The Politics of Policies to Promote Gender Justice

How can representative governments promote gender justice in advanced democracies and make headway against the pervasive subjugation of women in emerging ones? What is the likelihood that such issues will be addressed and adequately resolved? What type of research would help the process?

1. The subjugation of women in the Global South is the moral challenge of our time, argues New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof (as ending slavery was for the nineteenth century and combating fascism and Nazism for the twentieth).1 Today, there is widespread gender injustice across all kinds of emerging democracies: women laboring for long hours in dangerous sweatshop conditions, or as informal or domestic workers with minuscule pay and no rights; gang rape with impunity and vulnerability to sexual violence during ordinary times as well as during civil wars; high rates of maternal and infant mortality and morbidity, especially in sub-­Saharan Africa; distorted sex ratios reflecting sex-­selective abortions, infanticide, and neglect of girl children, particularly in parts of China and India; enduring sex discrimination in family law, particularly in parts of the Middle East, North Africa and some sub-­Saharan African countries, among other catastrophes.

How can representative democracies address gender injustice? There are two visions of the way forward. One is the gender parity model. The second, which I favor, is the policy-­by-­policy approach.

Parity model. Many people—in international organizations, national governments, and even academics—emphasize the need for gender parity in leadership in politics, business, the state, and other organizations. More than sixty countries have rules requiring that women make up a minimum number of candidates or elected representatives, and a growing number are imposing parity or quota rules on corporate boards, in the judiciary, among public sector decision makers, and in unions and political parties. Parity is even being raised in academic circles, given the scarcity of women as full professors, especially in STEM fields.

Parity is by far the policy mechanism that receives the most attention from scholars, international development organizations, and the media. Why? It is a simple policy that is relatively costless for governments to apply and the results are easy to measure. It is also the issue that privileged women, with the resources to think and write, care about. The feminist agenda is increasingly defined by women who, having cleared other hurdles, challenge the scarcity of their sex among presidents and CEOs.

Is parity an end in itself? Or is it a means to achieve gender equality more broadly? Both arguments are seen in the debate and there is much confusion—and slippage—between the two. My position is that parity can only be an end, and that it is unwise to expect parity on its own to make much headway against the gender injustices catalogued earlier.2 In the first place, parity largely ignores differences among women—differences that shape experiences, define interests, and set visions, including on what it means to promote women’s rights. Second, parity is institutionalized (particularly in politics) by adding women to the legislature who come from different parties. The fact that newcomers are divided across parties and owe their positions to respective party bosses thwarts collective action. Third, though there is some evidence that women representatives would like to take action to end gender disadvantage, there is little evidence of significant change in committee structure, seniority rules, and the prerogatives of party leaders—all of which tend to marginalize women in legislative politics. A recent study of the effects of twenty years of quotas in the Argentine Congress found that, while the number of bills introduced on women’s issues increased, the likelihood of any one of them passing declined. 3

Policy-by‐policy approach. In order to think about how to achieve gender justice, we must recognize that it is a complex phenomenon. Far from a single thing, it encompasses multiple institutional dimensions that may not always be congruent. Political coalitions and conditions conducive to progress on one dimension of gender justice may not work for others.

Laurel Weldon and I have developed a typology of state action to achieve gender justice (see Table 1). Based on a vision that defines gender as an institution and identifies its component institutional axes (sexual division of labor; status hierarchy; normative heterosexuality),4 the typology disaggregates mechanisms of state action along two dimensions:

1. whether the policy advances women’s position as a group subordinated by the status hierarchy or as a class marginalized by the sexual division of labor; and

2. whether or not the policy challenges the doctrine of religious organizations or the codified tradition or sacred discourse of major cultural groups.

“Status” issues challenge institutionalized patterns of cultural value that subordinate women and render men and masculinity as normative; “class” issues touch upon the balance between state, market, and family as providers of welfare and suppliers of reproductive labor. “Doctrinal” issues involve the relative jurisdictional authority of the state and substate competitors over the terms of kinship and reproduction; nondoctrinal issues fail to invoke state-­church relations.

Table 1. Typology of mechanisms to promote gender justice


Do the policies challenge the doctrine of religious organizations or the codified tradition or sacred discourse of major cultural groups?

Doctrinal Nondoctrinal



Does the policy advance women’s rights as a status group or as a class?







Family law

Abortion legality

Reproductive freedom

Violence against Women

Gender parity/quotas

Constitutional equality






Public funding for abortion and contraceptives


Maternity/parental/daddy leave

Public funding for child care

Workplace equality

Source (modified from its original version): Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2010. "When Do Governments Promote Women’s Rights? A Framework for the Comparative Analysis of Sex Equality Policy." Perspectives on Politics 8 (1): 207–216.

The goal of the typology is to differentiate between the political conditions and forces conducive to change (see Table 2).

Table 2. Most salient variables for each policy type

“Doctrinal” policies “Nondoctrinal" policies
Gender Status policies







Class policies




GDP (+)


GDP (+)

We have begun to test these hypotheses empirically with an original database of gender-­related laws and policies in seventy countries. We have found, for example, that autonomous feminist mobilization and international norms largely account for progress on state action to combat violence against women.5 The same factors, however, cannot account for variation in reform of sex discrimination in family law. To explain why some countries grant women equal rights to inheritance, guardianship of children, divorce, marital property, and so forth, while others do not, we need to examine how the mutual reinforcement of political and ecclesiastical power enables some elites to get away with using religion to defend patriarchal practices.6

In the multivariate analysis we have conducted thus far, the presence of women in national legislatures has a significant, but very small, relationship with progressive policies. This finding shows that gender parity, while defensible as an end, should not be counted on as the principal mechanism to advance women’s rights. A communist legacy had a liberalizing effect on family law but a detrimental effect on the propensity to enact policies to combat violence against women. GDP and low fertility matters a lot for the generosity of maternity/parental/daddy leave, but a low GDP doesn’t seem to inhibit change on other issues (though it may matter for policy implementation and efficacy).

