Beyond quota systems: bridging the political gap for women

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To achieve gender parity in politics we need to target the gatekeepers: male party leadership. Effective programmes for the empowerment of women are those that make party leaders aware of the political value of parity, and of the practical obstacles to a woman’s political career.

Is the 21st century the time for gender parity in politics?

According to many, including the UN, the 21st  century  is set to be the first century when women and girls can achieve real progress towards equality.

In politics, the success of Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, Sanna Marin in Finland, the long tenure of Angela Merkel in Germany, as well as the positions of Ursula von Der Leyen and Christine Lagarde at the top of two EU institutions seem to confirm this trend. The election of Kamala Harris as vice president of the US is a further step in this direction.

What the numbers tell us

And yet, according to the World Economic Forum, which collects data on legislatures and executives across the world, politics is the least gender equal field when compared to the areas of economic participation, education, and health. It is also the area in which achieving gender parity is projected to take the most time: the Global Gender Gap 2020 Report talks of yet another 95 years to go. In comparison, full equality in education is expected to be within reach in 12 years’ time.

At present women hold only 19 top executive positions across 193 states.  Thanks to various forms of quota legislation, which are nowadays applied in most countries of the world, female lawmakers now hold up to 25.2% of lower house seats worldwide, i.e. one woman for every three men.

This low percentage is not due only to the situation in low-income countries, or countries where dominant religious or cultural traditions deprive women of equal status. Rather, these figures reflect the status quo of many high-income countries too. In the US, for instance, 2020 marked a significant gain (7%) for women lawmakers in the House, but they still make up less than a quarter of members of Congress. In Germany, female representation is at 31% in the Bundestag, down from 37% in the former legislative term.

Digging down further, to levels of governance which are not captured by the World Economic Forum’s index, the picture is even grimmer. Only ten out of 50 US state governors and two out of 16 president-ministers of German landers are women. In Italy, only one of the 20 regions has a female president and women make up only 14% of the country’s 7918 mayors. 20% of mayors in France (out of  34,970 communes) are female, while Germany has only 9% Bürgermeisterinnen out of 11,000. The same goes for the presidencies and vice-presidencies of elected assemblies, the houses’ leadership roles and party whips.

Looking to supranational institutions, only three out of 16 UN agencies have women directors; in 75 years of existence, the UN has never had a female secretary general.

Many explanations, no solution?

But if women are nearly as educated as men, and quota legislation is widely applied across the world, what makes politics still such an unfriendly environment for women, especially those with a minority background?

Since the 1970s, thousands of pages of feminist literature have addressed the problem, pointing at a variety of factors. These can be socioeconomic, such as family and care duties or income levels; cultural influences, such as traditional religious norms; or institutional reasons, such as electoral and party systems that squeeze women out. For instance, proportional representation systems with closed party lists deliver more elected women than first-past-the-post and open lists. Scholars have also stressed the different media treatment of women in politics, where coverage is unequal and often focused on their family life, clothing and physical appearance rather than on their programmes. Women are also the target of hate speech much more frequently than men, a strong deterrent to engaging in politics.

A more recent set of academic literature has also stressed the extent to which leadership is still widely defined according to traditional masculine standards of authority, decisiveness, competition, and transactional relations.

The results of a recent survey that I designed to ask about the factors hindering women’s political careers in Italy revealed that men and women largely agree on what is probably holding them back.  About 65% of men and 73% of women say that gender differences in care workload and social inequalities matter as much as sexist attitudes and discrimination, the dominant male-leadership culture within parties, and the intangible barriers of camaraderie.

A new path

If this has not yet proved to be the century of women and girls, it certainly is the century of gender mainstreaming and women empowerment programmes. And yet, what does empowering women mean when it comes to politics? Does it mean that women need to be taught how politics work? Or that their natural skills need improvement so that they can match the standards of political interactions defined by millennia of men-in-power?

Truth is, when it comes to the political empowerment of specific groups, there is only so much that governments and legislation can do. The gatekeeping role of political parties remains deeply entrenched, and parties are still mainly led by men, even though many apply internal gender quotas.

My experience organising the first  training programme for women’s political empowerment within parties in Italy convinced me that there are three main reasons for the under-representation of women in party leadership, and they all concern men. First, some men are not convinced of the political and social value of having more women in politics; second, some men still cling to a defensive attitude: they fear women; and third, the “already converted” lack real understanding about what hinders women’s political careers, so they cannot help.

Nowadays, the only training women may need to become leaders involves knowing some of the widely recognised informal practices that keep the glass ceiling to party leadership so firmly in place. It is men who should be the target of women’s empowerment programmes. They need to be made aware of these barriers and convinced of the value of parity.

Of course, once they do, their worst fears just might come true.


Costanza Hermanin is a pro-European political activist and a professional with experience as public official, researcher, think tanker, human rights advocate, lecturer, and party leader. Her fellowship project at the School of Transnational Governance focuses on increasing the participation and impact of women in politics, based on her experience developing the first school aimed at political parties for the political empowerment of women in Italy, #PrimeDonne.

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