Women in politics

30 June 2021 /

5 min

Women have always struggled to obtain the exercise of their rights. One of the most coveted rights was the one to participate in politics. Years of struggles led  to women slowly gaining rights in politics, with women suffrage being first achieved in New Zealand in 1893 and with Saudi Arabia being the last country to grant the right in 2015. Today, New Zealand, Denmark and Finland, among the first countries to extend voting rights to all gender, are governed by women.

Yet, despite the progress, discrimination towards women in politics remains a persisting issue in today’s society. In contrast to their male colleagues, female candidates will be judged  over their physical appearance, tone of voice or facial expressions, than for their credentials and style of governing. The under-representation of women in politics, gender stereotypes and the discrimination against women intentions in politics are overwhelmingly present in European society. The reason is that attitudes towards female candidates are still deeply characterised by ingrained stereotypes. 

Labelled women in politics

Actually, the public tends to focus less on their ideas, party ideologies or style of politics, but rather on gender role. Women wishing to enter politics have to comply with a whole series of unwritten canons to be accepted and respected. They have to pay attention to small things such as not raising the tone of their voice and not react with instinct, authority or force. Furthermore, they should not be superficial, soft, too emotional or sensitive. 

Appearance and physical appearance are as much important: women in politics tend to be more scrutinised over the way they dress than their male counterparts. Also, they cannot expose the sexist culture they are subjected to, otherwise they will be prerogatively labelled “feminists”. 

Such critics are used to discredit, belittle and put down female leadership. Hilary Clinton, for example, was widely criticised for her “shrill attitude”, “overbearing voice” and “croaking laugh “during the US presidential campaign in 2016. Women of colors can face even harsher descrimination. Cécile Kyenge Kashetu, former Italian Minister for Integration and member of the Socialist and Democrat Group, was called an “orangutan” by another Italian minister because of her African origins.  

This shows how difficult it is for a woman in politics to be both feisty and pleasant, while having to wrestle sexit comments.

The ideology of a fragile woman

In the 1800s, the jusnaturalist movement supported by scientists, doctors, politicians, lawyers and men of high rank, agreed to categorise women as being of “fragile nature”. Women were discriminated against in any activity and work outside of what they considered “wifely duty”. As an example, the belgian lawyer, Marie Popelin, was the first woman to graduate from law at the ULB in 1888. Yet, she was barred from admission to the Supreme Court by the Court of Appeal because, according to the jusnatulist argument, the court was not the “suitable public place” for her nature. In countless other professions considered male-dominated have women been rejected and discriminated against. 

The jusnaturalist thinking was very present in the legal, political, social and economic domains, and the masculinist culture have led to the thickening of women stereotypes and gender role. As a response, women had to act like men to assert themselves in male-dominated fields, such as politics.  

From the 1960s and 1970s, more women were able to gain a voice and gain a seat in politics, but had to fight harder to be considered equal to their male colleagues. 

Women in European politics

According to Eurostat data, only 31.4% of government members across all Member States were women in 2019. This is an increase from 2003, when women accounted for about one-firth (21%) of members in national parliaments. Although an improvement, this also means that under a third of European countries are governed by women, while representing half the population.

In the European Union institutions, Ursula von der Leyen became the first president of the European Commission since its inception in 1958. In one of her first speeches, she declared wanting to achieve a gender-balanced college of commissioners: living up to her promise by presenting 12 women and 14 men as commission candidates.

However, the general presence of women is still considerably low. In no European country is there fewer men than women holding seats in parliament. During this 17-years period, the share of female heads of government in the EU never exceeded 14%, meaning never more than  four women held high-offices at the same time. In some European countries, women representation in politics remains extremely low where they account for less than one-fifth of the national parliament members in Hungary (13%), Malta (15%), Cyprus, Greece (18%) and Romania (20%). 

Yet, the pandemic and health crises showed that countries governed by women were most successful in containing the virus. From Iceland to Taiwan, Germany and New Zealand, women prime ministers demonstrated leadership in the midst of the chaos, revealing that female politicians faced difficult situations with much more sense, decisiveness and firmness. 

In order to increase the number of female representatives, systems of gender quotas have been introduced in many European countries ,either legislatively or voluntarily, for parliamentary elections. Theoretically, the tool compels political parties to present lists of candidates that are gender balanced, but quotas are not enforced. 

At the EU level, policies have been established to support women in politics. All these measures have undoubtedly led to an increase in the presence of women in European Parliament, but in no European country have they translated into effective gender parity within legislative bodies.

Criticisms and challenges 

A common political problem in many European countries is not so much the low number of female candidates: it  relates to their chance of becoming elected. In Italy, the newly formed Mario Draghi’s government comprises only eight women out of 23 ministers. None of these eight women belong to one of the Democratic Party, Italia’s main political party. The DP deputy, Giuditta Pini, when exposed on this issue of gender imbalance responded that power has always been firmly male dominated within the party: “There is a huge problem: women almost never get through, and when it comes to the most significant monocratic posts everything comes to a standstill”. 

When women do succeed in getting elected, 90% of the time governments relegate them to so-called “feminine” portfolios, such as family, children, education, maternity and health. In many countries women are still misperceived as unqualified to take responsibility in what are perceived as male-oriented areas: finance, energy, economic development, foreign affairs and trade. 

In spite of women’s continuous struggle to assert themselves in politics, gender equality remains to be achieved. Policies and programmes to increase the gender balance are not always respected or implemented. Ultimately, women can consider themselves triumphant when female politicians are remembered for their leadership skills than for their gender, the colour of their suit or the tone of their voice.

[This article was first published in the issue 34 of the magazine]

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