Written by Rose Adams.
At only 20 years since its first democratic transfer of power, Taiwan’s democracy is shockingly well developed. With a voter turnout of 74.9% in 2020’s national election and a female President, Taiwan has achieved democratic feats that even the United States has yet to realize with 200-plus years of democratic experience. One of the more impressive of these records is Taiwan’s current percentage of women in government: a whopping 38% of legislative seats, one of the highest of any democracy. Compare that 38% to Japan and Korea, two of Taiwan’s neighbours who have similar electoral systems. At 10% and 17 %, respectively, of Japan and Korea’s legislature seats filled by women, Taiwan’s success is miraculous.
The key difference between Taiwan and its neighbours is the island’s history of gender quotas in politics. Not only did Taiwan’s quota system require women to be present on the parliament floor, but the competition for the female reserved seats pushed parties to invest more in female politicians. Just as importantly, gender quotas have a cumulative effect beyond the races they directly impact. By helping women overcome the societal obstacles to entering politics and forcing parties to cultivate female candidates, Taiwan has seen a generation of fully-fledged female politicians who went from getting a foot in the door to breaking glass ceilings. Nevertheless, unless Taiwan addresses the underlying social pressures that constrain would-be female politicians, gender quotas will only be able to nudge women just a little closer to equal participation.
First, a brief explainer of the mechanics behind Taiwan’s gender quota system.
Local races use SNTV (Single Non-Transferable Vote) elections, a straightforward system where if there are five seats in a district, the five candidates who received the most votes each receive a seat. In districts with multiple seats up for grabs, a certain ratio of seats must be awarded to women. If no women receive seats in the typical fashion, the reserved seat rule is invoked, and the woman with the most votes replaces the bottom-ranked seated male candidate. This guarantees that at least one woman will be elected from the district, fulfilling the quota.
Reserved seats initially created two races in each district: a general race and a “women’s race.” Suppose the opposition could not field a female politician. In that case, the ruling party (the KMT, for much of Taiwan’s early history) could then win the female seat cheaply and without significant constituent support for its female politicians. As opposition parties developed, competition increased in the “women’s race,” forcing parties to invest in training and supporting female candidates to stay competitive for the reserved seat. Over time, the “women’s race” became just as competitive as the general race. In the period of single-party rule, 28% of women in government had depended on reserved seats for election; by 2018, only 3% of female politicians entered office by invoking the reserved seat rule (and had fallen short of the next-best finisher by far smaller margins).
The seeming obsolescence of gender quotas in modern Taiwan is a testament to their effectiveness, but it is not a reason to say, “mission accomplished” and eliminate reserved seats altogether. The decrease in invocations of the reserved seat rule represents two intertwining trends. The first trend is that fewer of the district races are seeing women fail to make the top ranks on their own. This suggests that female politicians are generally as competitive and enjoy similar public and party support as male politicians. The second, deeper trend is that more women are running in – and winning – elections that do not have reserved seats. Part of this stems from the fact that now there are simply more races without reserved seats.
In 2008, Taiwan ended gender quotas for single-member districts (SMDs), where a large portion of the legislature is elected. Yet, the number of women in Taiwan’s legislature continued to grow, with a significant number of women elected in single-member districts. This demonstrates that the generation of women brought up through the old reserved seat races have built up enough support to compete in general races without the fail-safe of reserved seats. Female politicians are also diversifying in the types of positions they pursue, suggesting that the political experience they accumulated under the gender quota system has effectively carried over into other realms of Taiwan’s political scene.
If female politicians are now just as competitive as their male counterparts, what precludes Taiwan from eliminating the reserved seat system altogether and trusting in its tradition of high female political participation?
Approximately 80% of women who won seats in single-member districts and 70% of female mayors – races without any gender quotas – got their first chance at elected office through reserved seat elections. Among these women, the majority also come from legacy political families, meaning that they already had a head start in the political world. Even with a political family’s extra connections, new female politicians still must rely on reserved seat races to break into politics. Once in office, female politicians can accumulate experience and build a solid foundation of support. Ideally, budding female politicians can use this newfound political strength to leave the reserved seat races behind and foray into SMD races, mayoral elections, or even the Presidential race. The common origin in reserved seat districts suggests that reserved seat races function as vital incubators for new female candidates to gather the political capital needed to balance out the disadvantages of being a woman in the broader political realm.
The truth is that while Taiwan has made great strides in political representation for women, this should not be taken to mean that attitudes have changed to the point that quotas are no longer necessary. President Tsai Ing-wen herself was the target of sexist insinuations that she should stay at home and out of politics during her 2016 campaign. While there is high participation on the local level and in the legislature, high power seats like cabinet positions remain mostly elusive. Only four of the forty members of Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet are women. All four women and Tsai herself are unmarried and without children, a byproduct of gender norms that force ambitious women to choose between families and careers. At the same time, men are free to relegate household responsibilities to their partners. An increasing number of Taiwanese women are holding off on marriage or remaining single to pursue careers, but gender quotas remain critical to bringing more of these women into politics.
Being forced to give up on a family to pursue politics ultimately discourages many Taiwanese women from pursuing high government positions. Even if there were quotas at the cabinet level, there simply might not yet be enough women willing and able to fill those spots. The enormous underlying societal obstacles of traditional gender norms continue to exert a dampening force on women’s participation in politics, counteracted but not eliminated by the effect of gender quotas.
Until a day in the distant future when women have the same social freedoms as men, gender quotas will remain a critical tool in making politics accessible to women. This accessibility, even if limited to only a handful of electoral races, sees multiplicative effects as female politicians take the skills and support gained to pursue higher office. Gender quotas have a critical cumulative effect, and the additional help with entry is necessary to continue to raise new generations of female politicians. Moreover, even if not equal participation, greater female participation helps pave the way to address the underlying social challenges preventing more women from entering politics. A higher percentage of female politicians is correlated with expansions in women’s reproductive rights, maternity leave, and anti-discrimination efforts. Taiwan may loom above its neighbours in terms of women in government, but gender quotas can only go so far. If gender quotas have been women’s key to unlocking the door to politics, now Taiwan needs to ask itself, how can it get rid of the door altogether?
Rose Adams received her bachelor’s degree in International Relations from Stanford University and continues to study there as a graduate student in East Asian Studies. She first visited Taiwan for a summer language intensive and proceeded to fall head over heels for the country, especially the food. She intends to continue studying Taiwan and to go back as frequently as she can.
This article is part of a special issue on “Taiwan Security Issues: Student Commentaries from the Stanford Center for East Asian Studies.