The surge in gender quotas across Africa raises questions about the varied impact of these measures on women’s leadership equity in legislatures. With its focus on the international diffusion of these laws, the existing scholarly literature has yet to fully consider how domestic factors at the time of quota adoption may shape their impact on parties and legislators. Does political context at the time of gender quota adoption affect the law’s ability to empower women within the legislative branch? To answer this question, I investigate four conditions under which countries adopt gender quotas – level of women’s mainstream political activity, strength of the NGO sector, openness of civic space to debate the laws, and the degree of political competition in the legislature – to discern which combinations promote laws that empower women within the institution or reinforce party control. To accurately test the effects of gender quotas, I develop a new index of women’s leadership equity that measures the extent to which women in the legislature have authority in political decision-making through the leadership positions they attain. I apply this index to 34 African countries – 18 with gender quotas and 16 without quotas – and find that political competition and women’s mainstream political activity strongly shape party interests and ultimately the design and effects of a gender quota. The design of the quota has consequences for whether women legislators are perceived as qualified, capable, and independent to serve in leadership positions. To further unravel causal relationships, I compare three quota-adopting countries in northwestern Africa and analyze one country, Tanzania, over 20 years to explore how different laws and political conditions affected women’s power in legislatures. The findings illustrate that the outcomes of gender quotas are highly contingent on political context and party interests, which suggest a need to shift how academics and practitioners analyze the interaction between international and domestic forces around policy change. This study also emphasizes that gender quotas are not a flawless solution for women’s political empowerment, as the agendas of political parties designing the laws have lasting consequences for leadership equity.
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