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Women and Politics - Cutting Through the Nonsense

FrenchDoc's picture

Cross-posted from The Global Sociology Blog.

Echidne has a great article over at Alternet regarding the non-sensical and stupid thesis that there are few women in politics because they do not have the ambition, drive and thick skin to face the political world. In other words, states the stupid thesis, they have an inner glass ceiling. This is idiotic, of course, Echidne lists all the relevant arguments, so, just go read, ok? Then come back and read some of the background I have to offer on this.

According to Paxton and Hughes (2007), women represent approximately half of the world’s population but only 16% of national parliaments. Of 190 countries, only 7 have women as head of the government. Women are 9% of ambassadors to the United Nations, 7% of the world’s cabinet ministers and 8% of the world’s mayors. In politics and government, the gender gap is extremely wide and well represents the global persistence of patriarchy.

In addition, in no country do women make half of the parliament even though a few countries come very close (See table). Interestingly, some countries of the global South seem to do a better job than some Western countries when it comes to promoting women in politics. After all, Sri Lanka, the Philippines, Indonesia and Chile have or have had female presidents; in contrast, France and the United States have not.

(Hideous table alert)

World Rankings for Women in Parliament in Select Countries, 2005



% Women


























Costa Rica












New Zealand





















United Kingdom



United States








Source: Paxton & Hughes (2007:17)

In principle, it should not matter whether political representative are male or female. In reality, however, it makes an enormous difference. Laws may be drafted in gender-neutral language, referring to individuals or citizens, but often reflect the perspective of lawmakers and what they considered significant enough to warrant the allocation of tax revenues. Without women to participate in the allocation of such resources, government policies may only reflect male perspective. For instance, the United States Constitution still does not include an amendment affirming equality under the law with respect to gender. Similarly, without women at the table, governments are less likely to be concerned with specific violence against women and children. Moreover, in democracies, everyone is supposed to be represented and have a voice at the table when collective decisions are made. If women are missing, half the population of a country, in effect, lacks representation.

Women’s participation in politics starts with the right to vote. The first country to grant women voting rights was New Zealand in 1893 and by the end of World War II, approximately half of the world’s countries had granted women the right to vote. The last country to do so is Kuwait where suffrage was approved in 2005 leaving Saudi Arabia the only country where women cannot vote. Only 11 countries (mostly from the Middle East as well as Asian-Pacific island nations such as Micronesia) have no women in their legislatures. Even though, in the vast majority of countries, women have the right to vote, their access to the political sphere has not been even.

What are the factors that facilitate or hinder women’s representation in the political arena? Research suggests that cultural, social-structural and political factors are key to understand the level of women in politics.

Cultural Factors

Cultural considerations may prevent women from complete access to the political sphere. Usually, two kinds of consideration are presented by those who oppose women’s presence: assumptions regarding women’s “nature” and assumptions regarding women’s proper place in society. The former often use biological differences, and women’s implied inferiority, to establish that women are not fit to rule or be in charge of the great responsibilities that come with political office.

In such views, women are viewed as lacking the rationality necessary to conduct collective affairs. The latter usually invoke the ideology of the separate sphere to state that women’s proper place is at home where they should focus on their families. Their presence in the workplace and the political office is detrimental to the necessary equilibrium of society where men focus on the instrumental aspect of social life whereas women focus on the expressive aspects. Such a view was dominant in American functionalist sociology, especially in the post World War II era. In this view, women are not necessarily inferior or less rational but the greater social good demands that they remain relegated to the domestic sphere.

Of course, as an aspect of culture, religion has been influential in defining the place of women in society and in giving gender inequalities a divine stamp of approval. The major world’s religions have traditionally opposed the presence of women in the public sphere. At the beginning of the 21st century, predominantly Muslim and Catholic countries had the lowest levels of female presence in the political arena. At the same time, emergent religious fundamentalist movements have placed the enforcement of reactionary beliefs on gender and sexuality a central part of their doctrine, as was illustrated by the Taliban’s treatment of women and American Evangelicals hostile focus on reproductive rights and homosexuality. In such views, the proper arrangement of society, as ordained by God, mandates misogyny (the distrust for women) and heterosexism (the view that only heterosexual relations are acceptable).

Such ideological beliefs are the strongest factor in predicting the extent of women’s presence in politics.

Social-Structural Factors

Social-structural explanations focus on the ways in which the different institutions of society are structured in such a way as to prevent women from participating in political life. They focus on the unequal distribution of resources in society creates immense obstacles for women. Paxton and Hughes (2007) describe the different resources that women lack as follows.