Our work demonstrates that the political dynamics, institutional domains, relevant actors, and causal conditions vary across issues. This complicates the question of how representative governments can promote gender justice: there is no single answer but rather multiple mechanisms and pathways, none of which, on its own, will achieve the end we are seeking.

2. Weldon's and my research agenda is making progress on the logic of state action to promote gender justice. It helps address the question of how the role of the legislature varies across issues and how majorities on one issue may not transfer to others. Yet our work falls short in addressing the limitations of state action, which are a principal source of frustration with representative democracy. We do not offer much leverage over the gnawing gap between law and practice, between normatively- sanctioned behavior and actual behavior, whether of state officials or ordinary citizens.

The thing is, most countries have put laws on the books that criminalize discrimination and abuse and proclaim commitments to equal rights. They even have nominal policies addressing problems such as the sex ratio, maternal mortality, gender violence, domestic workers rights, and so forth. Many of these policies, which signal some political will, reflect the engagement among feminist movements, international norms, and the functioning of representative democratic institutions.

As a result, there is greater information about what is going on and a seemingly greater willingness of ordinary citizens to report injustices (witnessed by growing rates of reported cases of violence against women). On the other hand, there is pervasive evidence of the unwillingness and incapacity of the state and its officials—whether police investigators, prosecutors, labor inspectors, or others—to take seriously allegations of injustice and to defend rights. For example, one week prior to the gang rape of a twenty-one-year-old American student aboard a transportation van in Rio de Janeiro (a crime that made headlines around the world), a Brazilian woman had been raped in the same van by the same suspects but the local police never followed up on the allegations. This is particularly depressing given that Brazil was the first country in the world to establish women’s police stations, specifically intended to improve treatment of victims of violence!7

Closing the gap between law and behavior is one of the principal challenges for advocates of gender justice (as well as advocates of progress on a host of other crucial issues). Yet this is a tough subject for research since it is difficult to study behavior, such as violence against women, systematically across countries. A rise in reported episodes of violence and abuse—perhaps our best measure of behavior—usually reflects progress.

Advocates of gender justice are not alone. Accounting for the relative institutionality of social and economic behavior across countries is a major challenge for social science in general. Przeworski, for example, argues that institutions matter in rich countries but not in poor ones, implying that closing the gap depends on robust growth.8 In the short term, however, growth seems to be exacerbating some problems of gender injustice (such as violence against women and working conditions), though it may attenuate others (such as maternal mortality and access to education).

It is not clear that gender justice is something that can be entirely legislated or institutionalized by the state. New social norms require the consent of citizens to be sustainable, a process that may backfire with overjuridification. By producing laws, publicizing issues, and raising public awareness, representative democracies may help trigger deliberative processes throughout society. The outcomes, however, will depend on the everyday intervention of citizens.



Fraser, Nancy. 2003. "Social Justice in the Age of Identity politics: Redistribution, Recognition, and Particpation." In Redistribution or Recognition?: A Political-Philosophical Exchange, eds. Nancy Fraser and Axel Honneth, 7–109. New York: Verso.

-----. 2007. "Feminist Politics in the Age of Recognition: A Two-Dimensional Approach to Gender Justice." Studies in Social Justice 1 (1): 23–35.

Htun, Mala. 2005. "What It Means to Study Gender and the State." Politics & Gender 1 (1): 157–166.

Rubio-Marin, Ruth. 2012. "A New European Parity-Democracy Sex Equality Model and Why it Won't Fly in the United States." American Journal of Comparative Law 60 (1): 99–126.

Young, Iris Marion. 2002. "Lived Body vs. Gender: Reflections on Social Structure and Subjectivity." Ratio 15 (4): 410–428.


  1. Kristof, Nicholas D., and Sheryl WuDunn. 2009. Half the Sky. Random House LLC.
  2. Ruth Rubio Marin (2012) advances a concept of “parity democracy” that encompasses multiple arenas of gender justice, not just the presence of women at the top.
  3. Htun, Mala, Marina Lacalle, and Juan Pablo Micozzi. 2013. "Does Women’s Presence Change Legislative Behavior? Evidence from Argentina." Journal of Politics in Latin America 2 (1): 95–125.
  4. We define the gender institution as rules, norms, and practices, widely shared and predictable, about what it means to be and act as a woman or a man. See Htun and Weldon (2010); Fraser (2003) and (2007); Htun (2005); and Young (2002).
  5. Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2012. "The Civic Origins of Progressive Policy Change: Combating Violence Against Women in Global Perspective, 1975-2005." American Political Science Review 106 (3): 548–569.
  6. Htun, Mala, and S. Laurel Weldon. n.d. "Politics of Women’s Rights in Family Law: Religion, the State, and the Barriers to Reform."
  7. Htun, Mala, Cheryl O'Brien, and S. Laurel Weldon. 2014. "Movilización Feminista y Políticas sobre Violencia Contra las Mujeres." Foreign Affairs Latinoamérica 14 (1): 2–13.
  8. Przeworski, Adam. 2004. "Institutions Matter?" Government and Opposition 39 (4): 527–540.
About the Author
Mala Htun is an associate professor of political science at the University of New Mexico.