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Global leadership: Voters launch a power surge of women

Brazil's President-elect Dilma Rousseff is the latest in a power surge of women in global leadership positions.

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Gender quotas, which vary in structure but typically reserve political seats or spots on a ballot for women, have existed in a handful of countries since the 1930s. They came into vogue in the 1970s among European leftist parties, and started to gain more widespread traction in the '80s. But it was this Beijing conference, Ms. Krook says, that made the concept palatable to a wider variety of countries.

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"Representatives could go home and argue that this was a global norm," she explains.

Since the conference, nearly 100 additional countries have instituted some form of political gender quotas. And between 1998 and 2008, the global average of the proportion of women in national assemblies increased 8 percent, to 18.4 percent, according to the UN Development Fund for Women. This contrasts with the increase of just 1 percent between 1975 and 1995.

Quotas work best in parliamentary systems

Some nations saw an increase when they instituted quotas – such as in Ecuador, where the percentage of women legislators increased from 3.7 in 1996 to 17.4 percent in 1998. But not every country's quota worked so effectively. Paraguay, for example, saw no change at all, with 2.5 percent both before and after the quota.

Part of the reasoning for this, say political scientists, is that quotas are created differently – placement mandates that compel parties to alternate women and men on their ballots, for instance, do better than an instruction for a party to make a "good faith" effort to include women.

They also function primarily in parliamentary, multiparty systems, as opposed to in, say, the US, where the candidate who gets the most votes wins.

But overall, Krook and others say, the quotas have shifted more political power to women – and women's power to new regions.

A number of countries from Southern Africa – where quotas are encouraged by regional bodies such as the Southern African Development Community – sit in the top tiers of the IPU's ranking of female legislative participation; Latin America is also well represented. Even Afghanistan and Iraq, which adopted gender quotas when they designed their post-American intervention political systems, now have more female representatives than does the US.

Women's perspective on lawmaking

What these numbers actually mean for women's rights, is another issue. Many advocates claim that increased female representation will more likely bring so-called "women's issues," such as child care and reproductive health, to the political forefront.

"We bring a totally different perspective to the issues – we have to run the family household, balance the budget, raise the kids," says Anne Mackenzie, who served in the Florida legislature for 16 years.

Ms. Walsh, at the Center for American Women in Politics, agrees. There are many examples of female members of Congress recognizing, and then adjusting, laws or institutions that were discriminatory, she says. It was a group of bipartisan women, for instance, who changed the National Institutes of Health's policy to study only men in drug trials; it was a Republican woman who pushed to create the Family Medical Leave Act.

Because of this, both Walsh and Ms. Mackenzie are involved in a movement to recruit women candidates of both parties to run in 2012, when redistricting will mean that more races will be without an incumbent – something that has traditionally worked in favor of women politicians.