This piece was written by Zeena Didi, an MA Public Policy student at King's College London, as part of an internship with the Global Institute for Women's Leadership.
The full and active participation of women in legislatures, equal to men, is not just a goal in itself, but central to building and sustaining democracies. The equal presence of women, their leadership and their perspective in parliaments is essential to ensure greater responsiveness to citizens’ needs.
Progress has certainly been achieved. There are more women legislators than ever before. Over the last 20 years, the proportion across the globe increased from 13 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2020. Some regions have experienced greater gains, such as Africa, where the number of women legislators increased from 11 to 24 per cent. The Arab states, too, have witnessed a significant increase, from 3 to 17 per cent. The share of women parliamentary speakers has also doubled over the past 25 years. Women are now serving as parliamentary speakers across all regions of the world with the exception of the Pacific.
Despite these gains, women still rarely hold leadership roles. It is also true that progress towards achieving gender balance in national parliaments across the globe is slow and uneven. By the dawn of 2020, women were leading just 20 of 193 nations and occupying a quarter of parliamentary seats globally. Women share an equal majority or more in only four parliaments around the world – Rwanda, Cuba, Bolivia and the United Arab Emirates. Global female representation is still below 30 per cent – the benchmark identified as the crucial level of representation to achieve a “critical mass” of female legislators to enable a significant impact, rather than a symbolic few.
That women occupy only a quarter of parliamentary seats across the world is a stark reminder of the pervasive and persisting nature of gender inequality. It is also indicative of the power dynamics within societies. Still, some may ask why it matters if there are more female legislators and political leaders? Why do we need more women involved in all aspects of the political process?
Put simply, it matters because women’s representation is necessary to ensure that democracy functions as effectively as possible.
Women are not a minority; they are half of the world’s population. For political institutions to be democratically legitimate and responsive to all citizens, they must be inclusive of the plurality of groups that exist within the population. This requires greater representation of women in national parliaments and broader diversity.
People’s interests and priorities are often shaped by their respective social, economic and ethnic differences. Female legislators belonging to various backgrounds can therefore bring a wide array of issues to the table for consideration and propose solutions accordingly. Furthermore, any democratic system benefits from having people from diverse backgrounds and life experiences represented in its political institutions. It enables us to draw on the full array of capacity and skills in the population in shaping policies for the advancement of all.
Since 1995, the world has made great strides towards achieving gender equality. For example, over the last 10 years, 131 countries have passed 274 legal reforms in support of gender equality. These include laws towards eliminating violence against women, childcare and universal healthcare. Research indicates that these achievements have coincided with an increasing number of female legislators around the world. One of the reasons for this is because women legislate differently compared to men. Even when women appear to be in limited numbers within the legislature, and economic and political dynamics make the task more difficult for women, findings suggest that women still legislate differently by placing a greater priority on women’s rights.
So, to conclude, why do women in politics matter? First and foremost, it is a matter of equity and human rights – both of which are cornerstones of a democratic society. Second, broad representation of women in parliaments has an enormous impact on what issues are raised and how policies are shaped. Third, it creates room to reform and revise discriminatory laws against girls and women.