Strengthening democracy: tackling the over-representation of men

Democracy can only win the global struggle for ascendancy if women rise too. Marion Bowman reports on a London conference on gender and politics attended by politicians – mainly women - from around the world.

Marion Bowman
13 November 2012

The most important election of our times has finally concluded with a second term victory for a mixed race, socially liberal, fiscally progressive Democratic US President. At a time of high unemployment and growing inequality, Barack Obama’s return to the White House bucks a lot of trends. But other trends worked in his favour – like the demographic trend that is making the Hispanic vote the biggest challenge facing the Republican Party in the longer term.

Never before has the Republican Party and its supporters looked so un-American. Obama referred to America’s diversity in his acceptance speech while the Republican campaign often revealed how problematic the party finds this fact of contemporary American life.  

The view on its whiteness and maleness became crystal clear when Republican Congressional candidates Todd Akin, Richard Mourdock and Joe Walsh made controversial anti-abortion claims that drove women in their constituencies, and nationally, firmly into the Democratic camp. And this undertow of the Republican defeat was all the more pointed when Democrat Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin became the first openly lesbian Senator to be elected.  

The 2012 election confirmed that women have arrived as a formidable force in American politics and women’s rights and gender sensitive policies have become a major challenge to American governance. It was understandable but unfortunate, therefore, that none of 2012’s successful female American politicians were able to join their peers from around the world who had gathered in London during the week of the US elections for the International Parliamentary Conference on Gender and Politics to discuss what, nevertheless, remains a fact of politics globally - its ongoing domination by men.

Three women sit behind a long desk, one addressing the audience.

IPCGP conference panel. Photo: Paul Milsom, Barrett & Coe

The UN recommends that legislatures should have a minimum 30% of women. Fewer than 25 countries meet that target. The norm is just under 20% in the lower house. In the past ten years there has only been a 6% increase in women’s representation.

For decades women’s under-representation in politics has been framed as a problem to do with women – they don’t want to get into politics, they don’t put themselves forward, they don’t have the right skills, personalities or temperament, they give up. The supply is inadequate, which is a fault of women themselves.

But as Professor Sarah Childs of Bristol University told the overwhelmingly female delegates – all themselves elected to legislatures in 46 countries – the real problem of gender inequality in politics is not the unwillingness of women to join in but the over-representation of men. ‘The most robust argument in support of women’s presence in politics is the justice and fairness argument,’ she said. There are other arguments, many that appeal to the electorate although they are relatively untested: that the presence of women will make a difference to the policies adopted; that there will be better decision-making; that there will be innovation in politics. But, said Professor Childs, ’democracy is about political equality. There is a democratic deficit if the rulers don’t look like those they rule.’ For that reason the numbers matter. Rule that is disproportionately in the hands of men lacks democratic legitimacy. This argument is what works best with political elites themselves.

But delegates testified to the fundamental problem in winning this argument: that for more women to succeed, some men – those very elites - have to give up power, and they don’t want to do this. Dr Nurhayati Ali Assegaf of Indonesia, who is President of the Inter-Parliamentary Union’s Coordinating Committee on Women Parliamentarians, said: ‘When you have women in competition with men, you become the enemy. Politics means men. They do not want to give way. It threatens them. So you have to make men your strategic partners. You have to play a very active part in your political party - I am the Deputy Secretary General of my party – and you need to pick the right candidate to run for president’. There were several references to women political aspirants facing intimidation and ridicule and being undermined. Even in Denmark, where women are 40% of parliament, MP Liselott Blixt told the conference that a male competitor in her own party asked her not to stand as it might reduce his position in the election outcome.

The evidence shows that by and large what makes the difference when the numbers of women elected increase is quotas, a forcible strategic intervention that cuts through the otherwise glacial pace of progress if there is reliance on socially or culturally determined notions like ‘merit’.   

The problem of politics being a man’s world is a real one. Professor Joni Lovenduski of Birkbeck University said: ’The masculine presentation of politics in a number of countries actively discourages women. Polling shows that women are less interested in ‘politics’ than men, but ask them about policies and they have very strong opinions. Politics is culturally coded as ‘masculine’. Political institutions are gendered, women have had to accommodate to them. Women political representatives are never allowed to forget they are women. If you look at the treatment of [the Australian Prime Minister] Julia Gillard, even hiding behind the abstractions of science, I find it difficult to cope with.’

Other than quotas, what is to be done? Academics like Pippa Norris and Mona Lena Crook have set out a range of practical reforms to political institutions and processes, particularly within political parties, that could be completely transformative. The real barriers have been studied in depth and are now better understood. They range from the way constitutions are drafted to the practices of political parties to the nature of elected office and parliamentary structures. The explanation has moved on from it being a problem with women’s willingness to stand. Tackling the barriers is not an intractable problem dependent on deeper cultural or economic drivers for solutions. And it matters that these barriers are removed and women’s participation increased.

While there is now a great deal of research on what makes the difference to the numbers of women succeeding in politics, importantly, there is also an increasing amount of research on what effect women’s presence in politics then has on policy. The policy effects are not necessarily what feminists or activists want, warned Professor Childs, but there is evidence that women’s presence has a transformative effect on politics and government. Research by Joni Lovenduski bears out the notion that women’s presence connects to policies that address women’s concerns. Lovenduski said that the ‘huge debate’ about sexual abuse and violence against women could not have taken place without an increase in women’s representation, along with the new policy focus on childcare, work/life balance, single mothers or improved equality legislation. Delegates throughout the three days of the conference, organised jointly by the Inter-Parliamentary Union and the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, added grist to that mill. Malawi MP Nasrine Pillane Mia spoke of how the law in her country had been changed to enable women to inherit property on the death of their husbands. Senator Pia Cayetano of the Philippines succeeded in getting a law on agriculture amended to make women more visible when the assumption had been that farmers were always men. Latvian MP Daina Kazaka reported on a parliamentary clash over attempts by a male MP, acting in concert with radical Christian organisations, to restrict abortion rights. The technical political expertise of experienced women politicians is critical to tackling the ingrained nature of discrimination. Eve Bazaiba Masudi, a Democratic Republic of Congo MP, related how she is focusing on reforming the country’s legal codes: ‘The constitution talks of parity but in practice the family code is applied, which is discriminatory. Married women cannot do anything without their husband’s authorisation. We are looking at new legislation but there are blockages. Some of the content has been taken out. Men are going to lose power. Women are in the ascendant and men are afraid of it,’ she said.

Delegates heard that the IPU had only just adopted an Action Plan for Gender-Sensitive Parliaments which would make legislatures more legitimate. There is a clear correlation between women’s presence in politics and policies that meet women’s needs and concerns, even if the picture is less clear when it comes to proving direct cause and effect in relation to progress for women as citizens. After all, women politicians come in all stripes just like men. But legitimacy is all. In the global struggle for ascendancy, when democracy is weakened by its own failings, and autocracy, theocracy, oligarchy and absolute monarchy rule much of the world, democrats would be wise to prioritise this action plan. For democracy, so young in terms of world history, can continue to rise but only, as America’s Republicans have learnt to their cost this November, if women rise too. The over-representation of men must be brought to an end.


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