Women are globally underrepresented in politics. Why?
On October 16, something remarkable happened in Ethiopia, a country not exactly known for gender equality. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed announced that his cabinet is now, for the first time, half women. The country has also gained its first female defense minister—and a woman has been named Ethiopia’s first minister of peace.
“Our women ministers will disprove the adage that women can’t lead,” Abiy said in Parliament. And lead they will, with the possible added bonus of their gender allowing them to make priorities of issues that may escape male ministers, such as maternal health, economic marginalization, and basic human rights for women.
While it doesn’t seem far-fetched to have gender-equal governments—or those that have a majority of women, they are extremely rare. The U.S. House of Representatives is made up of only 20 percent women. (Although more women are running for political office in the U.S. right now than ever before.) Why women remain outside the doors of political power is more nuanced than simply attributing it to sexism. And the attempts to remedy the problem are varied.
In Brazil, women are severely underrepresented in politics. Women make up 52 percent of the Brazilian population, but their presence in the National Congress is only at about 11 percent of 513 federal representatives, and of 81 senators, just 16 percent are women.
The participation of women in Brazilian politics, however, has been encouraged through quotas and campaigns, but the number of elected female politicians remains minimal. Parties find it difficult to fill women’s quotas, partly because they believe women are unable to reconcile their public life with their private. Some women, too, are unwilling to contend with sexism in their very public career. Women face serious obstacles that make it difficult for them to find space in politics.
In 2009, a law came into effect that forced Brazil’s political parties to adopt a quota policy, which requires that 30 percent of positions available from each party or coalition be reserved for female candidates (either cisgender or transgender), but this law alone does not guarantee that more women are elected.
About 44 percent of those affiliated with political parties in Brazil are women, but these numbers are not reflected in candidacies and in seats occupied. Thanks to rampant sexism in Brazil’s patriarchal society, women often end up accepting inferior positions far from the spotlight.
Many of the country’s political parties struggle to meet the quota’s bare minimum. As of August, at least 10 percent of the parties for the fall 2018 elections to the Chamber of Deputies and state parliaments failed to reach the minimum quota. Other parties essentially fabricated candidates, recruiting women affiliated with parties to lend their names without any intention of effectively conducting a campaign or seeking votes.
In elections on October 7, no women were elected governor in the first round, and only one will compete in the second, while in the Senate, seven women were elected (of 54 seats in dispute), and 77 women were elected in the Chamber of Deputies, as compared to 436 men (an increase since 2014, when only 51 women were elected).
So why is it so difficult for Brazilian political parties to get a minimum number of female candidates, and why are even fewer women elected? The answers are applicable to many countries.
“Women are not encouraged to be ambitious, to be leaders,” said Cynthia Semiramis, a prominent feminist activist and law professor at the Federal University of Minas Gerais, in southeastern Brazil. Semiramis posits that women are taught to obey and not to lead from childhood on, so imposing quotas may be a “way to stimulate women’s leadership. It is better to encourage a weak form of participation than no participation at all.”
This perspective on quotas isn’t shared by all experts. This type of policy could actually promote more segregation than gender-based inclusion, according to Aline Costa, a sociologist from the Foundation School of Sociology and Politics in São Paulo. She further adds that “politics can be a way of emancipating women,” but questions the idea that the mere presence of more women would necessarily mean more equality in politics in general as it “does not guarantee performance, infer ability, or [suggest] confidence in the parliamentarians.”
Costa agrees with Semiramis that women in Brazil are “not encouraged to join and show an interest in politics,” however, she believes other factors are also relevant to this estrangement from political participation. Semiramis blames cultural hostility toward Brazilian women who don’t dedicate their lives to looking after their homes, their children, and their husbands. Women are expected to get married, have children, and take care of them full time.
Both interviewees said that the pressure on women to balance their personal and professional lives, combined with things like sexism, lower wages, sexualized violence, and so on, causes them to withdraw themselves from the political arena.
Even in more developed countries, women who prioritize childcare and family life alongside their professional endeavors are roundly criticized. Apparently, women can only have one role or the other. Take Spanish MP Carolina Bescansa, who was criticized for breastfeeding her child during a parliamentary session in 2016, or New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, criticized for giving birth to her daughter while in office—and later for enjoying maternity leave and breastfeeding while working.
The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace released a study in February to propose measures to combat underrepresentation of women in U.S. politics, suggesting, among other things, a focus on women recruitment and expansion of recruitment funds and women-led campaigns, which is more of a European model of political participation. The election of Donald Trump seems to have also had practical effects, with the entry of more women who, in record number, will run for seats in the U.S. House of Representatives in November’s midterm elections.
Some point to Rwanda as a country that has successfully integrated more women into its political leadership—women are a majority, in fact, within the national legislature, with 64 percent of seats in 2016, up from the already high nearly 50 percent parliamentary participation in 2003.
As of September, after Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia are the only countries that have a majority of women in the lower House of Parliament, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union. The U.K. is at only 32 percent women, while the U.S. comes in 103rd place in a ranking of 193 countries. Numbers for women in upper houses or senates are generally even lower.
Following Rwanda’s horrific 100-day genocide in 1994, female participation in parliament climbed. As in the U.S. during World War II, Rwandan women had to enter the labor market after the genocide to support their families. In both situations, a case can be made that without the strong presence of women in the labor market and in politics, it would have been impossible to rebuild. Experts say women have a positive impact on creating peace.
Still, the case of Rwanda is not necessarily an example that can or should be replicated in other countries. The female majority in parliament, some experts say, has more to do with political attempts by President Paul Kagame to mask denunciations of human rights abuses with a layer of inclusion and diversity than a genuine intent to extend the rights of women, guarantee their equality, or include them politically. In the private lives of many Rwandan women, patriarchal expectations persist as well.
According to a number of experts, a quota policy like the one in Brazil is a necessary first step toward drawing more women into politics, but it is far from enough. Ultimately, the long-term struggle will be to change a global mindset of patriarchy—and that must be coupled with efforts to increase the representation of women throughout society.
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