What do the academics say? The impact of all-women shortlists on the quality of candidates

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. CC0 Public Domain

Welcome to the latest in my occasional series highlighting interesting findings from academic research. Today – Mary K. Nugent and Mona Lena Krook in Parliamentary Affairs, a peer-reviewed academic journal, on the subject of all-women shortlists.

This topic is going to be debated at the Liberal Democrat spring conference in York, so what does the evidence say?

In their research Nugent and Krook took a look at a range of claims made about all-women shortlists and thoroughly test them against the evidence in Britain:

The data we draw on to evaluate these claims come from various sources, including qualitative interviews conducted in 2012 and 2013 with men and women from the three main parties; as yet unpublished data on candidate selection collected by the Labour Party; original quantitative datasets constructed from publicly-available sources; and existing quantitative studies by other scholars.We also include evidence from international studies, whenever possible, to situate these findings in relation to the conclusions reached in other contexts.

So what did they find?

AWS [all women-shortlists], much like gender quotas elsewhere, do not facilitate the entry of unqualified women, jeopardise a party’s electoral fortunes or lead to the election of sub-par MPs.

Rather, they reduce barriers for well prepared women to stand as candidates, have neutral or positive effects on party vote shares and produce diligent and active MPs.

Consistent with emerging research on other countries, these results suggest that quotas are not a threat to ‘merit’ at any stage of the political process—but rather, may foster diversity while also contributing to positive democratic outcomes.

As a fun twist, not only are all-women shortlists either beneficial or neutral when it comes to the quality of women who stand, there’s even some evidence that they raise the quality of male candidates too:

Twenty years of Swedish data indicate, furthermore, that the quality of men increased after quotas were adopted.

Moreover, in Britain all-women shortlists have also resulted, in more recent selections, in an improvement in ethnic diversity amongst those selected, showing that action on different diversity strands can be mutually supporting rather than being in conflict with each other.

Or in other words, if a major consideration of yours is ‘selections are all about getting the best people for the jobs’…

…and even if you’re not convinced by my argument that you should think about selecting candidates as being about selecting a team rather than just one free-standing individual on their own

… and even if you don’t think that the fact that 84% of Lib Dem MPs have been male despite the majority of the population being female suggests we’re not getting the best people for the jobs currently…

…then still, you you shouldn’t use ‘but I want the best people’ as a reason to oppose all-women shortlists. Because the evidence shows they don’t reduce the quality of the people selected. (And as a double bonus, they’re worked when the Lib Dems have used them in the past, and there’s even evidence that having more female candidates wins you more votes.)

What the law does, and doesn't, allow the Lib Dems to do for candidate selection

The Lib Dem conference in York will debate how to improve the diversity of the party's MPs. Here are the details of what the law does, and doesn't, allow. more

I suspect at this point a few readers may be tempted to ignore the broad-based evidence used in the peer-reviewed research article and instead decide to stick to their opposition to all-women shortlists by citing an anecdote or instinct or two of their own to claim that all-women shortlists means you get lower quality people.

In which case, just imagine how you would react if, say, Iain Duncan Smith decided to reject the academic evidence on welfare and insist two personal stories of his from the past really matter more? Or if Nigel Farage dismissed research evidence in favour of immigration for a gut feeling that something must be wrong?

Liberal Democrats like telling others in government how they should do evidence-based policy making. Evidence-based decision making should apply just as much to our own decision making as to what we tell others to do.

Footnote: this conclusion, that improving diversity is good for everyone as it raises quality, is also true in the commercial world.

You can read the other posts in the What do the academics say? series here.

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