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Spotlight on Women in Politics

Written by Rosamund Shreeves.

Women have your say…

International Womens Day logoWith the 2019 European elections fast approaching, the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM) is focusing its International Women’s Day event on the theme of women in politics, highlighting the contribution women have already made and urging more women to get involved, both as voters and as candidates. The Parliament is not alone. Women’s organisations, including Europe’s largest umbrella organisation, the European Women’s Lobby (EWL), and the more recently established European Women Alliance (EWA) want to see a higher turnout among women voters in the 2019 elections. They are also calling both for better gender balance in the next Parliament and top-level jobs in the EU institutions and for a new impetus for gender equality at EU level and the funding to support it.

State of play

Women in national parliaments compared with the European Parliament

Women in national parliaments compared with the European Parliament

Not least due to activism by women and their allies, the political landscape now looks far more balanced than it did exactly a century ago when women in several EU countries (Luxembourg, the Netherlands), first won the vote in national elections, got elected to the national parliament (Luxembourg, Austria), or held a ministerial position (Ireland).  At the time of writing, three EU Member States (Germany, Romania and the UK) have women prime ministers, who are likely to be joined shortly by a fourth in Estonia. EU-wide data on equality between women and men in decision-making shows that governments in Spain, Sweden and France are at gender parity. However, at the other end of the spectrum, governments in Hungary and Malta have only 7.1% and 12% of women respectively. Men outnumber women in every EU Member State’s national parliament, sometimes by a wide margin and the same goes for regional assemblies. When it comes to the European Parliament, the share of female MEPs currently stands at 36.1%, having risen steadily after each election from a low 16.6 % in the first directly elected legislature in 1979. This is above the world average for national parliaments and the EU average for national parliaments, which stands at 30.2%.  However, it is still some way from the parity democracy, which Simone Veil and nineteen other women leaders called for in 1992 at the “European Summit of Women in Power”, which first put the issue on the EU agenda. Its five key arguments for equal representation—equality, democracy, satisfying the needs and interests of women, good use of human resources, and improving the policymaking process—still resonate today.


We need more women leaders because…  The Women Political Leaders network is encouraging prominent male politicians, including the current and former presidents of the European Commission and EU Member States, to say why more women are needed in parliaments and as political leaders.


An obstacle-strewn path to political office

Analysis of the outcome of the 2014 European elections found that women were popular with the electorate. According to the 2017 Special Eurobarometer survey on women in politics, 86 % of respondents think that a female political representative can represent their interests. So why are women still under-represented?

The European Women’s Lobby boils the considerable research down to 5 key factors:  Confidence: women – for a variety of highly rational reasons – have more doubts putting themselves up for election; Candidate selection: once women agree to run, it’s often difficult for them to get an electable spot on the election list; Culture: politics is a men’s world. Sexism is rampant and external threats – women – are often not welcome; Cash: when women run for election, their campaigns often receive less funding than their male counterparts); Childcare: across the EU, women spend double the amount of time on childcare compared to men.

Women in EP and national parliaments

Women in EP and national parliaments

A survey of women’s experiences of selection and election in the UK gives a striking illustration of the cumulative impact these obstacles can have on the journey to political office and beyond, including some of the  additional or specific barriers different groups of women can face on account of their age, class, ethnic background, religion, disability, or sexual orientation:

  • Deciding whether to stand for office: Respondents of both sexes had a long-standing interest in politics, but women were less likely to see themselves as future MPs because they thought that they did not ‘fit’ the traditional image or felt actively discouraged from going forward for selection by party officials or culture (being talked over, feeling invisible). As party activists, some women found that the timing and location of meetings did not take account of parenting responsibilities or mobility issues, creating further obstacles to being active in the party and therefore to building the necessary credibility, experience and networks to consider standing for office.
  • Getting selected as a candidate: In practice, the existing selection process was far from neutral or meritocratic. The time and financial costs involved were a major barrier for many women, especially those from lower socio-economic groups and particularly when employers were not flexible or supportive. Reconciling standing as a candidate and building political capital on top of family commitments and fulltime work was more of an impediment for women than for their male counterparts. Unequal access to resources was compounded by the attitudes and practices of party ‘selectorates’, whose patronage systems and informal selection criteria (e.g. prioritising particular career trajectories or histories of party activism) indirectly advantaged men during the selection process. Across the political spectrum, women respondents also reported more overt forms of bias in political parties, from a preconceived view of the ‘ideal’ candidate as male (and also white, middle class and able bodied), to assumptions about women’s and men’s abilities and roles (women but not men being asked about their marital status or children), and active resistance to selecting a female candidate. This could take the form of resentment and hostility within the local party towards equality measures, or outright opposition, harassment and threats of violence to women candidates from party members, the public and the media.
  • Getting elected: The issue of parties not selecting women candidates in ‘target’ or ‘winnable’ seats was a barrier to their electoral success. (Here, the equivalent in PR systems would be placing on a party list). Issues around resources, particularly money, time and flexibility, were even more important at this stage. Not being selected in a ‘target’ or ‘winnable’ seat could also lead to women candidates missing out on additional electoral support and resources from their parties. Respondents felt that in some more socially conservative areas the electorate were reluctant to vote for candidates from minority groups.
  • Taking office: Once elected, aspects of political life continued to present challenges. Parliament’s long and unsociable working hours, late-night voting, the requirement to be present for votes, commuting between two places and expectations that MPs should be available to constituents around the clock were all issues for female respondents, as was the level of abuse and harassment they face.

Concerns about managing the lifestyle of an MP and the sheer extent of violence directed against women in politics and public life, particularly on social media, may be deterring women from engaging in politics because they find the environment too toxic.

Getting more women into office

Against this background, what can be done to support women in politics? Here again, the European Women’s Lobby has five take-aways from the research:
Confidence: Invest in women. Set up ambitious training and mentoring programs;
Candidate selection: Establish quota or zipping systems in order to ensure gender balanced lists. Headhunt women candidates;
Culture: Establish zero tolerance for sexism with clear channels for reporting sexual harassment;
Cash: Provide earmarked funding for women candidates until equal representation is reached;
Childcare: Change the “long hours” culture in politics. Provide childcare facilities.

Looking specifically to the 2019 European elections, research for Parliament’s FEMM Committee stresses that political parties play a particularly key role in promoting candidates and, with the lists still open, urges them to consider lists that will improve gender balance in the next Parliament.  The Parliament itself has urged Member States and political parties to promote gender-balanced electoral lists and would have liked to see this enshrined in the reformed European Electoral Act.

Parliament’s Vice-President, Mairead McGuiness has spoken about her own experiences, noting that she had previously rejected the idea of introducing gender quotas, but has now come to support them as one way of challenging women’s invisibility in the political sphere, together with other ways of supporting women coming up through the ranks, at the grassroots and in local politics, or women entering politics at a later stage in their careers. Quotas are not about numeric 50/50 parity, but about creating the kind of political system that allows both men and women to participate and giving the electorate real choices about who will represent them.

Getting more women into office – less talk, more action

Interview: Empowering Women in Politics, Mairead McGuinness, Interview with the EP vice-president

What about the role of the media?

As researcher Maarja Lühiste explains, more and better media coverage would also shape future opportunities, by influencing women’s decisions to run for office, political party candidate choices, and young people’s perceptions of politics as a suitable career for women.

Interview: Empowering Women in Politics, Maarja Lühiste

Further reading

For International Women’s Day, EPRS has published several briefings, included in our Topical Digest on Women and Politics.

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