Pooja Sajanani is one of Breaking the Glass Ceiling’s regular contributors.
In my previous article on this mini-series, I discussed how women are under-represented in politics and why that needs to change. I outlined three reasons for the need for greater political participation from women:
- On an average, women are more likely than men to fight for women’s issues such as gender pay gap, maternity rights, sexual harassment etc;
- Women have been shown to outperform men; and,
- Women tend to have a more inclusive and empathetic leadership style (though women must be free to choose their leadership style without being judged by “double standards”).
In this blog article, I will discuss what can be done by us as women and the society as a whole to ensure equal representation of women in politics. I recognise that my suggestions are by no means an extensive and comprehensive list of everything that needs to be done to make politics all around the globe more inclusive and representative but I believe that they are a step in the right direction.
The first step towards advancing women’s political representation is actually getting more women to stand-up for elections. Research has shown that women tend to underestimate their political qualifications when thinking about running for office while men are overly confident of their political abilities despite there being little difference in their actual qualifications (Lawless & Fox, 2008). We, as women, need to start believing that we are capable of standing in an election, winning it and holding a public office. Unless we can imagine ourselves having political power, no one else can. So if you have ever considered running for an elected position and declined the possibility just because you think that you don’t have the qualifications, think again.
One of the reasons for women constantly underestimating their political abilities is because we are considerably less encouraged to run for political office in comparison to men. Not just that but since childhood we are constantly hammered by advice to take the safest option, keeping in mind our ‘disadvantageous’ status, while boys are encouraged to take their chances. To negate the effects of this ingrained bias against ourselves, we must support and encourage each other. If you think that your friend, colleague or family member must run for office, tell them! Tell her it doesn’t matter whether any women with her background or age has ever been elected to that position because she is going to take the road less travelled by and it is going to make all the difference. Remember that when women get elected to office, they not only advance women’s political representation during their tenure but also have a massive role-model effect which encourages the future generation of women to run for office as well.
In addition to believing in ourselves and encouraging fellow women to run for office, we need to make some institutional changes as well. Gender quotas are one of the things that can be done. However, the effectiveness of quotas in raising women’s political presence is determined by several factors. The first one is obviously the type of quota. Quotas which reserve actual seats for women in parliament and party leadership positions are better than quotas that stipulate that a certain percentage of party candidates must be women. This is because the second alternative (mentioned above) leaves room for manipulation of candidate list by the party – something which is seen in Poland. In Poland, parties with a conservative stance on gender equality place women at the bottom of the candidate list and gave women tickets to unwinnable seats (Gwiazda, 2017). This meant that although they are observing the quota legally, it is doing little in the way of advancing women’s political representation. Few of the other factors are the size of the quota, strength of sanctions, electoral system etc. We should press for not just quotas but effective quotas and more research needs to be done in this area to ensure that quota policy is designed to actually raise the number of women in public office rather than just be a symbolic gesture.
Besides quotas, having female gatekeepers has also shown to increase the number of women standing in elections. Parties need to have female recruiters who can better appeal to prospective women candidates, mentor them and give moral support to them. This of all things will be of limited use if women are not educated, which is the case in many developing countries. Education of women, especially that which places emphasis on knowing and exercising one’s rights as free and equal moral beings, is key to increasing political awareness and prospects of becoming a candidate for public office. When a girl is educated and has wider career prospects, she is less likely to see her purpose in life limited to fulfilling the traditional gender roles. Lack of education and culture of traditional gender roles reinforce each other making it difficult for women to stand up for themselves and take part in politics. Even though its effect may be slow and unwrap over generations, any policy to allow greater access to education, is likely to also increase the political participation of women.
Last but not the least the media and the wider society has to stop using different standards to judge a female and male politician. While it is acceptable to draw an inference from a person’s appearance and clothes in a relevant context, women in politics more commonly than men, get blatantly comments on their appearance and the more important aspects such as their ideas and abilities are discounted. Look at the following pictures for examples. This culture has to stop and we need to be critical of any such incidents that we observe on a day-to-day basis. Without a constant vigilance from the society to keep such content in check, women would continue to get judged unfairly in any field they advance in.
To wrap up, we discussed a few things that need to be done to increase the political representation of women. This includes changing the media culture, better access to education, pressing for effective quotas and encouraging fellow women to run for office. Finally, keep in mind that most importantly when thinking about your ability to win an election and hold public office – the answer is yes you can.
BBC, Daily Mail’s ‘Who won Legs-it!’ headline draws scorn
Available at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-39416554
Gwiazda, A., 2017. Women in parliament: assessing the effectiveness of gender quotas in Poland. The Journal of Legislative Studies, 23(3), pp. 326-347.
Lawless, J. L. & Fox, R. L., 2008. Why Are Women Still Not Running for Public Office?. Issues in Governance Studies, Issue 16.
Picture credit: Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the modern world’s first female head of government