The Age Old Question
Often regarded as a boys club, the game of politics is full of rough and tumble that seems to have room for only a token number of women. There is nothing new in gender bias in professional cultures, many workplaces are dominated by one or the other. However, when we are talking about the representation of the public at large can it really be justified that only 17% of parlimentarians are women? Why during a time when more women are being educated to the highest levels are we not fit to sit at the top table?
Back in October, we were shown just how huge the gender gap is when Elle UK photoshopped the men out of the top tables of global politics. The #morewomen campaign included images of women in the most senior positions of business, media and politics with their male colleagues, before the men were then removed from the picture, revealing just how few women there really are at the top table.
Why So Few Women In Politics?
There are many factors that contribute to the gender gap in politics – either by directly impeding women’s political ambition, or by making the decision calculus far more complex for women than men. What is clear from the lack of progress on this issue over the last decade is that we are a long way from achieving parity of representation.
A study completed by Professor Jennifer Lawless of American University's Women & Politics Institute and based on interviews with 4,000 male and female potential candidates for office further reveals that female candidates are less competitive, less confident and more risk averse than their male counterparts. It’s results concluded that :
Women are substantially more likely than men to perceive the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates.
Women are much less likely than men to think they are qualified to run for office.
Women react more negatively than men to many aspects of modern campaigns.
Women are less likely than men to receive the suggestion to run for office – from anyone.
Women are still responsible for the majority of childcare and household tasks. In families where both adults are working (generally in high-level careers), women are roughly six times more likely than men to bear responsibility for the majority of household tasks, and they are about ten times more likely to be the primary childcare provider. This division of labor is consistent across political party lines.
What Can Be Done?
Half of the countries of the world today use some type of electoral gender quota for their parliaments. Electoral gender quotas are often understood as the best way to compensate for structural discrimination and barriers against women in politics - but are they really only a stopgap fix? Given the nature of political parties would it not be better to acknowledge that all candidates have to serve their time at local level before being proposed at national or federal level. If we assume this then the real battleground for gender parity is in the local government ranks.
Monitor the situation
You might think, given the concern about the diversity of our democratic institutions, we would be monitoring who is standing at elections. You would be wrong. But it’s high time we did, and asking candidates to complete an anonymous monitoring form when they hand in their election nomination papers, as well as making political parties publish diversity data about their candidates, would be a start.
Open up local government leadership
Political parties need to be much more proactive in ensuring that leadership elections and council cabinet appointments reflect their oft-repeated commitments to diversity. The electorates for council leaders are tiny and closed – basically their own group of Councillors. National party leaders have to be elected by the whole membership, and perhaps it’s time to look at this for local leaders, too.
Make it easier and more accessible to serve as a Councillor
The input of time, effort and resources demanded of local Councillors is escalating all the time, but we rarely recognize the difficulties this poses for those with caring responsibilities, full-time jobs or other commitments. Being a local Councillor should not be so onerous that people are unwilling to serve more than one term and, increasingly, this seems to be the case for both women and men. Sorting this out would go a long way towards creating the kind of talent pool for both local and national politics that we all say we want.