Twenty-five years after the landmark Beijing women’s conference, politics remains overwhelmingly the domain of men. Today, women are not even a quarter of all elected politicians in the world.
At this rate, it will take a century to close the gender gap in politics and more than two centuries for women to attain economic equality.
The global average for women’s representation in parliament has inched up from 11.2 to 24.9 percent in the last two decades. While this can be seen as progress, it is still far from the one-third threshold considered the minimum needed to shape law and policy for gender equality.
Now with the COVID-19 crisis, women’s absence in decision making is having a direct impact on people’s lives. Countries with more women in leadership – in governments, cabinets, legislatures – have delivered COVID-19 responses that consider the effects of the crisis on women and girls. But they are exceptions rather than the norm.
Such a lack of women’s perspectives can have deadly consequences. For example, the spike in violence against women and girls under pandemic lockdown measures, making the home one of the most unsafe places for women, was only to be expected. But most governments failed to anticipate it and have been slow to respond.
Not enough policymakers are using a gender lens to examine the evidence and lack of equal representation in parliaments is largely to blame.
Nationally legislated gender quotas and affirmative policies like temporary special measures have proven to be a critical first step in bringing more women into the ranks of elected politicians. Along with other actions like mandatory representation in candidate and party lists, they have had visible impact in several countries.
Notably, and in large part due to such measures and advocacy by women’s groups, women’s average representation in parliaments in the Eastern Europe and Central Asia region now averages 24.6 percent, as UNDP’s interactive platform #EqualFuture shows. This is close to the global average and a big step forward from 7.6 percent in 1995 and 18.1 percent in 2010. Gender quotas in Serbia, Ukraine and North Macedonia have led to women significantly raising their numbers in parliament.
But these measures don’t go far enough.
What needs to change for women to move from the political margins to the mainstream? Many intersecting factors underpin gender disparities in public life. They must be tackled simultaneously.
First are a set of measures aimed at leveling the field in the electoral domain. While quotas have helped, we need more complex strategies to improve the overall political landscape. These include voter education to combat gender stereotypes, expanding women’s access to campaign financing, fostering cross-party and regional coalitions of women in politics, and engaging with the men who control political parties and agendas.
Second is the hard work of dismantling structural and social barriers that obstruct women. A fundamental but often forgotten factor that underpins gender inequality is women’s burden of unpaid care and domestic work. Redistributing it more equally in family and society is essential to women realizing their economic and political opportunities.
An unexpected consequence of the pandemic lockdown in some countries has been more men picking up a larger share of household and care work. We must seize this opportunity to do more to allow women equality in the labour market. This means not only ensuring that social protection systems cover household costs of care but, crucially, building social infrastructure to care for the young, elderly, sick and disabled.
Evidence shows that investment in the care sector creates many more jobs than a similar investment in, say, construction. What’s more, these are decent, low-carbon and secure jobs that will make this an attractive sector for men and women and raise the quality of and demand for care services. COVID-19, more than any comparable crisis in recent history, urges us to bring in structural reforms that will have transformative impact on women’s participation in politics and the economy.
Patriarchal values, tradition and conservative norms exert a powerful hold and cannot be fought just with advocacy campaigns. Women as much as men, as candidates and voters, harbour harmful gender norms and stereotypes that portray politics as the domain of men. Confronting and combating these trends require coordinated strategies that target gender bias in education, media, social affairs, health and employment.
Violence in politics is a global and growing phenomenon. Women are targeted for their gender and routinely face vicious gender-based cyber violence that is often life-threatening. This is a huge deterrent to aspirants, especially younger women, who must enter electoral politics in far greater numbers if the gender gap is to be bridged.
None of this is easy, but women leaders and parliaments and local assemblies in a growing number of countries are showing us the way.
At the national level, women parliamentarians have driven crucial legislation on women’s rights – for example, criminalizing violence against women in North Macedonia and early and forced marriage in Kyrgyzstan, and promoting women’s entrepreneurship in Montenegro. We know that women in decision-making positions at the local level promote human development because they more often than men prioritize community over individual needs.
There are other pressing reasons why gender diversity must become intrinsic to good decision-making and responsive governance. Today’s complex problems call for smarter solutions. Whether it is the COVID-19 pandemic, rising inequalities combined with gender wage and labour gaps, or climate change, our responses must consider a multiplicity of perspectives and experiences – informed by gender, race, background, education, class and occupation. Women in politics don’t derive their power on their own – they are most successful when they are seen as part of influential women’s networks in science and industry, civil society and the media.
Equal participation in political decision-making is a matter of gender equality. Women are half the world’s population and must have equal say in all decisions that affect their lives. On this International Day of Parliamentarism, let us join forces for an #EqualFuture.