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21 July 2020

More than just a numbers game: women's substantive impact on politics

Ryley Johnson

RYLEY JOHNSON: Better representation can improve the quality of democracy

female politician

Ryley Johnson is an intern at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.

Democracy rests upon the normative goals of inclusion and representation, and while women’s descriptive representation in legislatures promotes some quantifiable metric of equality by their very presence, so, too, can women political leaders offer advantages that go above and beyond the optics of inclusion.


The blight of un- or under-represented women in legislatures and policymaking bodies worldwide is both well-documented and yet critically evasive. Female political careers reflect overlapping cultural ideas of normative gender roles; historical pathways to equal treatment; networks of supportive, women-friendly or gender-inclusive policies; and countervailing attempts to mitigate pre-existing discriminatory practices in male-dominated organisational structures.


Reform of discrimination is ideal, of course, but one half of the whole. Eradication of a negative is not full apotheosis of a positive. Descriptive representation, and enhanced female voice and presence, is the cosmetic equality that can lead to greater things, of which enhanced democracy and greater substantive representation of social policies are two quite enticing possibilities.


Gender quotas and electoral system reforms contribute much-needed institutional impetus to a more equitable division of gendered voices. And, indeed, data supports the idea of more gender inclusion in the years since the women’s movements of the 1970s, with OECD normative convergence around parental leave and other supportive policy structures.


The United Nations has also heavily woven gender equality into each of their recently developed 17 Sustainable Development Goals, though while many individual countries have set goals for parity and further equality in representation, none is on track to achieve gender equality targets by 2030.


This, of course, represents but one pillar in the larger lattice of equity, as women still face barriers to entry, cultural deterrents, discrimination and biased treatment, and other such obstacles to their political career success. The light at the end of the tunnel, however, is not just equality for equality’s sake, nor even just advantages to a normative global convergence. While quantifiable measurements offer metrics by which to judge, and prompt means by which to achieve (gender quotas, etc.), the prospect of a greater female presence tantalises not just for its portrayal of representation but for its potential to change the very structure and quality of democratic systems.


Lofty statement? Perhaps. And yet, it is a prospect supported theoretically and empirically. Studies suggest that female political representation can improve the quality of democracy, and that women’s substantive representation of social issues can benefit society at large.


Of democracy’s potential gain, research suggests that variance in leadership style, perceptions of trust, and rates of corruption can correlate with female representation. Of these, of course, better leadership, more trust and legitimacy, and lower rates of corruption, are all potential gains from the diverse inclusion of female politicians. These aspects come on the tail end of inclusion, but will also blossom pending a deeper look at the cultural and institutional barriers that hinder women’s entry into, or success within, the political realm.


Studies have found that women tend towards leadership styles that are more cooperative and inclusive. Of the most timely and pertinent examples, evidence of this has been cited around the coronavirus pandemic, as leaders such as Angela Merkel, Erna Solberg, Jacinda Ardern, and Katrín Jakobsdóttir pave the way for successful, decisive, and compassionate action on behalf of their respective countries.


Policy responses are attributable to the individuals from whom they stem, but are also potentially emblematic of social and cultural gender differences in leadership style. Without conflating myriad contributing aspects or directional causality, there are portents to enhanced quality of democracy in more gender-inclusive political systems. Espousing inclusive trends that steer towards a better democracy hardly seems like a contentious pursuit.


Aside from leadership style and broad-stroke democratic functions, the minutiae of policies prioritised, proposed and passed can also vary depending on female representation. Perhaps most logically, evidence suggests that women legislators propose and support more policies around women’s issues such as reproductive rights and maternity leave. On a broader scale, however, evidence also suggests that women place preponderant emphasis upon social policies such as education, healthcare, and welfare services above and beyond the priorities of their male counterparts. While not inherently women’s issues, these “women-friendly” issues more broadly benefit men, women, vulnerable populations and society at large. With the imminent challenges of climate change and global health, these core functions will become all the more vital as the world grows and adapts to shifting circumstances.


The world is besieged by many problems, airborne viruses just one of many. Women political leaders do not serve as a panacea to any or all, nor can gender supplant the multitude of other factors necessary for the leaders who will aid recovery and innovation in the time ahead. And yet evidence does suggest that women political leaders can help reshape the political framework and male-dominated organisational structures in ways that may incidentally promote equality, but also substantively promote a social good. Historically, resistance to change does not tend to fare well, and adaptation begets innovation begets widespread betterment. As with Darwin’s finches, so too with political structures in the face of potential social advantage and societal gain.


As we plunge into unknown depths of a global community’s response to the pandemic before us, surely the quality and substance of democracy will be vitally important. Women are at least half of all people affected in some capacity, perhaps disproportionate in the implications of the virus’s impact, and invariably a necessary component in guiding us through, out, and into recovery and reform in the years to come.