Even if women have the right to vote, running for office takes money, and, as we have seen, women are already strongly disadvantaged on that front. Women are therefore less able to fund campaigns and promote their candidacy.

A second type of resource of which women have a shortage is time. We already know the fact that women spend time on the second and third shifts. Worldwide, women still carry the majority of the burden of childcare and household maintenance in addition to being involved in the formal and informal economy. The enormous amount of unpaid, unrecognized work that women do is especially important in countries of the Global South. And of course, when women decide to still campaign for office, they are more likely to face accusations of neglecting their families and children. Few male politicians ever have to deal with such criticism.

Women also tend to lack civic skills (such as public speaking, running a meeting or a budget or community organizing) especially in very patriarchal societies where women’s voices are hardly ever heard. This is also due to their lower levels of education. Similarly, women are less likely to have experience in union organizing than men. This helps to understand why the current global women’s movement is largely based on voluntary associations, such as non-governmental organizations, rather than traditional workplace and political organizations, such as unions and political parties. As a result of such disadvantaged position, women are also more likely to lack social capital and relevant networks of connections that are so useful in the political sphere. Currently, women are striving to develop women’s networks on a global scale precisely to gain such connections.

According to the UNESCO (2005), 83% of the world’s men are literate, but only 69% of women. This education gap also deprives women of effective political role as the cultural and social capital that comes with education is unavailable to them. This relative lack of education also translates into lack of access to certain economic position in the world of work and a lack of economic capital.

The bottom line is that in societies that treat men and women equally and therefore that distribute different forms of capital in a more just fashion, women are better able to be engaged in political participation.

Political Factors

The cultural and social-structural factors are supply factors: they determine whether and how women can enter the political arena, and how ideology and social structure combine to make it easier or harder for women to participate. The structure of the political system in countries also affects women’s involvement, but on the demand side, that is, the factors that make political parties and voters want to have female as candidates and office holders. It is not enough that women have the ideological and structural availability to run for office. There has to be a political demand for more women as well.

The structure of the political system is central to women’s participation. Democracies do not necessarily do a better job at promoting women than non-democratic systems. Current and former communist countries, such as China and Cuba, have high levels of female representation thanks to policies specifically dedicated to promoting them. This explains why women representation has either remained flat or decreased as Eastern European countries transitioned from communist to democratic rule.

Also, left-wing parties tend to do a better job at promoting women within their ranks than do conservative parties. This is logical: conservative parties are more likely to believe in the ideology of separate spheres and more likely to deny the discrimination that women face in the workplace and other settings. As a result, they tend to be less supportive of women’s rights policies.

Conversely, left-wing parties are more likely to endorse an egalitarian view of gender relations. Once women are established within the ranks of political parties, they are more likely to be elected in countries that have proportional representation systems (where people vote for lists of candidates put forth by political parties and a proportion of the votes brings an equal proportion of seats) rather than those that have majority systems (where people vote in contests between two candidates).

Because of the overall shamefully low levels of women in government and parliament, many countries have adopted gender quotas. According to the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA),

Quotas for women entail that women must constitute a certain number or percentage of the members of a body, whether it is a candidate list, a parliamentary assembly, a committee, or a government. The quota system places the burden of recruitment not on the individual woman, but on those who control the recruitment process.”

Concretely, this means that countries may institute electoral gender quotas ensuring that there are at least, 20, 30 or 40% of women in their parliament. However, certain countries adopt quotas as a public relations measure but do not enforce them (as is the case for Egypt and Haiti, for instance). When quotas are enforced, they immediately provide greater access to women in politics. For instance, Rwanda and Scandinavian countries have adopted strong quotas systems, which result in their being at the top of the list of countries by percentage of women in parliament.

Quotas are also important because they give women some critical mass in political arena rather than being mere tokens: promoted where they are by men for the sake of symbolic representation more than actual power. It is only once they have reached critical mass that women have a chance to influence the political agenda.

However, Janice Yoder (1991) has shown that as the number of women increases, they come to be seen as a threat by men and are then more subject to mistreatment, such as insults and threats and overall hostile behavior. In Colombia, where women represent 12% of parliament, they are reluctant to address specifically women’s issues because they know they might face strong negative reactions.

Regional Differences

Scandinavia and Western countries

Why do Scandinavian countries do so much better at promoting women in politics than any other region in the world? These countries have a highly educated population, high female labor force participation as well as dominance of left-wing parties within a democratic system with proportional representation. At the same time, cultural factors were essential in producing such a context: Scandinavians value equality, consensus and integration more than any other population in the world. They tend to emphasize the collective welfare rather than individualist pursuits.

