In January, 2017, UN WOMEN released a map of women in politics. The map showcased the participation of women as chief executives of countries and as members of parliament.
The visual indicated the following:
• There are only 11 women heads of states in 157 countries which elect their leaders, representing 7.2 percent of the total.
• If you consider all 193 UN member countries, there are still only 11 women heads of governments, amounting to only 5.7 percent.
• Out of 278 speakers of parliaments all over the world, only 53 or 19.1 percent are women.
• From a total of 595 deputy speakers of parliament, only 158 or 26.6 percent are women.
Statistics from the Pew Research Institute underline that “most of the world’s nations have never had a female leader.” Of those that did, 60 percent have had women heads of states or governments for four years or less. The United States, touted as the most powerful and influential country in the world, has never had a female President.
Towards the end of the year, only two women were added to the list of heads of governments. These are Jacinda Ardern, recently sworn-in as New Zealand Prime Minister and the third woman to have held such position; and Katrin Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s new Prime Minister and head of the coalition government.
Given these data, the reality remains – women are still underrepresented in politics. Yes, even in this day and age. According to Georgia’s Human Rights and Education Center (EMC), the “low ration of women in political bodies is a phenomenon for established and new democracies alike.”
“It’s not good enough to be heard. Women must be at the decision-making table,” Ardern said.
The argument remains that as women make up half of the population and with their innate natures and capabilities, they should be in seats of power.
In 1992, during the very first European Summit on Women in Decision-Making in Athens, it was declared that “women represent half the potential talents and skills of humanity and their under-representation in decision-making is a loss for society as a whole.”
Former Republic of Ireland President Mary Robinson said: “Women are actually more inclined towards that more modern leadership, which is a collaborative problem-solving, enabling, consultative, not just trying to assert a kind of hierarchical power.”
But why is it that there continue to be less women in politics? A study by Shauna Shames of Rutgers University-Camden identifies three barriers to women’s political participation:
Women in Politics Barrier #1: Institutional Structure or Policies
Institutional barriers refer to systemic, structural or policy-based barriers that hinder women’s political participation.
Foremost are electoral systems in different parts of the world which pose the most effective hindrance. In the United States, for example, there is a basic single-member-district (SMD) system used to elect members of the House of Representatives. This type of system, Shames argues, is beneficial to men. In the SMD system, an area can have several voting districts. Voters from each district cast a vote for their preferred district representative. The winner is chosen by the plurality of the votes rather than the majority vote. It is oftentimes hard for women to break into this system and get elected into office as the SMD system is prone to two types of weaknesses. Fairvote explains these weaknesses: the first is gerrymandering or the act of “manipulating [the] redrawing of legislative district lines”; and the second one is the possibility of having a spoiler effect which leads political parties to limit the number of candidates and thus, the entry of women.
Another campaign reality is the fact that it is usually personality based, rather than policy-based. The 2016 U.S. presidential campaign focused not on issues and policies but on the characters and personalities of both Donald Trump (who later won the presidency) and Hillary Clinton. What’s more, reports showed that Hillary, being a woman, was a victim of more hate as compared to Trump and any other male politician. U.S. News gives a credible example:
“Donald Trump makes hay on mocking the disabled, Bernie Sanders gets points for claiming to be a bastion of transparency while never releasing his tax returns, but when Hillary weathers countless rounds of Benghazi investigations and comes out clean every time, the common response is: “Meh. I still don’t believe it.”
Another issue that prevents women from running for office is campaign funding. Women are normally at the lower end of the pay gap and do not have the networks or means to pour money into campaigning.
Also, elective office can oftentimes demand round-the-clock commitment, preventing women who are the traditional nurturers and carers in the home from committing to its demands.
Women in Politics Barrier #2: Social and Cultural Issues
In many countries, strong patriarchal systems remain in place making it difficult for women to break into the male-dominated world of politics. The Philippines, which has elected to office two female Presidents and touted by the World Economic Forum as the most gender equal country in Asia, has seen its share of political heckling of women in power. In the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, a deeply conservative society, the very first time that women were allowed to participate in elections was on December, 2015, when they cast their votes in municipal elections.
There continues to be a strong emphasis across societies of women’s roles in the home, as mothers and wives. Also, politics remain a ‘male’ structure. In fact, EMC’s report emphasizes that “it is based on the idea of competition and confrontation,” a male domain, as opposed to what is seen as a more feminine style of collaboration and consensus.
Women in Politics Barrier #3: Psychological or Motivational Factors
Dirty politics and its extremely negative effects turn off most women from participating in it. British journalist Bim Adewunmi wrote, “who but the most thick-skinned would willingly go through a cycle that so closely scrutinizes female politicians’ fashion choices, sexual pasts and even their childcare arrangements?”
What’s more, women tend to get additional heat when running for office. Hillary, for example, received a lot of criticism for not being “human” enough or for being “too vocal” or “too insensitive.” In her book, What Happened, released in September, 2017, she wrote:
“It’s not customary to have women lead or even to engage in the rough-and-tumble of politics. It’s not normal — not yet. So when it happens, it often doesn’t feel quite right. That may sound vague, but it’s potent. People cast their votes based on feelings like that all the time.”
Shames noted other barriers to women’s political participation which include its intrusion into private life, belief that politics will not be a useful tool in effecting change and its continued exclusion of women.
If we want more women in politics, it’s important to address all of these obstacles which make up the so-called glass ceiling that women have been trying to smash since the beginning of time. Below, are some possible ways to increase women’s political participation:
1. Ensure that all women and girls go to school and receive the same kind of education as men do.
2. There must be continued advocacy on the rights of women and girls, including the rights to suffrage and political participation. These advocacy activities must not only be targeted to women and girls but also to men.
3. Make sure that all women have the right to vote and are encouraged to do so.
4. Laws and policies on gender equality and those that encourage women’s political participation must be put in place. These should include setting up quotas or seats for women representation; ending the gender wage gap; eliminating discrimination against women, violence against women, freedom from sexual harassment; access to reproductive choice; provision of affordable health care; among others.
5. Women must be provided with leadership training and skills workshops.
6. Efforts must be made to encourage the establishment and growth of women’s movements;
7. Pressure must be exerted on political parties to ensure gender consciousness and seats for women.
8. The media must also be provided with information sessions and training on how to cover women political candidates.
Of course, this list is non-exhaustive and may vary from one country to another. It is also very difficult to actually implement each of these steps. There are currently a lot of feminist movements who are actively engaged in making the world a better place for women and introducing the cracks in the glass ceiling.
How do you think we can further improve the participation of women in politics? What is your own personal contribution to this crusade? Let’s start a conversation that matters.