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Did you know that only 15% of mayors across the European Union are women? And that there are 200 more male than female members in the current European Parliament? These are a few among many facts and figures that show how the underrepresentation of women in decision-making positions continues to be quite alarming these days.

Women’s representation in local politics in EU countries

Women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life is essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, particularly SDG 5, which focuses on Gender Equality. Still, data shows that gender parity in political life is far from being achieved and the underrepresentation of women in power continues to raise serious democratic deficits in the 21st century, which undermines the legitimacy of the contemporary democratic ideal.

Parity democracy and the promotion of women in decision-making positions are therefore important areas of action for organisations such as the European Women’s Lobby (EWL). Parity democracy implies the equal representation of women and men in decision-making positions, going further than the traditional quota system, since it is not based on the idea that women are a minority: women represent more than 50% of the world’s population and their political representation should be by now much closer to this value.

But why are the values so low?

The EWL shows some possible explanations for women’s underrepresentation, which can be summarized into the 5 C’s. First, there’s Confidence: from childhood to adulthood, women are thought to believe they are not as worthy as men, leading them to doubt their value in putting themselves up for election. Then, we have Candidate Selection: even once women agree to compete with men to be elected, it is often difficult for them to get an electable spot, being constantly passed over by men, regardless of competencies. The third reason is Culture: politics is still a men’s world, crammed with sexism and external threats to the entrance of women. Cash is also a factor that contributes to excluding women from politics, since their campaigns frequently receive less funding than their male counterparts. The last reason appointed is Childcare: across the EU, women spend, on average, twice as much as men on childcare, leading them to be half as available to carry out political positions.

But let’s look at some real-life examples of women in power.

A case of success

Jacinda Ardern is one of the most popular cases of successful women in power. The New Zealand’s politician became leader of the New Zealand Labour Party in 2017 and in the same year, at age 37, became the world’s youngest female head of government. Her time in power has been recognised around the world as a masterclass in leadership. Open, honest and authentic, Jacinda is a new type of leader, who unites strength with kindness and boldness with compassion.

In 2018, Jacinda had her first child, becoming the world’s first leader to go on maternity leave while in office. Her approach regarding motherhood and multi-tasking have been crucial in sending a powerful message about women in leadership roles. In 2019, Jacinda was praised worldwide for her rapid response to the Christchurch Mosque shooting that killed 51 people by introducing strict gun laws. More recently, she was hailed for her government’s quick action on the COVID-19 pandemic, which has helped New Zealand avoid the mass infections and deaths that devastated the world.

Over the years Jacinda has become a role model for many girls who aspire political roles.

Ardern’s career has broken stereotypes about women in power

Feminist Utopia

Rwanda stands out as what some call the “Feminist Utopia”, since around 61% of the parliament’s seats are held by women. This amount surpasses the majority of so called “developed nations”. Nevertheless, these percentages don’t translate cultural and social aspects of Rwanda that set girls back from their male counterparts for any leadership role.

Unlike other countries, Rwandan women’s access to politics was not achieved through feminist movements. Instead, policy changes were led by one man: President Paul Kagame. These changes were not resulting of change in mentalities, but rather a consequence of the devastating genocide of 1994, where women started to account for 70% of total population. As the president recognized, it was impossible to rebuild Rwanda without women’s participation in public life.

This rapid change, however, was not enough to change mentalities. While a female deputy is expected to stand up for women’s causes in the parliament, in her own household it’s a different story. In Rwanda, husbands still expect their parliamentary wives to polish their shoes, make their food, clean, and so on. And as many deputies have shared, they don’t feel safe to speak up on this matter as they fear retaliations from their partners. This sentiment of fear also comes within the Rwandan government, which is being bombarded with criticism regarding Human’s Rights violations. They have been accused of intimidating and prosecuting anyone, within their party or not, that deviates from the original government’s plan. These accusations shatter the image Rwanda had as a new democratized nation, with female inclusivity seemingly being used to hide authoritarian measures from the public international eye.

Conversely, public improvements provided unimaginable changes in women’s freedoms, such as being able to freely open a bank account without their husband’s permission. So, while mentalities take time to adjust, through education, Rwanda may grow into an equalitarian country where expectations for women and men are the same.

Rwanda is the number one country for women in power, but they still face many challenges in daily life

Dealing with sexism

Many stress the importance of female representation in politics. But is this enough to motivate women to choose leadership roles? Let’s consider an Australian example: Julia Gillard, the first female Australian Prime Minister.

Julia Gillard’s time in office was, in fact, turbulent. Not only because of the sexist treatment, but also what some claim to be “personal flaws” that impacted her leadership. The YWCA and University of Adelaide found that women with political aspirations were less likely to pursue them after witnessing how Gillard was treated. Examples are the way media focused on how she looked and the other party’s sexist jokes about her. Nevertheless, after her prime ministership, Australians find it much easier to imagine female political leaders, and Gillard can take a lot of credit for that.

This case illustrates how motivating women to join politics remains a one-sided strategy. Joining an environment that remains toxic for female deputies and leaders, in some cases, does more harm than good for the ones that follow.

Men and women politics are still differently portraited by the media

Small but the right steps towards gender equality

Although the progress regarding gender equality is clear, it is still extremely slow and uneven. Women are still underrepresented in politics, parliaments, and public life, making less than 23% of parliamentarians worldwide. As of September 2021, there were only 26 women serving as Heads of State or Government in the world. According to the UN, at the current rate, gender equality in the highest positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

The bright side is that there are many organizations working relentlessly trying to reverse these alarming statistics, such as the European Women’s Lobby, UN Women and Women Political Leaders. The European Parliament and the European Commission are also engaging in strategic resolutions regarding this issue, inviting EU institutions (the Council, the Commission) and national EU governments to design and implement effective gender equality policies and multifaceted strategies for achieving participation parity in political decision-making and leadership at all levels, and welcoming gender quotas for elections.

All in all, albeit some positive changes have been made, we still have a long way ahead until political equality is achieved.


Sources: The Conversation, The Guardian, Inter-Parliamentary Union, OECD, United Nations Development Programme, UN Women, The Advertiser, The Sydney Morning Herald, QUARTZ, European Women’s Lobby, Women Political Leaders, National Public Radio, Clio Visualizing History, BBC News, RFI, TRT World, NowThis News.

Madalena Andrade

Magda Costa

Scientific revision: Patrícia Cruz

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