Do Quotas In Two Dimensions Improve Social Equality? Intersectional Representations and Group Relations

Habra, West Bengal, India. Photo by Dibakar Roy via Unsplash.

Previous research by Rachel Brulé has demonstrated the powerful effects quotas for women in government can have on women’s property rights and economic standing. Women who assume elected office through quota systems can support their female constituents by advocating for gender equality in land reform and inheritance. Conversely, Brulé and colleagues have identified significant backlash when men accustomed to sole economic privileges are forced to share the wealth. Specifically, there is evidence that quotas disproportionately benefit the most advantaged members of quota-receiving groups and can catalyze polarization and backlash that particularly harms the most vulnerable members.

In a new working paper, Brulé and Aliz Tóth investigate the counterproductive consequences quotas can have and ask whether two-dimensional quotas improve support for inter-group relationships relative to one-dimensional mandates. The authors refer to typical quotas, which mandate descriptive representation based on one characteristic alone, as one-dimensional, and call those mandating representation on two sets of characteristics, such as gender and ethnicity, as two-dimensional. Using India as a case study, they analyze the causal effect of the world’s largest quota system for women, disadvantaged ethnicities and women from these ethnic groups.

Main findings:
  • One-dimensional quotas based on gender magnify social barriers to interactions and increase intergroup conflict. Since social norms are policed through interlocking patriarchal and ethnic norms, one-dimensional quotas fail to eliminate social barriers to intergroup equality and spur new resistance.
  • In contrast, two-dimensional quotas that combine gender and ethnicity consistently diminish exclusion, improving intergroup relations in the wake of backlash. Women from non-dominant ethnicities face discrimination based on two identities and hence have incentives to actively undermine norms that enable oppression on both fronts.
  • Evidence from a cross-national dataset shows when two-dimensional quotas are in place, all genders—from minority and dominant groups—report fewer experiences with racism than otherwise.

Should countries create ever-more-specific quotas to rectify the broad sweep of exclusion? The authors argue the answer is no. The core implication of their findings is to advocate for policies that place multiple marginalized groups at the center, leveraging the fact that those who bear the brunt of interlocking forms of oppression have the greatest capacity to catalyze social transformation that benefits everyone.

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