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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.

But if more women were to involve themselves in politics, they would perhaps feel less marginalised, become less shy and stand up for themselves. Maybe they would finally have the support they needed to make things change.

The origins of the gender gap

Women’s participation in politics is not limited to their representation in governing entities; it also manifests itself in their activism and their involvement in other political activities. Indeed, protesting, lobbying, campaigning or even just voting are political acts which can prompt political change.

However, this interest in politics, and thus activism, is still subject to many inequalities. It appears that many factors influence the involvement of a citizen in political life, such as income, social class, education – but it has also been found that gender can have an impact on this area. Many studies point out that women feel less knowledgeable about politics than men, and the 2018 Eurobarometer reveals that women are less interested in EU affairs than men (49% of women claiming to be interested against 60% of men). While this gap decreases when voting, with virtually no voter turnout gap in European elections between men and women, these numbers point out the reluctance of women to engage in politics, perhaps due to preconceived ideas that they have about their own abilities.

There are many obstacles that prevent the accession of women to politics. As mentioned above, women have to overcome gender stereotypes, starting with their own biased perception of their abilities. If women convince themselves that they are not able to fully understand politics, their interest and understanding of politics will decrease, thus leading to a reduction in their activism at any level. They might doubt themselves because of the lack of role models as well. Once they gather the courage needed to be confident in their abilities, they have to confront the prevalent idea that men are raised to be leaders, while women are not.

Moreover, several reports, such as the study requested by the FEMM Committee earlier in 2019, hint that the lack of women in politics might be due to the political party selection process. There seems to be a bias towards men, with parties recruiting more men or at least placing men in more important roles. For instance, the leadership of political parties is often held by men.

Therefore, the gap in representation seems to be due to the numerous obstacles that women have to face in order to be elected. Facing such challenges requires great strength and determination, which are qualities not expected from women in a sexist society.

And yet… women are better politicians?

While women are underrepresented in political institutions across Europe and tend to be less interested in politics, or judged less able, there is some evidence that women politicians are superior to their male counterparts. This idea is supported by studies examining representatives’ performance during their mandate. This is not to say that men are bad at politics, or that women have an innate ability to do politics better; rather it just states that, on average, women leaders have been found to outperform men.

The reason for this is quite simple. In order to be elected, candidates do not need to be actually competent; they need to be judged worthy by the voters. It is voters who decide whether a candidate would do the job right, and this decision is not always based on a fair evaluation of the candidate’s ability; rather, it is influenced by voters’ own stereotypes. If one believes that women candidates are less competent than their male counterparts, women have to be better than all the male options in order to be considered; if the women were just as good as the men, they would never be elected as men would be chosen over them every time.

Again, women are not innately better politicians than men; they just need to be more competent than men in order to be as successful as them.

So, what now?

Aiming at defending equality, the European Union has taken numerous steps to fight gender inequality at several levels including the political. For example, during the 2019 European Elections, the European Green Party instructed its national parties to apply the 50%+ gender ratio rule in favour of women. Through the use of quotas and other affirmative discrimination practices, political parties across Europe are intent on fostering women’s involvement in politics, lowering the access barriers to governing entities.

While the European Union asks from its neighbours and future members to be actively involved in the promotion of gender equality, it seems that the EU must itself undergo significant improvement in this area. While the May 2019 elections were a significant step forward towards more parity, the EU needs to ensure that better gender representation is observable within its member states as well. If the EU wishes to be seen as a world leader, promoting equality and freedom across the world, perhaps it should start by harmonising parity across its different countries.

Cover image: by Randy Colas

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