The impeachment of former President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil, and that of former President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, as well as the unsuccessful candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the 2016 U.S. election sparked fears and a raft of articles on the viability of women in politics. Many feared that a spreading culture of sexism would intimidate women from running for public offices. Women seeking political positions would be under enormous pressure to prove their competencies beyond gender stereotypical barriers.
Since the adoption of the International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) and the adoption of the UN Beijing Platform for Action, women have made significant strides in achieving equality in health and education. Nations have been pursuing gender equality in all aspects of life on their own as well. For example, formal barriers to women’s political participation are almost non-existent in a number of countries. This was made by possible by governments amending their constitutions, adopting laws and measures to eliminate all challenges against women’s participation in politics, and undertaking positive discrimination measures such as quota systems.
The international community realizes the centrality of gender equality as an underpinning element for sustainable democracies and a key ingredient of economic, social, and environmental development of the world’s societies. The 2030 UN Sustainable Development Agenda emphasizes that “[t]he achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities.” As a result, countries commit to eliminate all forms of discrimination against women in law and practice by implementing specific targets of the UN Sustainable Development Agenda. These efforts at the national and international levels have paved the way for women to engage in politics. Currently, fifteen countries have women holding the reins of power, including Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh, President Michelle Bachelet of Chile, President Kollnda Grabar-Kitarović of Croatia, Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf of Liberia, and Prime Minister Theresa May of the United Kingdom.
Despite these efforts and breakthroughs, the glass ceiling persists, and the hopes of achieving gender parity in politics still seem far-fetched. Recent data presents this shocking reality among democratic and non-democratic countries alike. Of the 193 countries in the world, there are ten female heads of state and nine heads of government, which means that women make up just 10 percent of all of the world’s leaders. Seventeen percent of women are in ministerial positions, typically in the realm of education and social affairs. Data also indicates low participation by women in parliamentary systems except in the Nordic countries.
The Nordic experience, while not idea, is encouraging. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2016 Gender Gap Index, four Nordic countries—Iceland, Norway, Finland, and Sweden—held the first four places respectively in closing the gap between the sexes in health, education, economic opportunity, and political representation, while the United States was ranked 45th. A close look at the political empowerment indicator shows that the Nordic countries come close to 0.540 on average (with 1 meaning total gender parity and 0 imparity). This data shows that equality in politics is reinforced by equality in the social sector. Factors that contribute to the structural transformation are universal access to health and education at all levels, political dynamics and institutions, gender sensitive policies, and a cultural belief in gender equality.
Most democracies have implemented socio-economic policies that encourage universal health care and education to all individuals. According to data from the United Nations and the World Bank, the gap between the sexes has not only narrowed in all levels of education, but has also reversed; the data indicates that the percentage of female enrollment at an educational institution is higher than that of male enrollment in most countries. The U.S. Department of Education data points out, for example, that women attending American universities earned more undergraduate and postgraduate degrees than men in 2012-2013, a trend that is expected to continue. Likewise, women and girls’ access to health care has been improved. World Health Organization (WHO) statistics show an increase in the percentage of female access to skilled health care has reached as far as 100 percent in several countries, and has consequently led to a decrease in the incidence of maternal mortality.
Another important factor that impacts women’s political participation is the political dynamics and institutions that are already in place. Political training, campaigning assistance, the base of electoral support, and access to fundraising networks to secure the needed financial resources are among the key enablers that political parties could offer to encourage women’s political participation. Stemming from this understanding, many governments have undertaken a number of initiatives imposing legal obligations on political parties to present gender balanced lists of their members. An example of these initiatives is the Finnish Act on Equality between Women and Men in 1986. The Act places the prime responsibility on the country’s authorities to prohibit gender discrimination. It requires the proportion of both women and men to be at least 40 percent in decision making bodies and public positions. Another example is the 2017 Tunisian Electoral Law, which imposes a legal obligation on political parties to present gender parity lists. Generally speaking, although political parties’ approaches to gender equality vary greatly, political parties in most democracies and transitional democracies introduce gender inclusive lists that go beyond a quota, promote recruitment of women and women’s candidacy for local, regional and national elections, and address political, economic, and social issues that are of special concerns to women.
Yet, the ability of women to break through the glass ceiling of political leadership remains minimal in most democracies in which women have had the right to vote for almost a century. Data show that women in the United States—a country that boasts healthy democratic traditions that are more than two centuries old—have attained only a small share of its political positions. As of 2017, women hold only 25 percent of positions in state legislatures, 21 percent of the Senate, 19 percent of the House, and eight percent of state governors. In Britain, 25 years had to pass before the country selected its first female Prime Minister since Margaret Thatcher. Furthermore, women hold only 30 percent of the British lower house seats and 26 percent of the upper house.
What distinguishes the Nordic countries (Iceland, Denmark, Finland, Norway, Sweden) from the rest of the world’s democracies in promoting gender equality is that they took a more systemic and comprehensive approach in putting in place gender sensitive policies than other nations did. These policies, while not necessarily labelled as gender equality policies, advance women’s position in more than one aspect of their societies, ranging from labor market and family to general welfare. Regardless of the political ideology of the ruling party, Nordic governments aim to institute welfare systems that encourage social and economic inclusion for all. These existing policies provide for the institutionalization of gender equality through measures that are considered “women friendly,” such as tax-financed social services, primary healthcare, education, child care, social security, and retirement benefits. These policies make it possible to reduce variance within society and ensure equal access to resources and opportunities. Such policies have led to high female labor force participation, low wage gaps between women and men, and abundant leadership opportunities that are not segregated by sex. The Nordic model sees these policies as catalysts for women’s economic participation and ultimately women’s political participation.
