Women and politics: the origins of gender inequality in the foundations of our democracy

When we reflect on how gender inequality manifests itself in our societies, we often think of strong ideas illustrated by impactful numbers such as the gender pay gap or the number of victims of domestic violence. These topics are often referred to when highlighting gender inequalities in our countries, but another very important aspect of our societies is an arena of this injustice: politics.

On the 1st of December 2019, the most equal European Commission ever formed was entering into office. Led by a woman and accompanied by a record number of women elected to democratic bodies, the European Union of 2019 seemed to be making great progress towards greater equality in politics – but how representative is this of what is happening in European society?

How equal are EU political institutions?

The EU has made substantial progress towards more representative gender balance in its institutions. As stated before, in 2019 Ursula von der Leyen became the first woman to be appointed president of the EU Commission. Leading a more - though yet not wholly - equal commission (12 women against 16 men) and accompanied by Christine Lagarde as president of the ECB, women are increasingly holding important roles within the European Union. Following the May 2019 elections, women now account for 40.3% of the MEPs, against 37% during the previous term; but this representation is not consistent across all member states. For example, 55% of Swedish MEPs are women, but Cyprus elected an entirely male cohort. Seven countries achieved perfect parity.

Percentage of women MEPs by country in 2009 and in 2019, Source: CEMR

On the state level, women constitute 28.5% of members in lower or unicameral chambers. Only ten European countries currently have a woman as a head of state of government. These numbers are similar to what we observe in elections to mayoral and regional assemblies, with roughly 29% of elected local government officials being women. In contrast to the European Parliament, no country in Europe has achieved perfect parity in local elections, with Iceland having the highest representation levels at 47.2%. Hence, while the presence of strong women figures at the head of the EU seems to convey a positive message, there is still a long way to go before we achieve true parity within the European political landscape.

Why does it even matter?

Democracy is based on the empowerment of citizens. Through the act of voting, citizens choose representatives who will defend their interests when taking political decisions. In order to ensure this alignment of interest between the representative and the citizen, the elected candidate must embody the citizens’ concerns as accurately as possible.

Two different views come into play when it comes to representation in politics. On the one hand, substantive representation advocates for a representation in the ideas; politicians defend the interests of a group without necessarily being part of this group themselves. For instance, a Caucasian politician defending the Black Lives Matter movement would be a substantive representation.

On the other hand, descriptive representation advocates for a “physical” representation, i.e. politicians who share the same features as the group they represent. Following this idea, the representatives have a greater incentive to defend the interest of the group they represent as they have known the same struggles as their fellow citizens.

Advocating for better representation of women in politics falls under the descriptive representation idea. How can we have a coherent representation if women constitute half of the population but barely 40% of MEPs? More women in office would be coherent with the mere principle of democracy, with the governing institutions truly representing their citizens.

It is worthwhile to mention that a female representative will not defend women’s interests simply because she is a woman, nor that a male representative will not defend these rights because he is a man. There may be women in politics who are not fighting for women’s rights in order to be better accepted by their male colleagues.

While a person’s gender may be linked to the likelihood of defending these interests, asking for a more descriptive representation does not necessarily imply having stronger and better defended women’s rights. It only means that there would be a fairer and more accurate representation in the bodies that are supposed to speak for the citizenry.