Women continue to be marginalized from the political sphere, facing limitations through discriminatory laws and institutions which restrict them from having a participatory role in society. Whether it is lacking leading positions in academia, elected offices, the civil service, the private sector, or simply being underrepresented as voters, women are continuously restricted from politics.
Sadly, this occurs even though women have “proven abilities as leaders and agents of change, and their right to participate equally in democratic governance.” The gender equality gap between men and women means that women’s capacity to pursue an education and attain the resources needed to become effective leaders are very limited. Such restrictions occur as a result of prejudiced laws and attitudes, gender stereotypes, lack of access to education and healthcare, and an unequal effect of poverty on women.
Although women make up more than 50% of eligible candidates for election and political office in the majority of countries, they lack clear representation in decision-making bodies. In fact, women make up only 7.2% of heads of state and 5.7% of heads of government. Just as shockingly, they also account for only 19.1% of speakers of parliament.
In Canada, although making up 50% of the population, women only had 25% representation in the parliament – specifically, women accounted for 88 out of 338 seats. Similarly, although women make up 50.8% of the population of the United States, only 24.5% of state legislators, 19.4% of congress members, and 12% of governors are female.
Even more surprisingly, more recent democracies, such as Rwanda, Bolivia, Iraq, and Kazakhstan, have outpaced Canadian and American parliamentary representation. The gender shock recently experienced in the 2014 Bolivian elections, for example, witnessed a rise from 22% to 53% of women in the lower house.
According to the United Nations, an increase in women in politics would mean stronger democracies, as “women tend to innovate in politics by working across party lines and championing social issues that are often ignored.” More women in parliament would further mean greater representation in politics – a premise for democracy.
But, if more women in politics means stronger democracies, then why are they kept out of office?
The single most important deterrent to women in politics are domestic responsibilities as well as the cultural perceptions about the role of women. This, paired with a lack of financial and social resources, are the greatest obstacles in the way of female representation.
Gender stereotyping is still extremely prevalent in discussions concerning public leadership which tends to hinder women’s contributions regarding politics by focusing on speaking styles, appearances, or personal lives rather than their actual positions on policy.
A World with Greater Female Representation in Politics
Greater female participation in the political sphere not only means greater advances in public policy, but also changing perceptions about women in leadership. In other words, what is so crucial is not only the ideological views of women in politics, but simply the image and symbolism that they exude. A female head of state shatters the glass ceiling that halts so many women from even attempting to work for office. Furthermore, “research shows electing a female head of state often leads to an increase in women candidates down the ticket.”
Countries which have the most female lawmakers in office have made much progress on issues regarding “education, labor-force participation, and paid leave”. Although not a homogenous group with one common ideology, women parliamentarians share similar general concerns as well as interests. Women in parliamentary positions “tend to emphasize social issues, such as childcare, equal pay, parental leave and pensions; physical concerns, including reproductive rights, physical safety and gender-based violence; and development, which includes human development, the alleviation of poverty and delivery of services.”
Although women in parliament have “been instrumental in ensuring that issues such as parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reforms that enhance women’s access to parliaments appear on the legislative agenda,” they have the least influence on legislation concerning finance, foreign affairs, national security and defense. Therefore, women have much less influence in determining and shaping national agendas.
Greater representation in parliamentary politics would mean changing attitudes and perceptions of women within the governmental sphere. Since the 1990s, “small but noticeable changes have been noted in parliamentary language and behavior, which are seen as having become less aggressive since women began taking up parliamentary seats.”
States which are characterized by greater gender equality and female representation in politics are characterized by using lower levels of violence during crises than states with lower levels of equality. Furthermore, a higher proportion of women in parliament is also correlated with “a lower likelihood that a country will out human rights abuses such as political imprisonments, torture, killings and disappearances. In other words, there could be more diplomacy and greater integrity in US foreign policy in the years to come.”
Most importantly, a greater number of women in parliament would mean that a greater multitude of women’s issues would be emphasized, and gender dynamics within the chamber would evolve. The reality of modern politics is that it is ruled by men, and sadly, men alone cannot sufficiently represent the interests of women in politics alone.
Furthermore, crucial to become a true democracy is greater representation of the population. By acknowledging the lack of equal participation in the current political sphere, and by actively working towards an increase in representation, not only would societies benefit, but democracies would be legitimized. In effect, “the advancement of women goes hand in hand with the overall development of society and contributes to better and more effective governance.”
It cannot be mistaken that a more inclusive parliament and a more representative government would allow new concerns to be emphasized on political agendas, and that new priorities would be adopted and implemented in the form of more all-encompassing laws and policies. To further develop good governance and democracy, the perspectives and interests of women must be protected, represented, and implemented.
Recent studies on the effect of women in the political sphere have proven that greater female representation in office leads to more peaceful foreign policy and a stronger democracy. Specifically, “female politicians tend to be more collaborative and congenial,” which could signal greater global cooperation and a decreasing recurrence of war and world crises with proportional female representation. According to a 2015 report from the International Peace Institute, the prospects that agreements will last at least fifteen years surges by 35% when women are included in peace processes. This would mean less spending on defense and instead a greater focus on foreign aid, especially in the health and education sectors. Women, perhaps due to their firsthand experience with inequality, are also more likely to focus on ethnic and racial minority groups. By focusing on marginalized groups that are overridden by ethnic tensions, the threat of war will greatly subside.
How to Mend Female Underrepresentation
As already emphasized, a vibrant democracy can only be achieved when it is fully inclusive of the population which it represents. Therefore, parliaments and governments without full participation of women, cannot be considered fully inclusive nor democratic. Gender perspective is vital to the political community, and the development of more representative governments will redefine parties to include women’s views and concerns, which are currently lacking.
Legislative and constitutional reforms are imperative to ensure more equal access for women to the political sphere.
Other than state-promoted reforms, NGOs and intergovernmental bodies such as the United Nations must advocate for greater female representation. These institutions are very important in the normalization of human rights standards and ideologies. By promoting female representation throughout parliamentary and governmental politics, gender equality will become much more achievable. The United Nations has taken a great role in representation by providing training for female political candidates and offering education and sensitization campaigns to further promote gender equality.
Women’s resources and potential must be used to determine political and development priorities which would benefit the global community at large. When women are involved in all aspects of political life, including as members of parliament, societies are more equitable and democracy is both strengthened and enhanced.
A democratic parliament is one which reflects the interests of the society from which it is drawn and utilizes such views to shape its society’s future. With woman involved in political life, societies become much more democratic and impartial. The only way for parliament and government itself to become gender-sensitive, therefore, is for women and men to work together towards a common platform for gender equality.
Pauline Crepy is in the second year of a Political Science and Latin American Studies degree at McGill University, who aims to relay her passion for development and global cooperation. Pauline can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.