The beginning of November marked a historical day for the United States of America – and seemingly the world at large. Kamala Harris became the first-ever woman – and the first woman of colour at that – to be elected as the country’s Vice President. It was a memorable moment for the U.S.; it is the first time in American history that a woman has ever come this close to the esteemed Oval Office. Previously, the closest scenario was when Hillary Clinton ran for president as the first woman to win a major party’s presidential nomination in 2016.
Looking elsewhere in the world, it was just a little over a year ago that Sanna Marin, the newly elected Finnish Prime Minister became the world’s youngest female head of state. Not only that, but she also formed a coalition government in which all five party leaders were women and appointed a cabinet of ministers with a majority of women.
These are certainly symbolic victories for women. They also mark significant steps towards increasing the representation of women in political leadership. However, it also brings up the question of whether a gender gap in politics still exists, and if so, why?
A Look at Women in Politics Across the World
In 1995, the United Nations adopted the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which endeavours to tackle gender inequality by identifying 12 critical areas of concern. One of these areas is ‘women in power and decision-making.’ Although the involvement of women in politics has significantly increased in the years following the declaration, the fact remains that globally, the goal has still not been achieved sufficiently.
According to research done by the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) and UN Women (as of 1 January 2020), only 14 countries in the world have more than 50% women in ministerial positions. In this category, only two countries have more than 60% women in cabinet positions – Spain (66.7%, with 10 women out of 15) and Finland (61.1%, with 11 women out of 18).
Similarly, when looking at women in parliament, only 4 countries in the world – Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia and the United Arab Emirates – have more than 50% of seats filled up by women. Inversely, 27 countries have less than 10% women in parliament, with 3 countries having no women at all in their parliamentary chambers. Globally, women comprise only 24.9% of parliamentary seats in the world, a slow progress when compared to the 11.3% in 1995.
The ‘Double Bind’
Research shows that female politicians are still significantly stigmatised, in which politics is still treated as a very much ‘masculine’ field in which women are seen as ‘trespassers.’ This puts women in something called ‘the double-bind.’ Women who are seen as more decisive or assertive – typically ‘masculine’ traits – are viewed as competent leaders but are disliked (often for their lack of ‘femininity’). On the other hand, when women are regarded as being more nurturing or emotional – stereotypically ‘feminine’ qualities – they are better liked but are seen as less capable leaders.
In either scenario, women are criticised as being ‘too much’ or ‘too little’ of something, with no clear directive on which works in their favour. To put it simply, it’s a lose-lose situation for women in leadership positions where they are looked down on no matter which way they act.
This is all the more apparent for women of colour and those in the LGBTQ+ community as they are scrutinised more and are forced to overcome more obstacles in terms of prejudice and bigotry.
Negative Media Portrayal
Media portrayal of women – either consciously or unconsciously – also perpetuates certain myths which make it harder for women to find the necessary footing to push their way up into the political field. Studies have shown that in general, women are judged more on their appearance, physical description, and familial status, when compared to their male counterparts. Additionally, women are more severely criticised for their mistakes and face harsher judgement regarding the implementation and ramifications of their executive decisions.
These ongoing stereotypical attitudes and sexism lead women to believe that they are less qualified than men to run for political office, which effectively leads to a decrease in the number of women in politics.
Women constitute half the world’s population and should be represented as such in all walks of life. This is all the more crucial in the field of politics, where participants have a direct hand in crafting legislation and drafting policies. When women are not represented in the decision-making process, it stands to reason that the needs of women – and society as a whole – will not be sufficiently represented. This is especially true in terms of women of colour and women of different ethnicities in multicultural societies where their voices need to be heard.
What’s more, women in politics inspire other women to stand up, raise their voice and run for office as well. It also encourages and inspires the next generation. As they say, seeing is believing; or more accurately in this context representation is empowerment.
Written by Iyath Adam Shareef