Not all of Europe presents such picture-perfect equality. Several countries, including France, Greece, Italy, United Kingdom and United States, have less than 20% of women in their legislature. Despite both France and England both having had female Prime Ministers (respectively, Margaret Thatcher and Edith Cresson), and Mary Robinson got elected President of Ireland (1990-1997), only Margaret Thatcher actually exercised power. In France, the Prime Minister has limited power compared to the President; in Ireland, the Presidency is largely a symbolic function.

However, in 2005, Angela Merkel became the Chancellor of Germany, the highest executive position. It seems that cultures based on Greek and Roman traditions (such as central and southern Europe) are less favorable to women than Nordic cultures.

Eastern Europe and Russia

Most European communist countries (Eastern Europe and Russia) used to have high numbers of women in parliament but, in such countries, parliaments held very little power, certainly less than the leaders of the national communist parties. As a result, female representatives received no special experience or skills that would have allowed them to remain in politics once these countries transitioned to democracy. As a result, their numbers plummeted and they were marginalized. In addition, because of the repressive environment created by communism, there was no women’s movement to speak of that could have promoted the presence of women in the democratic system.

Latin America and the Caribbean

Michelle Bachelet Women have made recent gains in Latin America, the most representative of which was the 2006 election of Michelle Bachelet as President of Chile, a mother of three and self-proclaimed agnostic and moderate socialist in a conservative Catholic country. Like many women in Latin America, Michelle Bachelet got into politics to fight military dictatorship.

As a result, the transition to democracy has been more beneficial to women, as recognition of their presence in the struggle against brutal rule and their contribution to changing cultural norms regarding the proper place of women in society. Fulfilling a campaign promise, she appointed 50% of women to her cabinet. However, cultural change is always slow and this region is still characterized by the norm of machismo (male sexual domination) and Catholic influence that still restrict women’s access to equality.

Sub-Saharan Africa

No region has experienced bigger jumps in representation than Sub-Saharan Africa since the 1960s with Rwanda now leading the world in women’s representation and 4 other countries in the top 20 (Mozambique, South Africa, Burundi and Tanzania). This change occurred largely thanks to the introduction of gender quotas.

Ellen_Johnson-Sirleaf In 2006, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf became the 24th President of Liberia and the first female president in the Sub-Saharan region. Johnson-Sirleaf has had a long and distinguished career in both government and business (she was Liberia’s Minister of finances in 1979, Vice-President for the African Region at Citibank between 1982 and 1985), she opposed the dictatorial regimes in Liberia and spent time in prison for being outspoken on the subject.

She also illustrates the strengths and weaknesses women face in the region when they try to enter the political fray. In a region that lacks financial experts to run banks and financial ministries, women my have a better chance of breaking the glass ceiling because of limited competition. This explains why many female politicians are found in finance ministries.

However, in the rest of the social structure, where high unemployment generates high competition for jobs, professional women still face widespread discrimination. Also, successful female politicians have had to face comments regarding their family status: to be single is interpreted as not being able to get a husband, to be married is seen as needing a husband. As a result, these women have had to downplay their gender to emphasize their managerial and technical skills. For many of them, Africa still has a long way to go to reach gender equality (Amosu, 2006).

Asia and the Pacific Islands

This region has one of the worst records of female representation. Even when political parties present female candidates, they get very few votes. Cultural factors explain the persistent low levels of representation: ideas about the proper role of women and Confucian values foster a climate where female subordination is the norm and women are still subjected to violent practices, as noted above. The main path for women to gain political power is if they belong to political families.

In several Asian countries, women political leaders started as daughters or wives of celebrated male political leaders. For instance, Indira Gandhi (1917-1984) became twice the Prime Minister of India, but she was also the daughter of India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. In the Philippines, Corazon Aquino (b.1933) was President from 1986 until 1992, becoming the first female Asian President. She was also the widow of Benigno Aquino, a popular senator and leader of the opposition against Dictator Ferdinand Marcos. When Benigno Aquino was assassinated, his wife entered the political struggle to oust Marcos and succeeded. The late Benazir Bhutto (1963-2007) became the ninth Prime Minister of Pakistan in 1988 and in 1993. Her father was the deposed Pakistani Prime Minister Ali Bhutto, deposed and executed.

In such patriarchal cultures, these women became acceptable leaders because of their connections to powerful men.

Middle East and North Africa

This is probably the worst region when it comes to political representation and women’s rights. As mentioned before, women got the right to vote in Kuwait only in 2005, and in Saudi Arabia, women cannot drive or vote. Across the region, women hold less than 8% of parliamentary seats. This state of affairs is often blamed on Islamic fundamentalism and Arab misogyny but this is too simplified a view.

