Women in Politics: Are We There Yet?


Awaiting the United States 2016 Presidential Election, and with a “Hillary 2016” desktop, women around the world are feeling more empowered when it comes to their role in the global political scene. Hillary Clinton is –probably– running; Croatia just elected its first woman President, Grabar- Kitarovic; Angela Merkel is the Chancellor of Germany; twenty-two countries have women heads of state; Sheryl Sandberg is “leaning in” and we are “leaning in” with her. Women can’t help but think that this is it; we’ve arrived; we are finally taking our rightful place in the political scene.

I am sorry to burst the pink –no guilt in the color choice- bubble, but we are not there- yet. It took me five minutes to list ALL women heads of state, but the number is less impressive when you take into account that there are 196 countries in the world, Angela Merkel is repeatedly being called sexist names for executing a policy plan exactly the same way a man would, and all around the world people are talking about what a huge step it is, and how unlikely, that the US may elect its first woman president.

The latest data –October 2014– from the Inter-Parliamentary Union about Women in National Parliaments reveal that both the Unites States and most European Countries have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality in politics. The country leading the way is Rwanda (with women holding 63.8% of the positions in the Lower House, and 38.5% in the Upper House), followed by Bolivia (with women holding 53.1% of the positions in the Lower House, and 47.2% in the Upper House), Andorra (50%), Cuba (48.9%), and Sweden (44.7%). The United States is on the embarrassing 76th place with 19.3% of the positions covered by women in the House and 20% in the Senate. Admittedly, the numbers could be worse. However, looking into what these numbers actually represent, we see that as of January 2014, only 17% of government ministers were women with the overwhelming majority overseeing social affairs, (family, children, and elderly matters), environmental issues, and education. Specifically, out of 1096 portfolios in 189 countries, women held only 56 on Foreign Affairs, 28 in Finance, 22 in Economy & Development, and 15 in Defense positions.

An increase in the number of women in legislative bodies has led to legislation dealing with discrimination, domestic violence, inheritance, child support and protection. Rwanda is a perfect example of why these numbers matter. In 1996, lawmakers established the Forum of Rwandan Parliamentarians, a cross party caucus that works on controversial issues, such as rights to inheritance, land ownership, and food security.

The question we should be asking looking at the numbers is “What did these countries do differently to achieve better results? Is it the culture? Or is the law and measures these countries have put in place that actually helped shape the culture and lead to better results?” There is one answer that jumps out of these statistics: Quotas. There are three main types of gender quotas used in politics today: reserved seats (constitutional and/or legislative), legal candidate quotas (constitutional and/or legislative), and political party quotas (voluntary). Reserved seats regulate the number of women elected, and the other two forms set a minimum for the share of women on the candidate lists, either as a legal requirement or a measure written into the statutes of individual political parties. Another type of quotas used less often, but arguably better perceived by the public, is gender-neutral quotas. While quotas for women set a maximum for men’s representation, gender-neutral quotas construct a maximum limit for both sexes.

Some of the arguments against quotas are that quotas are against the principle of equal opportunity for all, since women are given preference over men; quotas are undemocratic, because voters should be able to decide who is elected; quotas imply that politicians are elected because of their gender, not because of their qualifications and that more qualified candidates are pushed aside; and simply women do not want to get elected just because they are women.

On the other hand, it can be argued that quotas for women do not discriminate, but compensate for actual barriers that prevent women from their fair share of the political seats and although women have the right as citizens to equal representation, and are just as qualified as men, women’s qualifications are downgraded and minimized in a male-dominated political system and quotas are put in place to balance the unfairness of the system.

Regardless of where one stands in this debate, it is a fact that quotas change numbers. And numbers change perception and culture. Rwanda (ranked 1st) has legislated candidate quotas; Bolivia (ranked 2nd) has legal candidate and political party quotas; Sweden (ranked 5th) has in place only voluntary political party quotas, while Spain is leading the quotas example in Europe having put in place legislated and voluntary political party quotas. Interestingly enough, Andorra and Cuba (ranked 3rd, and 4th respectively) have no quotas in place. What this means is that quotas can make a difference, and do, but quotas alone will not take us far enough. Birgitta Dahl, the former Speaker of the Sweden Parliament stated:

One cannot deal with the problem of female representation by a quota system alone. Political parties, the educational system, NGOs, trade unions, churches—all must take responsibility within their own organizations to systematically promote women’s participation, from the bottom up. … This is what we are working on in Sweden. We did not start with a quota system. First we laid the groundwork to facilitate women’s entry into politics. We prepared the women to ensure they were competent to enter the field; and we prepared the system, which made it a little less shameful for men to step aside. Then we used quotas as an instrument in segments and institutions where we needed a breakthrough.

What Birgitta Dahl was referring to as “laying the groundwork”, and what we need to do, is start from the ground up. A reality we might not be willing to face is what Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox talked about in their latest study: “Girls Just Wanna NOT Run.” The article identifies five factors that contribute to the gender gap in political ambition among college students.

  1. Young men are more likely than young women to be socialized by their parents to think about politics as a career path.
  2. From their school experiences to their peer associations to their media habits, young women tend to be exposed to less political information and discussion than do young men.
  3. Young men are more likely than young women to have played organized sports and care about wining.
  4. Young women are less likely than young men to receive encouragement to run for office – from anyone.
  5. Young women are less likely than young men to think they will be qualified to run for office, even once they are established in their careers.

Studying these five factors, it is obvious that these factors come into play earlier in an individual’s life than quotas will ensure her a place in the national parliament. Women’s role in politics starts with a place in the basketball team, a voice at the dinner table, a strong female lead in a movie; and unfortunately, tempting as it is, we cannot put in place quotas for these activities. This urges us to go back to the conclusion we reached after studying the current percentages of women in politics: quotas change numbers, but this is not enough. However, the effects of the five factors mentioned above could dramatically change if the next generations grew up with more women in politics giving an example of a gender balanced political scene. Even taking into account all the arguments against quotas, it is the perception of a gender balanced political system that would make the difference, and not necessarily the gender balanced political scene, as we would envision it in an ideal society. A teenager growing up in a nation, where women are equally represented in the parliament, will feel more entitled to a voice in the family discussions, a leadership position at a sports team, will come more naturally to the decision to run for office.

It’s true my argument seems like a “fake it till you make it” strategy, but we are in denial if we believe that the gender gap in politics will be narrower in a few years just because we want it to be. The gender gap in politics comes from a gender gap in political ambition, and until we address both issues together and in sync, we will find ourselves looking up this long list of countries that are placed higher than the United States in Women in Politics.


  1. Nice article Thania. However, I think one missing reference is a discussion of type of electoral system used by a given country. Switching from a “majority” (winner-takes-all) electoral system to a “proportional” system almost automatically guarantees that more women will be elected, while avoiding the non-democratic problems with a quota system. Here’s an old, but great, paper by the European Parliament discussing the difference. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/workingpapers/femm/w10/2_en.htm.

    Incidentally, Cuba and Andorra both use some form of a proportional system, while the U.S. uses a majority/winner-take-all system. While quotas may still be ultimately necessary to ensure equality, I think a different electoral system may be a better first step.

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