas might hire more women than their (male) counterparts: this will be the case if female candidates are more likely to be recruited when evaluated by female evaluators. Indeed, and although implicit in many discussions of gender parity policy,1,2 there is no clear evidence supporting the hypothesis that female employers are more favourable towards female employees.

What is the evidence?

Do women at the top hire more women than men at the top? Clean empirical analysis of the effects of gender quotas is hard to come by. In most situations, the composition of hiring committees is related to candidates' characteristics, so one never knows whether the committee is affecting the hiring gender balance, or whether the expected gender balance of the hiring affected the choice of the committee. (Think of a hiring committee for nurses versus police officers). For this reason, it is not usually possible to establish causality. An exception is Broder (1993), who finds that female reviewers evaluating grant proposals for the US National Science Foundation rated female-authored proposals lower than their male colleagues did.

New empirical evidence from Spain is consistent with Broder (1993). Bagues and Esteve-Volart (2007) analyse the exceptional evidence provided by Spanish public examinations, where the allocation of candidates to evaluating committees is random. The paper studies how the chances of success of 150,000 male and female candidates to the four main Corps of the Spanish Judiciary over 1987-2005 were affected by the gender of their evaluators. The main finding is that a female candidate is significantly less likely to pass the exam whenever she is randomly assigned to a committee where the share of female evaluators is relatively greater (and similarly for males).  Evidence from multiple choice tests suggests that both female and male committee members might be biased. Interestingly, this gender bias has not changed significantly over time, and does not depend on the degree of feminisation of the position: it exists in traditionally male-dominated Corps, such as the Notary Corps, and in clearly feminised Corps, such as the Court Secretary Corps.

The policy implications for the Spanish case are clear: gender parity in recruitment committees will not increase the incidence of women in top positions. In fact, our calculations for the 1987-2005 period show that, had there been an additional woman in every committee for the exams we study here, a total of 151 fewer women would have been hired, while 141 more men would have been selected.

Cabinet gender parity: an illustration

The evidence from public examinations is consistent with the case of the Spanish cabinet. The introduction of equal numbers of male and female ministers in 2004 (from only three women out of 16 ministers in previous years) has not been followed by significantly higher numbers of women in subordinate top public positions: 18.9% of general directors were women in 2006, compared to 15.8% in 2002 with the then-ruling Popular Party; an increase that is consistent with the trend. Similarly, 24.1% of deputy secretaries and undersecretaries were female in 2006, while this figure was 16.8% in 2002. That is, newly appointed female ministers have not hired significantly more women than their (mostly male) predecessors (Figure 1).3

Figure 1: Women into political positions and cabinet members, Spain, 1999-2006

Source: Instituto de la Mujer (

What can be done?

Our findings suggest that replacing male decision-makers with female decision-makers will not increase the number of women in second-tier top positions.

One of the main difficulties for female professionals lies in balancing family and career (as modelled in, for instance, Lazear and Rosen 1990). In the Spanish case, a quick glance at the résumés of the first parity cabinet illustrates this problem: while the eight male cabinet members had 24 children in total, the eight female cabinet members only had five (El País, October 16, 2005).

The Spanish Equality Law tackles this problem by reducing women’s private costs of working outside the home (the so-called medidas de conciliación de la vida familiar y laboral), which paradoxically may also increase firms’ costs of hiring female relative to male workers. Two examples are the extension of the maximum legal age of children up to which mothers can enjoy part-time status, and the extension of the maximum voluntary maternity leave.4

In a recent Vox column, Juan José Dolado (2007) reminds us of the negative relationship between public subsidies to families and gaps in labour participation by gender, suggesting that countries where the government spends more on family support enjoy higher female labour participation. Spain is the second-to-last among European countries when it comes to such spending (subsidies are only lower in Greece). While increasing public expenditure (e.g. child care provision) might be more expensive than most measures that have been put forward in the Equality Law, it could prove more effective.


Bagues, Manuel F. and Berta Esteve-Volart (2007), Can Gender Parity Break the Glass Ceiling? Evidence from a Repeated Randomized Experiment, FEDEA Working Paper 2007-15
Broder, Ivy E. (1993), Review of NSF Economics Proposals: Gender and Institutional Patterns, American Economic Review, Vol. 83(4), pp. 964-70.
Dolado, Juan (2007), Do Gender Equality Laws Help?, June 12th 2007.
Duflo, Esther, and Raghabendra Chattopadhyay (2004), Women as Policy Makers: Evidence from a Randomized Experiment, Econometrica, Vol. 72(5), pp. 1409-43.
Lazear, Edward P. and Sherwin Rosen (1990), Male-Female Wage Differentials in Job Ladders, Journal of Labor Economics, Vol. 8(1)


1 A recent report by the Spanish Securities and Exchange Commission supporting the introduction of gender parity policy argues that the low percentage of women on boards is due to the existence of 'old boys' network effects and hysteresis ("el predominio de hombres en puestos de responsabilidad es un fenómeno en parte auto-inducido, sujeto potencialmente a histéresis y externalidades de red —esto es, el predominio de hombres (old boys networks) hace más probable que se sigan nombrando consejeros de ese sexo, de forma que la falta de diversidad no se corregirá sin un esfuerzo deliberado para lograrlo" (Proyecto de Código Unificado de Recomendaciones de Buen Gobierno de 2 Sociedades Cotizadas, Comisión Nacional del Mercado de Valores, January 2006).
2 Similarly, another governmental publication argues that the lack of females in Spanish academia is due to male evaluators discriminating against female candidates ("Tanto en el CSIC como en la Universidad, la elección de sus miembros se basa en realidad en un sistema de cooptación, disfrazado de concurso de méritos.... Este sistema parece beneficiar más a los hombres que a las mujeres, pues las barreras surgen en el momento que otros, fundamentalmente hombres, juzgan la idoneidad y niegan la entrada a las mujeres en las categorías más altas", Mujer y Ciencia: La situación de las Mujeres Investigadoras en el Sistema Español de Ciencia y Tecnología, FECYT, p. 48).
3 See Florentino Felgueroso El Comercio, March 12th 2005.
4 Título VIII, Disposiciones Organizativas, Disposición Adicional Décimo Primera - Modificaciones del texto refundido de la Ley del Estatuto de los Trabajadores (Ley de Igualdad, BOE March 23rd 2007, p. 18)



Topics: Labour markets
Tags: gender equality, gender quotas, gender wage gap, Spain

Assistant Professor at Universidad Carlos III in Madrid, Spain

Assistant Professor at York University, Toronto