Undoubtedly, cultural barriers remain the biggest challenge facing women in achieving equality in all aspects including politics. Nordic politics is marked by normalized discourse on gender equality within the society. This is a result of long process of integration and acceptance of women and men as citizens of equal rights and opportunities. It also comes out of “[a] long tradition of government intervention to promote social equality [which] may have made the Scandinavian public more receptive to the idea of positive action designed to achieve equality for women in public life.” Such an egalitarian culture empowers women to enter politics and to be accepted as political leaders. As noted in the World Value Survey Wave 6, 44 percent of Swedes strongly disagree and 41 percent disagree that men make better political leaders than women do. The success that the Nordic countries have had in improving women’s presence in politics provides a plausible showcase for culture as a determinant factor in encouraging women’s participation in politics.
By contrast, the 2016 U.S. elections, which were unfortunately marked by misogyny and sexism, saw the loss of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to now President Donald Trump. Although it is true that other major factors have contributed to the results of the elections, Clinton noted that the culture of misogyny played a role in her loss. In her words, “I think in this election there was a very real struggle between what is viewed as change that is welcomed and exciting to so many Americans, and change which is worrisome and threatening to so many others…And you layer on the first woman president over that and I think some people, women included, had real problems." According to a PEW Research Center 2015 survey on “Women and Leadership,” Americans widely believe that men and women have equal traits and capacities for leadership. Research indicates that women are subjected by male and female voters alike to a double standard in terms of their qualifications, capabilities, and even their personal lives. On the extreme end, according to a recent UN Women report, 57 percent of men in Egypt and 31 percent of men in Lebanon believe that women should not participate in politics and that politics should be left to men. Clearly, regardless of the governance system in these countries, women in politics are perceived through the lens of gender roles.
Indeed, women running for political positions confront various forms of “additional” scrutiny and discrimination which are hidden in some societies but obvious in others. A 2014 report entitled “Shifting Gears: How Women Navigate the Road to Higher Office” showed that gender discrimination compounded with elements of harassment and difficulties in fundraising plays a deterring factor for women’s participation in politics in the United States. It examined hidden biases that women face in political institutions and from the public at all stages of their political careers. The report indicated that women need to gain constituencies and societal acceptance not merely on the merits of their qualifications and their political programs, but also on their conformity with prescribed gender roles within their private sphere. This is not unique to the American context, as women from various parts of the world have experienced forms of discrimination and bias in running for high-level positions in politics. For example in India, formal and societal bias deterred women from participating in the 2017 state elections—only 19 women out of 251 candidates ran for election. In most societies worldwide, mainstream misogynistic practices are internalized, and “often institutionalized in the policies and practices of organizations and societal institutions,” which eventually makes an adverse impact on the societal perception of women pursuing a career in politics.
While many analysts may perceive the recent impeachments of women leaders in Brazil and South Korea and the loss of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in the last election as a setback for women’s participation in politics, others may perceive this as an opportunity that requires more affirmative actions by all parties. It is no longer imperative to provide arguments on how women’s presence in all walks of life has a positive impact on societies. Numerous empirical studies have already corroborated the correlation between the increased participation of women and the well-being of societies in the areas of economy, health, education, family care, and social welfare. The Nordic example is a current reality that all countries need to learn from. It is only when gender equality moves beyond rhetoric that a female candidate can be judged by her abilities and the success of her program without the influence of the “gender role” lens.
A comprehensive approach to addressing equality gaps in legislation and in practice should be a priority for all stakeholders. Following the footsteps of the Nordic countries, other countries need to introduce reforms that strive to reach gender parity in politics, particularly at the highest levels. Structural transformation could start with reforming education curricula and introducing gender sensitive policies that would ensure women’s participation in politics and in economy. The increased participation of women in these fields would change the level of acceptance of women in public life, and transform perceptions of gender roles. These steps should be accompanied by institutional reforms in political parties such as providing training for women who want to run, implementing gender-based quota on political parties’ membership, and obligating political parties to put female candidates’ on ballot sheets. Such an approach requires prioritization of gender equality at the national level, which involves political and financial commitments of governments. This prioritization remains to be seen in most societies. What is needed now is a moment of reflection to rethink approaches in all countries.
Lana Baydas is a research fellow with Human Rights Initiative at the Center for International and Strategic Studies (CSIS). Prior to joining CSIS, she worked as both an academic and a practitioner in the fields of human rights, gender equality, development, and international humanitarian law, holding posts with the United Nations, Crisis Action, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and the American University in Cairo. Dr. Baydas has worked intensively in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region in programs promoting gender equality and protecting human rights through the rule of law, good governance, and gender mainstreaming in public institutions at the national and regional levels. She has authored/coauthored multiple publications on human rights in MENA, and she has undertaken a number of field assignments addressing human rights and gender related issues, working in Darfur, Sudan, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. She holds a Ph.D. and LL.M. in public international law from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and a B.A. in political science from the American University of Beirut in Lebanon.