On 9 November, the world woke up to learn the name of the next US president – and it wasn’t the name most people had been expecting. Although the election didn’t turn out to be as historic as it might have been, having a female nominee for president of the United States still marked a milestone on the road to equality for women in political life. But, while the profile of women in politics has never been higher, the wider story of female political participation and representation has been one of slow, intermittent and hard-won advancement.
The path to power
In 1893, New Zealand was the first modern democracy to acknowledge women’s right to vote, while the first European country to introduce women’s suffrage was Finland in 1906. In the UK, women were first entitled to vote in 1918 – but only for property owners over the age of 30. It took another ten years before the vote was given to women on same terms as men. Women in Switzerland had to wait even longer, first receiving the right to vote in national elections in 1971.
Progress towards greater representation of women in politics has also been protracted. Again, Finland led the way, electing 19 female members of parliament in 1907. But it wasn’t until 1960 that the world’s first woman prime minister was elected (Sri Lanka’s Sirimavo Bandaranaike). Twenty years later, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir of Iceland became the first woman to be elected as a head of state (she was subsequently re-elected three more times). In 2015, for the first time, Saudi Arabia allowed women the right to vote and stand in municipal elections (21 female candidates were elected out of 2106 seats).
Women in politics today
In 2016, Theresa May followed in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher, to become the UK’s second woman prime minister. Meanwhile, after a decade in power, Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, is widely regarded as one of the world’s most influential politicians, and she recently announced she’ll be seeking re-election for a fourth term in 2017. In addition, there are now female heads of government in a variety of countries, from Chile to Bangladesh, Liberia to Norway. There are also women first ministers in Scotland and Northern Ireland, and a growing number of female mayors in cities such as Paris, Rome, Montevideo and Baghdad. In October’s Icelandic election, 48% of those elected were women – enabling it to claim the title of the most equal parliament in the world.
It may seem that the tide has turned for female representation in politics. But a closer look uncovers a less rosy picture:
- Of the 193 member states of the United Nations, only sixteen (8%) have a woman president or prime minister.
- Seven countries have no women in their national parliament, while 35 have fewer than 10%.
- Out of 650 contested seats, 191 women were elected to the House of Commons at the 2015 UK general election (29% of MPs).
Breaking down the barriers
Earlier, this year, we reported from the Women in Public Life conference held in Edinburgh. The discussions highlighted the low proportion of women elected to the UK’s local councils and devolved assemblies with a particular focus on Scotland. The May 2016 elections did little to improve on this situation.
- 45 women (34.9%) were elected to the Scottish Parliament, the same proportion as in 2011, and down on the high point of 39.5% in 2003.
- 2016 saw 25 women (41.7%) elected to the National Assembly for Wales, a higher proportion than the other devolved assemblies, but down on the 2003 Welsh Assembly, which had an equal number of women and men.
- In the Northern Ireland Assembly elections, of the 108 seats contested 30 were won by women – up on the 20 elected in 2011, but still only 27.8% of the total.
The conference also debated some of the ways in which the barriers to female participation and representation in politics might be overcome. These included:
- creating a forum for women councillors in local government;
- promoting a cross party consensus on encouraging women candidates to stand in local and parliamentary elections;
- creating a mentoring scheme to encourage more young women to participate;
- promoting flexible working patterns, including reducing the number of late night debates
- statutory measures, such as quotas, to advance the role of women in elections.
Supporters of gender quotas point to their effective deployment in countries such as Bolivia, South Africa and Sweden as ways of redressing women’s exclusion from public life. Following the Scottish Parliament elections of 2016, a team of University of Edinburgh researchers argued that without quotas women’s representation would remain slow and incremental at best:
“For real and lasting progress, warm words must be backed up with statutory measures to embed quality in our political institutions.”
In the Republic of Ireland, legislation was introduced in 2012 with provisions that the major political parties would lose half of their state funding unless at least 30% of their election candidates were female. The first national test of the new quotas came in the general election of 2016, which saw 35 women (22.3%) elected to the lower house of the Irish parliament. This amounted to a 40% increase from the election of 2011, where 15% of the successful candidates were women. While some attributed this to gender quotas, an early analysis of the results suggested that it may take one or two more election cycles to determine the full impact of quotas on Irish elections.
Role models for the future?
Increased representation for women in politics is important for the positive impact it can have on both gender equality issues and social policy more broadly. But might the presence of female politicians also inspire interest in political participation among young women?
Studies into the effectiveness of women politicians as role models have produced a mixture of conclusions:
- A 2006 study by researchers at the University of Notre Dame, Indiana, found that increased visibility of women politicians increased the likelihood of adolescent girls’ intention to be politically active.
- In 2012, research from the University of California, Berkeley, reported that the election of additional women in US state legislative elections had “no discernible causal effects on other women’s political participation at the mass or elite levels.”
- Research published in the American Journal of Political Science in 2015 suggested that role models are important for improving women’s representation, but only in its early stages.
Time will tell whether we ever see a woman elected to the role of American President. But while it’s important and exciting to see more women winning political office at the highest level, equal representation for women across the board, from grassroots and local council level upwards is as vital. And, as a recent Holyrood magazine article underlined, the presence of women in political life is not only important for women:
“…if we cannot yet manage equal representation for half the population, how are we to achieve real representation for other parts of society such as BME people and those with disabilities who are actually in a minority?”
Women in public life: breaking the barriers – conference highlights
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