As of October 1, 2014, the Rwandan Parliament had the greatest percentage of female representatives of any legislature in the world, with a total of 57.5 percent in the upper and lower houses. The nation’s constitution declares: “The State of Rwanda commits itself that women are granted at least 30 per cent of posts in decision making organs,” making it one of more than 40 countries to enforce a gender quota in elections to national parliaments.

Gender quotas like Rwanda’s were devised to improve the problem of female underrepresentation in government. Women hold only about one-fifth of seats in legislatures worldwide (and at least 101 of 535 seats in the incoming U.S. Congress). The specific parameters of quotas often vary by country, but sometimes use gender-neutral language, for example by requiring that a party list contain at minimum 40 percent of each sex. However, “gender quotas” are always understood to impose a floor on the number of female representatives, since underrepresentation does not affect men as a group (though individual men may still be excluded based on their minority status in other areas). The assumption behind gender quotas is that women are present in low numbers because something has gone wrong in the political recruitment process, rather than—as opponents of quotas insist—that women participate in a fair system and are consistently defeated at the party and electoral levels simply because voters find them less qualified to serve.   

But one researcher is taking this logic and flipping it on its head, arguing that the real problem isn’t that women are underrepresented, but rather that men are overrepresented. Rainbow Murray, an associate professor of politics at Queen Mary University in London, proposes that governments move away from implicit quotas for women, which frame women as outsiders and men as the norm, and toward explicit quotas for men—weeding out the male politicians who are perhaps not all that well qualified. “We cannot automatically assume that men are present in these proportions because they were the best representatives available,” Murray said. “Anthony Weiner? Todd Akin?  Did those guys really get elected because they were the best society had to offer?”

Akin and Weiner notwithstanding, it’s almost impossible to imagine such a system working in the United States. Countries with parliamentary systems are able to implement quotas with relative ease, since political parties have much greater control over the selection of candidates, but in the U.S., mandatory quotas at the party level would likely be unconstitutional. But Murray’s argument is as much a call to reconsider the way society thinks about political exclusion as it is a proposal to actually change electoral laws.

And Murray’s case, laid out in a recent article in the American Political Science Review, makes for a rich thought experiment. A quota for men would establish a ceiling on the share of male representatives, theoretically driving up the quality of representation for both men and women by making the electoral process more competitive and meritocratic. The current arrangement, in which wealthy, ethnic-majority men dominate as representatives, does not serve the interest of the full range of men in society—and therefore, Murray argues, men have an “enlightened self-interest” in supporting quotas for men. Quotas alone would not necessarily result in a more representative sample of men in office. Murray’s argument requires a certain amount of optimism about the attitudes of voters themselves, since even with a more diverse slate of candidates, inherited beliefs about who is fit to go into politics are unlikely to evaporate.

The list of reasons for female underrepresentation is long and deeply rooted. There are simultaneous problems of supply and demand—qualified women often opt not to run, and they are overlooked by political gatekeepers when they do. Women also have historically lacked the funds, social connections, free time, and education to run for office. Now that the education levels of women in western democracies often exceed those of men, newer theories suggest that women are socialized to have lower political ambitions, or that potential female candidates may be deterred by the prospect of public humiliation in the media and in legislatures. When they do decide to run, previous research has demonstrated that women undergo a more difficult selection process, pressed to demonstrate their competence according to traditional “male-oriented criteria,” while also demonstrating an added value in their experience with “women’s issues.”

Quotas for women address the demand-side problems of underrepresentation, accepting that women face an uneven playing field, and seeking to create a less unfavorable environment for potential female candidates. (Once “quota women” enter office, however, they still face suspicion and dismissal, regardless of their qualifications. Critics charge that quotas amount to preferential treatment by sex, since quota women often displace incumbents who by no fault of their own happen to be male.)

Moreover, assuming men don’t have a naturally superior talent for holding office, it cannot be true that the current proportion of men in legislatures won their seats in a truly meritocratic contest. While individual men face scrutiny during their evaluation as candidates, they are not required to justify their inclusion in the political process. Enforcing a ceiling for male representatives might change that, and it would reverse the current stigma of having been brought into office by quota.

The qualifications that make a good representative are highly contested among scholars—and highly gendered among voters, skewing our ideas of merit toward stereotypically masculine qualities and making the pickings for successful candidates unnecessarily slim. If voters hold the essential prerequisites for candidates to be time and money to run a campaign, charisma, eloquence, public argumentation skills, media appeal, intelligence, and networks, it’s natural that the winners typically come from elite institutions, careers in business or law, and “springboard positions ... such as coveted, usually male-dominated positions within local or party politics.”

However, studies on quotas and individual political background suggest that using established (i.e., male) norms to evaluate female politicians risks devaluing credentials women are more likely to hold, like grassroots or community-organizing experience, that may in fact be more useful for representatives than the traditional prerequisites. Career and educational prestige are likely superfluous, since representatives must take a broad approach towards the many issues they vote on, delegating to staffers the task of mastering details and making expertise in any one subject only a minor advantage. A high level of personal ambition is also unnecessary, since a candidate who favors his or her own advancement “could be seen as violating the principles of representative democracy.” Murray argues for the inherent usefulness of qualities like authenticity, empathy, and personal experience with common concerns like public-school zoning, caring for an ailing parent or child, or the price of milk, which are traditionally considered “feminine” (although they are not necessarily possessed by women more frequently than men) and have therefore been devalued as qualifications.  

What do men have to gain from curbing their dominance as representatives? More than you might expect—and not only those men who are not part of the dominant classes. The status quo, Murray contends, encourages a specific sort of masculinity “based on aggression, confidence, virility, and power.” Research on organizational culture has found that “male-dominated environments can be intimidating for men as well as women, with men compelled ... to conform to the dominant culture, even when this does not come naturally.” Those already in power, of course, may feel that they lose out when the talent pool is widened. But they would be hard-pressed to argue that the existing, less diverse body is a better representation of the whole of society.

Furthermore, men have distinct gendered interests in some political areas, including healthcare, where men’s needs differ substantially from women’s; education, where men now lag behind women in “many subjects and countries;” and paternity, where men have special interests as fathers. These interests may go unaddressed when essentialism reigns, allowing “views about what men want and need [to] thrive unchallenged,” and preventing discussion of modern concerns such as flexible work arrangements that would allow men to be primary or equal caregivers of their children.

More than an institutional reform that might chip away at gender inequality, quotas for men are most powerful as a provocation. Freed from practical constraints, the idea offers tools for a new mindset in which men and women admit that the paucity of women leaders is equity denied and work to change it.