Breaking the Glass: Female Representation in Global Politics
Updated: May 7, 2019
The global average of women in national assemblies is 21.5 percent; this figure represents women who actually run for office and win. In addition to discounting the thousands of women who are qualified to run but discouraged to do so, this metric also omits the potential number of women who should be able to run for elected office yet cannot due to their status as second class citizens within their state. The 21.5 percent certainly constitutes progress, but it is also indicative of the obstacles women face in their pursuit of public office. Nonetheless, the trend for female representation in national governments has grown in the past 20 years, including in middle-income countries like Bolivia, Cuba and Mexico. This trend is primarily due to structural improvements in economic and educational opportunities, as well as the rising levels of female participation in the workforce. Political factors and the ideological disposition of a country may also influence increased female representation.
Though they do not even place in the top fifty for GDP per capita, developing countries like Rwanda, Nicaragua, and Senegal all rank in the top ten for highest percentages of female representation. What have these states done to promote this trend? One major influence is the presence of organizations like the United Nations who promote gender equality. In addition, these states run public awareness campaigns to educate citizens about the benefits of women's equality and the benefits of girls attending school. Studies show that there are four pathways for women’s political involvement.
The first is being born into a political family. This category includes women who come from families that have a long history of involvement in electoral politics; notable examples include Eleanor Roosevelt, Mariela Castro and Hertta Kuusinen. These women rose to political prominence on account of their family’s powerful position in society and determination to be recognized as a formidable force. A second pathway to political power is through surrogates. This includes women who assume office, usually temporarily, as proxies for a father, husband, or brother who recently passed away. Many governments use this placeholder method to fill any vacated positions. However, few studies corroborate this assumption because, more often than not, a new man ends up replacing the previous one, and the woman is pushed to the side.
Personal ambition is another pathway to political office that women often take. These women start at the bottom of a party’s political ladder and work their way to the top by filling in essential roles to demonstrate their loyalty. Many candidates for office, whether local or national, take this route, regardless of their sex. The final path women follow to succeed in politics is by starting as a political outsider. They might lack political experience, but they will employ strategies that highlight the need for political change and serve as unconventional foils to the status quo. Women like U.S Congresswoman Alexandria-Ocasio Cortez and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are prime examples of female politicians who take this path to office. Although this last path is challenging, it tends to be quite a successful path for women; they personify the change desperately needed within countless nations disenchanted with gerontocracies.
Despite the paths that women take to succeed in politics, many female candidates are lost along the way due to the myriad systemic challenges they face. This is in addition to personal and party affiliations that deter women from running for office or believing that they are unqualified to run. Gender-based inequality greatly affects women running for office, and it can vary from slight to extreme measures. For example, the female unemployment rate in Jordan is double that of men, and they are discouraged from participating in economic opportunities and political affairs.
Traditional gender roles also prevent women from being as politically ambitious as men. Whereas men perform extra-familial duties, women deal with private intra-familial affairs. In Sub-Saharan Africa, 42% of boys enter primary school compared to 33% of girls. This results in boys having an advantage over girls in education, which results in fewer women entering the workforce and becoming self-reliant. Therefore, women don’t run for office because society has constructed the view that they belong at home with the family.
Still,women’s participation and national representation has increased over the past several decades due to the changing nature of developing economies. With more women having opportunities in education and the workforce in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, and even in some parts of the Middle East, women are still able to achieve higher economic status and increase their participation in government.
Political factors have also played a role in increased government female representation, especially when the representation of women in office is based on a proportionality system. In nations like Italy, the voting system is built in such a way that when a party gains 20% of the votes, they also gain 20% of the seats. A party then will be obligated to balance their representation within their votes between genders, therefore increasing female representation. In other voting systems such as the United Kingdom and India, a plurality-majority system only allows single candidates, and thus political parties can dictate the regions’ representatives even if they only control a small majority of the vote. Therefore, nations with this type of voting system tend to lag behind in female representation in government.
The ideological character of a country also has a significant impact on the participation and representation of women in government. When nations value the voice of females, they are more likely to have the confidence to participate in governmental affairs. Nations like Sweden, where women make up 45% of the representatives in government, consider women to be a powerful force, and value women in all aspects of government, the economy and workforce. Women’s roles in where they live determine where they stand in society, eventually aiding or hindering those women from entering political positions.
Female representation in government has improved over the past decade, specifically in the past five years due to more equal opportunities for women in education and available jobs.
While there are still many challenges female candidates and elected officials face, a new era of international female empowerment has enabled women in hundreds of nations to challenge each other to increasing their own representation. Overcoming patriarchal norms has been a slow process, but with increasing international female political participation and support from government leaders, the world is becoming more female-led everyday. As women continue to find the confidence to run for office, they will improve their chances to dismantle the overarching patriarchy that deters them from representing their people and nation, and eventually reach the level of equality they rightly deserve.