Constitutions and the Political Agency of Women: A Cross-Country Study Feminist Economics

Feminist Economics

Siobhan Austen and Astghik Mavisakalyan

An important expression of agency is having a voice in society and influencing policy. However, women currently have less input than men in decision making in their communities and societies with less than one-quarter of countries currently achieving the United Nations’ target rate for women’s parliamentary representation of 30 percent. Siobhan Austen and Astghik Mavisakalyan investigate the underrepresentation of women in parliamentary decision making. They particularly focus on the capacity for legal institutions, such as constitutional protection from gender-based discrimination, to bolster women’s exercise of agency by influencing their representation in parliament.

Recent feminist legal and political scholarship has demonstrated the gender impacts of a country’s constitution. Generally, constitutional provisions help to formalize women’s rights and provide the frameworks within which interests and concerns may be voiced; they influence women’s capacity to challenge state activity in the courts; and they influence women’s opportunities for participation in and access to political positions and public office. However, to date, there have been few cross-national studies of the role of constitutions in the enhancement of women’s rights.

Constitutional gender provisions and women’s parliamentary representation. Austen and Mavisakalyan provide a broad, cross-country overview of the relationship between constitutional anti-discrimination provisions and women’s parliamentary representation. The study draws on data from a cross-section of 106 countries in 2011. Data on women’s parliamentary representation is taken from the World Development Indicators (WDI) produced by the World Bank (; while information on the presence of constitutional protection against gender-based discrimination is derived from Women, Business and the Law (WBL; Jointly produced by the International Finance Corporation and the World Bank, the WBL is “the only dataset measuring the gender gap in legislation using quantitative and objective data” (2012: 7).

Constitutional gender provisions promote women’s agency. The study utilizes a multivariate regression framework with a wide range of variables to address the complex relationships between constitutional gender provisions and women’s parliamentary representation. The results indicate that the inclusion of a protection from gender-based discrimination in a country’s constitution is an important institutional factor promoting women’s political agency. Specifically, the study’s baseline estimates suggest that the presence of such protection results in over a 3.5 percentage point increase in women’s share of parliamentary seats. A more detailed analysis of this data, presented in the paper, shows that countries with constitutional protection from gender-based discrimination are likely to have legislation directly targeting women’s underrepresentation in parliament.

Women’s empowerment should incorporate constitutional strategies. The results of this study underscore the role of constitutional design in promoting women’s political agency and suggest that constitutional building processes offer some opportunities to enhance and protect women’s agency. This does not mean that a constitution, however progressive, will guarantee gender equity. The presence of enforcement mechanisms, political finance, and access to campaign funding are among myriad factors affecting the ability to translate constitutional gender provisions into improved rates of women’s representation in parliament. However, constitutional provisions are an important part of the puzzle of women’s underrepresentation in parliament and, as such, the struggle to protect and enhance women’s agency should incorporate constitutional and legal strategies wherever they are possible.

The empirical nature of this study has produced a relatively “broad-brush” analysis of the links between constitutional protections from gender-based discrimination and women’s representation in parliament. Its results help to identify – and justify – potential indicators of women’s agency and voice relating to constitutions and other institutions. Austen and Mavisakalyan hope that future qualitative studies will contribute the necessary, nuanced detail on how constitutional provisions might (and might not) translate into tangible policy outcomes. With the passage of time, greater levels of constitutional change are also likely to be measured, and this will create further opportunities for quantitative studies of the gender effects of constitutional provisions.


International Finance Corporation and World Bank. 2012. Women, Business and the Law 2012: Removing Barriers to Economic Inclusion. Washington, DC: World Bank. 

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