Most focus on women’s political participation has emphasised boosting its supply. But demand is the bigger problem.
Why do women continue to be under-represented in politics? The causes of this democratic deficit are well-studied, with women’s under-representation (and men’s over-representation) a combination of who comes forward for office and what obstacles are placed in their path.
Much popular and academic discussion around why women might not come forward has centred on political ambition—their interest in running for, and holding, elected office. The research suggests that women manifest lower ambition than men: they are less likely than similarly positioned men to consider running for office, actually to run for office and to believe they are qualified to do so.
A focus on the political-ambition gender gap has gone global: hundreds of organisations are working worldwide to inspire, encourage and prepare women candidates, at regional, national and international levels. Political parties also have programmes themselves, with training, fundraising, mentoring and leadership initiatives aimed at supporting women.
Such programmes can play an important role in building capacity and developing networks, and may increase the supply and diversity of women candidates. But the assumption that women lack political ambition runs the risk of falling into a deficit model, sending the message that ending men’s political over-representation entails ‘fixing’ women’s (perceived) lack of confidence and skills—implicitly placing the responsibility for change on women themselves.
Yet becoming a candidate means stepping on to an uneven playing field and opening the doors of political power depends on party gatekeepers, who crucially control the pathways into office. In most countries one cannot just decide to run for office but must be nominated or selected by a party. Training programmes may moreover have less impact if prospective candidates do not have access to the party networks or resources needed for a successful political career.
Parties and political institutions, then, shape what having and expressing political ambition means, with gendered consequences. Party demand shapes the supply of candidates and making political careers more attractive to women in parliamentary democracies entails making joining a party to begin with more conducive.
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Focusing on parties redirects attention from individual solutions to institutional strategies to rectify women’s political under-representation and men’s over-representation. Gender quotas are an important aspect of encouraging women’s participation. The global evidence suggests that, if well-designed and properly implemented, quotas—whether adopted voluntarily by political parties or enshrined in law—are one of the most effective means to ensure significant increases in women’s numerical representation.
Not a panacea
But quotas are not a panacea and political parties need to engage in more comprehensive reform. International organisations have recommended gender-sensitive audits of party processes and culture, and gender-action plans to increase women’s participation while sensitising party procedures and policies. Strategies adopted by parties variously include not just quotas for parliamentary candidates but also parity rules for party office at different levels and in candidate-selection procedures.
Numerical inclusion is thus important but does not necessarily ensure that women and gender equality are fully integrated into parties. Additionally, women’s sections or equivalents in party decision-making bodies need to be strengthened and institutionalised. Reduced membership fees for under-represented groups can lower the perceived barriers to joining a party. So can funds to support candidates with childcare responsibilities, for example, or to tackle other barriers to campaigning and running for office.
Rule changes can make parties’ organisational arrangements more hospitable to women and other under-represented groups. These can include more ‘horizontal’ and less hierarchical debating styles, online participation methods, equal distribution of speaking times, childcare at party events, family-friendly times for party activities, and training for party members, officers and elected representatives on gender inequality.
Formal party anti-harassment and anti-discrimination policies—with clear reporting, investigation and sanctioning procedure—are also crucial, given the harassment and violence experienced by many women candidates and politicians, particularly those at the intersection of marginalised identities. Finally, the collection of sex-disaggregated and intersectional data on party activities, including selection processes, is important to monitor progress and ensure accountability.
Much of the focus of efforts to support women’s political participation has centred on getting women into politics. Yet the research that exists on political ‘dropout’—and the routes not only into but also out of political office—suggests that women candidates may leave politics earlier and more readily than men. For example, political roles at the local level, often a crucial step into further office, are often also poorly remunerated and resourced, so women may find it more difficult to sustain involvement among competing claims upon them.
Reform strategies, then, must also consider the culture, rules and practices of political institutions, which must in turn share the responsibility for change. How well are women—and different groups of women—represented in these institutions, including across committees, key bodies and leadership positions? Are there any measures to guarantee women’s access to positions of power, such as quotas for committee membership or leadership positions? Are there women’s networks and/or caucuses?
Are institutional rules gender-sensitive? What are the conditions of work, the hours and leave arrangements? What are the policies and provision for care and to address harassment and discrimination? And how is gender ‘mainstreamed’ throughout the work of the institution?
Women’s political (under)representation and the associated persistence of gender inequalities in politics demand a multi-dimensional and comprehensive response. This must address the systemic, institutional, party-political and individual-recruitment barriers to women’s diverse participation and representation.
Examination of the ways in which often unequal gender relations are institutionalised in parties and parliaments is also crucial. It is these institutions and organisations that need to be the focus of efforts to achieve gender equity in politics.
Meryl Kenny is professor of gender and politics at the University of Edinburgh. Her research focuses on gender politics, party politics, territorial politics and institutional approaches to the study of politics.