Women in Politics — Numbers Will Have to Break the Glass Box Eventually

BRUSSELS - Electoral politics on both sides of the Atlantic are a very masculine realm but increasingly women are entering elected office.

BRUSSELS - Electoral politics on both sides of the Atlantic are a very masculine realm but increasingly women are entering elected office. While Hillary Clinton did not become the first female president of the United States, the 115th United States Congress will have the highest percentage of women legislators in its history. Earlier this year, in Ireland’s general election, the number of female members of its parliament increased from 15 to 22 percent. These positive signs of progress are encouraging, but having a critical mass of women in elected offices on all levels of society is still is a long way ahead. Political party structures, access to money, and cultural labels that influence media and the general public reinforce the traditional system — more of a glass box than just a glass ceiling — that continues to make it difficult for women in the United States and Europe to obtain political power.

According to the latest data by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in the Nordic countries, the representation of women in parliament is the highest in the world with 41.6 percent — compared to other European OSCE neighbors, where the number of women is just 24.5 percent. High female labor force participation, low salary gaps between men and women, mandatory parental leave benefits, tax incentives, and post maternity re-entry programs, as well as flexibility at work, shared participation in childcare — altogether provide a gender sensitive context in the Nordic countries, which is also beneficial for men and invites more women to politics.

Once women hold elected office, research demonstrates that they shape the policy-making process differently than their male colleagues, as their legislative priorities are different. For example, studies have shown that female legislators are more likely to introduce bills dealing with women, children, and family issues. Not only do they raise awareness about critical societal challenges, they actually permeate all aspects of society including politics related to education, health, homeland security, international affairs, and economics. In the long run, gender sensitive legislation also empowers more women to enter politics by creating a setting that gives men and women choices and by providing role models. Women legislators themselves serve as the strongest builders of their own pipeline.

While the United States takes the approach of identifying, coaching, and funding individual candidates, many European countries, for example Iceland, Spain and France, have largely taken a more structural approach by introducing quotas in politics. These could be in the form of reserved seats, legal candidate quotas, and voluntary political party quotas. This incentivizes women to enter politics and obligates political parties to invest in female talents thereby having the opportunity to make themselves more attractive to voters.  

However, women need to get their party nomination before are able to run. Political parties serve as gate keepers in that they recruit election candidates. Selections tend to be influenced by local party structures, making it important for successful incumbents to build up strong local machines of support. Female candidates must develop their own strong and diverse networks to sustain themselves within political party structures. This also raises questions about funding.

In the United States, a political candidate needs to raise millions for congressional races and billions for presidential campaigns. Female candidates often lack the connections and established political action committees (super PACs that can raise and spend unlimited amounts of money). In Europe, private funding is not as prevalent as in the United States. In many countries, the parties rely mostly on public subsidies such as in Sweden, where public subsidies make up between 80-90 percent of the major parties’ yearly funds. In France, for example, campaign spending for presidential candidates is capped.

Finally, as Clinton’s campaign experience has demonstrated, sexual discrimination in the media remains one of the obstacles that women face in politics. In June, The Guardian reported that Hillary Clinton received twice as many abusive tweets as Bernie Sanders. Earlier in 2016, The Inter-Parliamentary Union interviewed 55 female members of parliament in 39 countries, and found that more than 40 percent of the women interviewed had received threats of death, rape, beatings, or abduction while serving their terms, including threats to kidnap or kill their children. Harassments and threats are clear obstacles holding women back from getting involved in politics.

Nevertheless, numerous organizations on both sides of the Atlantic are working to advance women who want to run for office and to overcome structural and individual challenges that are holding women back. Differences and similarities will be discussed during an upcoming transatlantic seminar on women in politics organized in Brussels November 30 through December 2, organized by The German Marshall Fund of the United States, the Reflective Democracy Campaign, and European Women’s Lobby. This will be the first time that a critical mass of European and American women will share their best practices and lessons learned, and work together to find a common way forward to advance women in political leadership.

There are continued obstacles in the path of women’s political careers, and this distorts representation in democratic societies with potential consequences for women’s rights and for societal well-being. While the highest political office in the United States has not yet gone to the first female presidential candidate, now it is time to work toward creating the pipeline for female legislative representation at all levels of society and to bring about a critical mass so that the participation of of women begins to have full impact.