Female Forward Int.
Understanding the Barriers and Benefits to Female Representation in Politics

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When raising the topic of „female empowerment in politics”, there are generally two types of reactions in the room. While it is common to hear positive statements and curiosity on how to approach this issue, you will always find someone playing the devil’s advocate or trying to convince you that there is not much left to do, since there are “plenty of women in parliament”. Let us entertain this thought for a second and look at the actual data behind their claim. Across the EU, around 33% of members of national parliaments are female, which might not seem so bad, but considering that women make up 54,6% of the EU’s population, this goes to show that they are heavily underrepresented in the democratic processes. While it has to be noted that some countries (especially the Scandinavians) have created a significantly more favourable environment for gender equality in politics, a majority of EU Member States however, perform much lower (e.g. Hungary with only 13% of female parliamentarians). And even though there is continuous progress in the field of female representation in politics in the EU, it is moving at a terribly slow pace.

How Representation Makes Better Democracies

Our societies are diverse in their gender, age, socio-economic status, background and lived experience. This translates into a complex web of needs and challenges which political parties and elected officials should keep in mind when proposing legislation and setting up budgets and services. Even if we assume that they would do so to the best of their ability and with people’s interest at heart, it is an impossible task to reflect society in these decisions in an unrepresentative parliament. That is why representation of women and minorities is so important. They add their unique points of views and experiences to the democratic discourse and can lead to more comprehensive political approaches to find solutions for all citizens. If their representation, however, is too low, their valuable contribution risks to be overlooked or minimised, as they cannot create political leverage within their parties and when elected to office. Electing a few women to office might therefore scratch the proverbial itch for those seeking a quick fix and PR, but it does not address the underlying and often systemic issues that prevent women from participating in the political discourse and institutions.

It is a Man’s World: Systems Built for Them

Political parties, institutions and common practices often date back to far before women received voting rights in their respective countries. It comes as no surprise then that those systems were built for and around men, and in the case of the EU specifically white men. Limited revision of these political practices does not make it appealing and sometimes makes it even impossible for women to become politically active in parties. As an example, Italy shows that even though its legislation is modern and well-intended to promote women, invisible barriers hinder women from succeeding in their professions and taking top positions. This is largely due to deeply rooted and cultural issues, like wide spread sexism, misogyny and "machismo", which are sometimes used as a weapon against female politicians, as Marina Lili Venturini (President, Donne Elettrici) pointed out in a recent FNF interview.

On a more positive note, Germany has been witnessing a recent shift away from the “Stammtischkultur”, a common practice in which political groups would meet in the evening in a pub to discuss politics and party business in a less formal atmosphere, making political deals over the occasional drink. This practice, still happening in rural areas, not only excludes those that have caretaking responsibilities and those too young to enter some establishments, but also overall tends to deter women from participating.

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Always a Supporting Role, but Rarely the Lead

When it comes to the expectations women face in office, there exists an interesting dynamic of internal and external pressure. While women are often held to a higher standard than their male counterparts when running for office, they also tend to have less confidence in their abilities to succeed in a new role, especially when weighing in other responsibilities like taking care of their families. However, this is also due to weaker support from networks and the absence of female role models and mentors that could inspire them to just “go for it” and support them along the way. There is therefore additional pressure on women who do succeed in politics to prove themselves and serve as role model to others.

Gendered stereotypes further affect the political positions available to elected female officials. They are often put in charge of ministries and positions related to social, cultural or educational affairs and passed over for more prestigious posts in the fields of economy, defence or foreign affairs. The underlying issue here is the persistence of stereotypes characterising masculine traits as powerful, assertive and politically capable, while feminine traits are associated with caretaking and organisational talent. This also translates into why women are more commonly found in supporting roles, such as a vice-chair as opposed to chairperson of a party or body. They are well-regarded for their expertise and organisational talent that keeps an organisation going, however, a man is more likely to be trusted with execution and leadership.

Violence Against Women in Politics

A problem that all politicians face, but where women are disproportionately affected by, is online and offline harassment. It is one of the main issues keeping women from engaging in politics and includes a variety of attacks with the goal to marginalise and undermine them as political actors. A survey by the European Liberal Forum shows that 68.8% of interviewed female politicians experienced violence based on their sex or gender. Similarly, a study conducted by the ALDE Party found 7 out of 10 respondents encountered sexism in the context of their political work and 30% of women receive sexist comments on a regular basis. It is important to note, that the experience of gender-based violence and discrimination can be further aggravated by factors like origin, sexuality and disability. ALDE Party found for example, that female leaders from Eastern European countries were more likely to witness or be targets of sexism and harassment than their Western and Nordic counterparts.

What to Do and Why It Matters

So, how do we break gendered stereotypes, overcome systemic hurdles, bring more women into politics and equip them with the tools needed to succeed? While this is an incredibly ambitious agenda, there are already a few ideas underway in the liberal family:

  • On the individual level, the European Liberal Forum has created a toolbox on violence against women that aims at raising awareness, equip you with the appropriate tools to identify, describe and report acts of violence.
  • The “Alliance of Her” (a project by ALDE Party, Friedrich Naumann Foundation & European Liberal Forum) seek to empower liberal women in Europe to lead and succeed, through targeted trainings and the opportunity to be part of a support network of inspiring women.
  • The Rainbow Platform was founded on the idea of the elevation of LGBTQ+ liberal voices by creating role models who can inspire political engagement and change. At the ALDE Congress 2022, 34 liberal parties signed their Dublin Diversity Declaration, in a public pledge to promote diversity in and outside their parties.

It has to be noted that the above-mentioned topics and analyses leave room for further exploration. However, one thing is clear: Gender equality is proven to benefit society at large, and change can only come if we do not regard it as simply a “female issue” or some “radical feminist agenda”, but as a societal responsibility and chance for prosperity. Sustainable change to address systemic issues has to start from within. It is therefore imperative that political parties invest in female potential. Promoting women is not just a quota to be met for public approval. It is a chance to make a party more inclusive and attractive, engage new talent and be able to produce more comprehensive policies that resonate with their target audience. In times where more and more people, especially youth, feel disenfranchised with politics, parties that promote diversity and young female politicians can show that they are moving beyond much-criticised antiquated party politics and structures. Training, empowering and connecting women, who can inspire generations to come is a true win-win situation for politics and society.

Want to know more about female empowerment in politics? Check out our Female Forward International Campaign, which highlights strong and passionate women that have become involved politically and serve as role models for girls across the Member States.

Jana Weber is the Human Rights & EU Funding Manager at the European Dialogue Programme of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation in Brussels.