This region is much more diverse. These countries are very different: Saudi Arabia may represent the extreme form of women deprivation but Tunisia, on the other hand, has over 20% of women in parliament. Several Middle Eastern countries have adopted gender quotas but they are generally low (30 reserved seats in parliament, out of 360 in Egypt).

A particular obstacle to women’s political involvement is the presence of family codes based on Shari’a or Islamic law, such as Algeria and Morocco. In such a situation, these laws establish the subordination of women to men. In some cases, the implications may be that a woman cannot enter into a contract without a male relative’s permission. In any event, all matters of marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance favor men and deprive women of equal legal standing. And although the 2005 Iraqi Constitution mandates a 25% gender quota, it also recognizes Shari’a law for family affairs.

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Truth Partisan's picture
Submitted by Truth Partisan on

It's very important that we address these problems in our society, understanding and helping to make women's lives more equal (and bearable--if a pol too, like a third job?!)--and possibly the parties, if the GOP or FKD parties would ever address it--didn't Kerry in 2004 take the ERA out of the planks of the then Democratic Party? The Democrats used to have gender balance quotas--used to be as hard to find a good man sometimes as a good woman. I don't know if FKD party will continue this. In a few places, the evidence seemed to be that support for O was trumping gender balance. Quel surprise.

Would you consider, please, a slight edit here:

"only Margaret Thatcher actually exercised power."

Doesn't the Prime Minister of France exercise quite a bit of power (not as much as the President, but power.) Wiki (sorry) says, "(In France) the prime minister is an official generally appointed by the President but usually approved by the legislature and responsible for carrying out the directives of the President and managing the civil service." If true, that's power.

Submitted by lambert on

... of my post, which I swear I thought was funny, or at least surreal, on Bayh getting a sex change operation. Now, we've got gender balance, and we still don't need to put Hillary on the ticket!

[ ] Very tepidly voting for Obama [ ] ?????. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

FrenchDoc's picture
Submitted by FrenchDoc on

was basically written by DeGaulle, for DeGaulle when he was President. Which means the distribution of power between the President (elected through universal suffrage) and the PM (appointed by the President, but usually reflecting the majority in Parliament) tilts heavily toward the President. The PM is generally in charge of domestic policy whereas the President controls foreign policy and has the codes to our nuclear arsenal.

Which is why it was so easy for a power-hungry man like Sarkozy to control the executive almost exclusively (can you name the French PM without looking it up?).

chicago dyke's picture
Submitted by chicago dyke on

itself. history is chock full of disparity when it comes to formally political leadership and a dearth of women. obviously it's not because we're more stupid or less motivated to care about leadership and society. but to me it's sort of like football. that game is very much a 'men only' game, which is not to say that women can't play it (i did), but rather that when women who try to take the field with men, men on both teams are unified in their willingness to work together to discourage her/crush her illegally/kill her. my mom tells me a story (i don't know if it's true ) about the first and only woman in the NFL and how she didn't last because that's exactly what happened to her.

anyway, as FD notes, as men have long been at the top of political systems it's hardly a surprise that they game them to give a permanent advantage to themselves and men like them. i remember this from the military too; the Corps doesn't allow women to take MOS' that naturally lead to promotion and leadership. it's much harder to become a general with a background in 'motor pool' when you're competing with combat vets, who of course are always male.

then there's that whole argument about who women's lives are interrupted by childbearing and rearing, and how that automatically puts one behind/off track compared to men who have an uninterrupted working career. i've long believed that the two easiest ways to increase women's representation in politics is to a) make sure women have access to "microloans" easily and at low rates of interest and b) mandate that men take off time to care for children, esp infants. let them see how much most women balance the impossible at one time or another in our lives, and they'll begin to appreciate that if you can run a household and keep a job and raise a family and satisfy a man's sexual needs etc., running a nation is a simple thing by comparison. then again, i suspect most men know this and it contributes to the patriarchal value system, the better not to be exposed as not so superior after all.

Truth Partisan's picture
Submitted by Truth Partisan on

I hesitate to point this out, but I'm an American. That is, many of us don't know the major players in Europe by name--and this is perfectly socially acceptable in the U.S. I get major points for knowing who Carme Chacón is.

Not to sound like McCain but being known in wider culture is not the same thing as wielding power. But that's not your major point here, which seems to be that--the French PM has no power? Or am I overstating it?

Truth Partisan's picture
Submitted by Truth Partisan on

"my mom tells me a story (i don’t know if it’s true ) about the first and only woman in the NFL and how she didn’t last because that’s exactly what happened to her."

Kewl if it is your mom!!

I believe there have been a few women who played. I have to go work but wasn't one of them in the last year or two? Or am I thinking of college ball?