Electoral politics are no exception to the stigma against women that seems to fester in every nook and cranny of the world. While the suffragette movements may have resulted in granting women the right to vote in every country, there is still a long and unevenly paved road of progress ahead. Some noteworthy advances have been made within countries, such as those in the Arab region, which have adopted quotas that increase the percentage of women in parliament. However, barring few women-led countries that have successfully implemented gender equality measures, such as the Nordic countries, women remain underrepresented in the political sphere. It is especially apparent that women are exceedingly absent from the highest levels of political office. Women constitute less than 23% of parliamentarians, resulting in a large gender gap that exceeds the 50% mark.
Why Does This Disparity Exist?
There is a dual feedback mechanism that contributes to the lack of women in politics. On one hand, deeply ingrained stereotypes about women prevent people from voting them into power, while on the other, women themselves hesitate to participate in elections, perceiving them to be highly competitive and biased against them. The latter notion is perpetuated by the former and further fuels it, resulting in a vicious cycle. While there is evidence for the latter changing, with support from constant challenges being posed to existing definitions of gender roles, the former still posits a credible threat to gender equality in government.
Gender discrimination in politics is directly linked to discrimination in the labour market where women are considered weak negotiators, are judged based on their looks rather than their ideas, and are deemed incapable of succeeding at high-level posts. One of the biggest concerns that arises is with regard to women’s ability to simultaneously manage their work and family life. This leads employers to view them as risky assets who may leave their job at any point to raise a child, thus costing their company. As a result, they tend to restrict women to lower posts, in case they leave, in an effort to minimise the fallout. This concern resonates in the sphere of politics as well. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, who is one of only two world leaders to deliver a baby in office, faced immense criticism for the same as she had to adjust her schedule to breastfeed.
Additionally, social psychologists have found that people associate good leaders with agentic traits such as assertiveness, self-confidence, dominance, and independence which are typically associated with men while women are stereotypically considered to be more communal, that is, helpful, warm, and empathetic towards others. This puts women in a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” position because when they behave as they are “supposed” to, they are seen as unworthy of a leadership position, but when they display agentic traits identified with leaders, they are criticised for not acting as they “should”.
Why Do We Need More Women in Politics?
Besides the glaring discrepancy in figures where women constitute 50% of the global population but account for less than 23% of the membership of all national parliaments, there are important implications of women in politics. An increase in women’s representation would result in a shift in prioritisation of issues and substantive representation of their interests that could further benefit women in the future. Research has shown that there are gender differences in preferences when it comes to government spending. Women prefer greater spending on the environment, healthcare, unemployment insurance, and policies for gender equality and redistribution as opposed to military and nuclear energy expenditure. Such issues do not always get the attention they require in male-led countries and often, this contributes to further strengthening the existing barriers that women have to encounter in all spheres of society and the economy. Women leaders who prioritise gender equality agendas, for instance, might push for better childcare and family-friendly policies that would reduce women’s need to leave the labour force to bring up a child, which would further help in eliminating the existing gender wage gap.
Studies have also shown that women care more about children’s welfare and education which is vital as the youth constitute the future of any country and accumulation of human capital is becoming increasingly important. Additionally, women in elected office have been associated with greater overall social benefits such as lower corruption rates and better infant mortality rates. There is also a self-reinforcing element to an increase in women in politics, in that they motivate other women to participate as well. Young women often cite the lack of enough female role models in politics in their country as a hindrance to their aspirations and having more women in office would lend them the encouragement they need to pursue their dreams, thereby creating a virtuous cycle of role models.
In light of COVID-19 especially, the need for women leaders has never been greater. Women-led countries performed significantly better than others, in terms of the number of COVID-19 cases and deaths they witnessed, because they were proactive and implemented coordinated policy responses to curb the pandemic early on. While some countries have remained COVID-19 free, the disruption caused by the outbreak is far from over and it only highlighted how diverse leadership and women’s representation in times of crisis is imperative going forward.
The Way Forward
The world only stands to benefit from the increased participation of women in politics and it must work to achieve this parity. The UN Women’s key area of focus in doing so is the adoption of quotas and other temporary special measures to increase the number of women in electoral politics. While over 100 countries have implemented some version of gender quotas to improve women’s representation, results on their efficacy have been mixed. A survey in Uttar Pradesh found no impact of female village leaders on women’s electoral participation while data from West Bengal showed an increase in women’s political candidacy once women were in leadership positions for two consecutive terms, suggesting that quotas may take time to work.
While the efficacy of quota measures may vary from one political scenario to another, a more deep-rooted empowerment strategy may prove to be beneficial in encouraging women to participate. This includes inspiring the female youth to strive for leadership roles at the school level which will help in furthering the virtuous cycle of role models mentioned before. The establishment of networks that lobby for women’s representation and programs that impart the necessary leadership and political training that women seek will also bolster their confidence and subsequently, participation rates. There is an urgent need for women in politics today, more so than ever, and the blatant imbalance in the political domain must be rectified. As an ad campaign by the UN Women put it, “democracy without women is incomplete.”
Sanjana Hira is a third year undergraduate student pursuing a degree in Economics and Psychology from Ashoka University.