Pooja Sajanani is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.
In the snap elections of June 2017 in the U.K., 208 women Members of Parliament were elected to the House of Commons. The number on its own may look acceptable to some considering that it’s the highest number of women ever elected as MPs in UK’s political history but the fact still remains that only 32% of MPs are women in a country where more than half of the population comprises of women. The percentage of women in the House of Lords is even lower at 26%. On top of this only 6% of MPs are BME, compared to the BME population making up 14% of the U.K., and 25% of MPs went to private school, compared to 7% of the general population. In a ranking of 193 countries composed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, which works closely with UN Women to advance women’s political representation, the U.K. despite its undeniably poor performance ranks 46th in the matter of women’s political representation. I have only barely scratched the surface so far, in this blog article I will try to disseminate and use the information available on women’s political representation to explain why there is a need for more women in politics, what are the causes of under-representation of women in politics and how this problem can be solved.
The condition is better in the case of European Union Parliament where 41% of members are women. However, around the world women’s political representation is nowhere near optimal. Only 9 percent of countries, which is 18 out of 193, currently have female heads of governments. According to data collected by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), women make up less than 10 percent of members of parliament in 27 countries. Micronesia, Qatar, Vanuatu and Yemen do not have a single woman in their lower or single house of government.
The question that might arise in your mind at this point is why do we need more women in politics? Christine Cheng, a lecturer at King’s College London, in her thought provoking TEDx talk outlines three reasons why: female politicians outperform male politicians, women politicians are more active on women’s issues and women politicians have more empathic and inclusive leadership style. Let’s discuss these reasons in more depth.
In a study titled ‘The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen?’, Anzia and Berry, set out to compare the performance of men and women in US politics after assuming office. They find that congresswomen secured 9% more spending from the federal discretionary programs than congressmen. They also discovered that not only did women sponsor and co-sponsor more bills than their male counterparts but that the legislation that they enacted was more supported by the voters that elected them. To some extent the reason for this difference they say is apparently a political scenario rife with gender discrimination in which it is categorically difficult for women to assume positions of power and hence women that do get elected to office have to be well above average and extremely ambitious. Sadly, very few studies have been done to answer this particular question and it would not be prudent to generalise the findings of just one. However, the message is clear – the possibility that women can outperform men in politics needs to be taken more seriously by potential women candidates discouraged by gender bias and voters who think otherwise.
The second reason is by far the strongest one in my opinion. There are two types of representation in politics: descriptive and substantive. Descriptive representation is understood in terms of women elected in office and substantive representation is understood as representation of issues or interests of women. It would be a common fallacy to assume that no men have a progressive outlook on women’s issues or that all female politicians are equally committed to women’s interests. In fact, there are some examples of women in top government positions who have not taken particular interest in advancing women’s issues, especially when they conflicted with party interests but, on average, greater presence of women in government has brought more attention and action to issues that disproportionately affect women such as abortion, birth control, parental leave, childcare, rape, domestic violence and the pay gap. These concerns need to be included in legislation and policy making. Women address them more often than men. It’s as plain as that. Therefore, now with Donald Trump’s presidency reversing centuries of efforts for gender equality and setting an example of that, there is more than ever a pressing need for more women all around the world to take up the political stage and advocate for themselves.
When we think of the third reason, a picture of Nancy Pelosi, bringing the US’s House of Congress to order surrounded by dozens of children, is bound to come up in our mind. As the first and only female Speaker of the House, she attained the highest rank any female politician has achieved in US political history. When questioned in an interview on how does she balance being tough enough and having a kind, nurturing image, she says “I see my role in politics as an extension of my role as a mother”. Research has shown that women in general do have a less aggressive and confrontational leadership style but there have been many significant women who have not conferred to the pattern. While the leadership style is very important, women must be free to choose without attracting biased criticism. “Women always face double standards”, says Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland. It is not uncommon to hear the words ‘too soft even for a woman’ or ‘too tough for a woman’. Instead of dangling their opinion of women’s leadership style on a rope, society needs to make a concrete bridge of unbiased knowledge connecting actions and promises of their female leaders and they will see that women in politics achieve as much as any man.
To summarise, even though the percentage of women in parliaments has more than doubled in a century from 11.3% to 23.3%, women are still largely under-represented in most countries around the world. The gap between the best and worst performing countries in terms of equal representation in government is appallingly large. This world needs more female politicians. One of the main reasons being to advance a large number of grave concerns disproportionately affecting women such as sexual harassment, domestic violence and so on. In addition to that, it has been found that once elected women have shown equal potential as men and in many measures outperformed their male counterparts. Lastly, I would end with a promise for writing my next article with suggestions to increase women’s political representation and this beautiful thought from Indira Gandhi, the former Prime Minister of India:
To be liberated, woman must feel free to be herself, not in rivalry to man but in the context of her own capacity and her personality.
Anzia, S. and Berry, C. (2011). The Jackie (and Jill) Robinson Effect: Why Do Congresswomen Outperform Congressmen? American Journal of Political Science, 55(3), pp.478-493
Cheng, C. (2017). Gatekeepers and role models: women in politics. Available at: https://youtu.be/o9GBrZjEHHg
Equal Voice (2016). Women’s Political Representation & Electoral Systems. [online] Available at: https://www.equalvoice.ca/assets/file/EV_Electoral%20Reform%20OVERVIEW%20-%20Sept%201%202016.pdf
House of Commons (2017). Women in Parliament and Government. [online] Available at: http://file:///C:/Users/Pooja/Desktop/blog%202/women%20in%20politics%20uk%20reprt.pdf
Inter-Parliamentary Union (2016). Women in parliament in 2016. The year in review. [online] Available at: http://archive.ipu.org/pdf/publications/WIP2016-e.pdf
Inter-Parliamentary Union (2017). Women in Politics Map. [online] Available at: https://www.ipu.org/resources/publications/infographics/2017-03/women-in-politics-2017
Why Women Make Better Politicians. (2016). [online] Available at: http://bigthink.com/women-and-power/why-women-make-better-politicians
Photo credit: http://futurefemaleleader.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/WomenInPolitics.png