On January 11, 2013, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced that he is granting women a 20 percent quota on the Shura Council, the legislative body that advises the king on matters pertaining to the country. This decision translates into 30 women in the previously all-male body. This decree was seen as the first step, albeit a small one, toward the ultimate goal of women’s suffrage and guaranteed women’s rights. King Abdullah has further declared that during the next municipal elections in 2015, women will be able to vote as well as run for office. One of the current female members of the Shura Council recently challenged the existing ban on women drivers, and her action suggests that although moving at a glacial pace, a change in the right direction for women’s rights might be underway.
However, even if every country grants women the right to vote, barriers still exist that prevent women from being nominated, running for, and being elected to political office. With a few exceptions – primarily the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland), Belgium, and the Netherlands – most states have a long road to cover before women could have an equal chance of being nominated and elected for political office, and particularly for a leadership position such as the President or Prime Minister.
Around the world, the numbers of women entering political elections and winning leadership positions are certainly at an all-time high. According to the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics, the percentage of women heads of state is 42% in Europe, 23% in the Americas, 19% in Sub Saharan Africa, 16% in Asia, and 5% in the Arab World. Despite the increased number of elected women during the last several decades, it is evident that there is still a huge gap in terms of women’s political representation between countries in which women have the opportunities to advance and countries that still present both formal and informal barriers to women’s empowerment and success in the realm of politics.
Different approaches are utilized to examine this persistent phenomenon in an attempt to determine the variables with the greatest impact. Three approaches seem to be the most popular: the institutional approach, the structural approach, and the political culture approach.
Proponents of the institutional approach argue that institutions determine and shape the way in which a certain phenomenon is played out. In the context of the gender gap in politics, that translates into the idea that political institutions restrict women’s access to leadership positions in politics. Two institutional factors often mentioned in studies on women’s representation are the type of electoral system and gender quotas. An interactive overview created by the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) provides a summary of the various possible combinations between electoral systems and quotas. The table clearly indicates that depending both on the type of quota and the electoral system, the likelihood of women being nominated and elected for a political office ranges from very low to very high. Therefore, considering institutional factors, one can conclude that it is not the electoral system or the type of quota present that has an impact on women representation. Rather, it is the characteristics of both institutional factors, as well as the relationship between the two, that determine whether the political climate will be favorable to women.
Advocates of structural factors emphasize the impact of economic development in general, and modernization specifically, on the change in social structures and the resulting improvements in terms of health, education, and occupations for women. For example, in his analysis of several variables in the context of the European Union nations, Daniel Stockemer finds that aside from the type of electoral systems, the two other variables that have a significant impact on women’s representation are the number of women in professional positions and the overall number of years women have had the right to vote. However, considering the fact that women are far from bridging the gender gap in politics in many of the wealthiest and most economically developed nations in the world, structural factors seem to take a back seat to institutional and cultural factors. While structural factors seem to facilitate women’s empowerment, they do not account for the continued presence of barriers in terms of women’s representation.
In recent years, therefore, the focus of the study of women’s representation seems to have shifted toward an analysis from a political culture perspective. The argument is that a political culture that is more favorable to women in politics will create fewer obstacles to representation and consequently reduce the gender gap. Despite the increased interest in women’s rights and the concept of gender equality, deep-rooted traditional beliefs continue to present an obstacle to women’s interest to run for office or society’s tendency to vote for women in high political offices.
Two prominent scholars examining issues of gender, political culture, and representation are Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart. These two authors argue that institutional and structural explanations, while effective in certain respects, fail to account for differences across countries with similar characteristics or for differences across countries at the polar ends of the development spectrum. Instead, they place the emphasis on the impact of culture and highlight that egalitarian attitudes and belief in social equality are the possible explanations for the highest representation being in the Scandinavian nations while other developed nations, such as the United States, lag far behind. Further, they contend that cultural attitudes toward women and the female role could also be the explanation for why countries in the Arab world continue to rank at the bottom of any measurements of women empowerment or representation.
The scholars emphasize that in the context of the Muslim world, cultural influences are extremely important in the realm of politics and often hurt women’s chances for equal representation in leadership or otherwise positions. For example, less than 10% of parliamentarians in the Arab world are women and, even worse, there does not seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel. Norris and Inglehart contend that “the true clash of civilizations” is not any real difference in opinions toward democracy between Christianity and Islam; the actual divide, the authors argue, is along the lines of sex. Even if the majority of people in Arab nations seem to express willingness to a transition to democracy, persistent beliefs that men make better political leaders will continue to support the barriers to women’s representation. Simply encouraging transitions to democracies only in terms of fair elections and universal suffrage is not enough, Norris and Inglehart argue. The West, and specifically the United States, must do better in acknowledging the value of culture and allot resources to target human development. As they strongly conclude, “Culture has a lasting impact on how societies evolve. But culture does not have to be destiny”.
While it seems that proponents of the political culture approach have focused on the impact of culture in specific areas in the world, namely the Arab World and other restrictive in terms of women’s rights governments, it is of utmost importance to note the impact of culture and attitudes toward women in the developed Western world as well. While some nations, such as the Scandinavian countries, are leaders in respect to female political leadership, others, such the United States and France, are trailing behind. Even when women are in terms of law equal to men and have equal access to political offices, it is clear that beliefs about the nature of women, as not aggressive or rational enough to handle politics, impact the likelihood of women to be elected to higher political offices. In countries in which personal characteristics matter in a potential candidate, women tend to run for office in limited numbers if at all. The United States is a great example. It is clear that the representation in the media of female and male politicians is quite different. It has been argued that masculine characteristics are valued in the realm of politics and women either will not be elected because they are not aggressive enough or will be targeted for not acting as ‘proper’ women if they do behave in what is deemed a masculine manner.
Changing formal institutions, however costly and difficult it might be, is perhaps easier to imagine and implement than changing the informal institutions or the political culture of a state. The impact of personal characteristics and the influence of the traditional culture are hard to bypass and a paradigm shift is necessary for the beliefs and attitudes of those involved to change. More women in politics and a change in the treatment of these women – by other politicians, by the media, and most importantly by the general public – might result in an equal representation. If political culture is indeed what determines the likelihood of women running and being elected for office, then the road to addressing and targeting the barriers to such achievements will be hard to travel. If we take the Scandinavian countries as an example, it is well-documented that it took several decades for women to reach the level of high political representation in these countries. And even among these exemplary states, complete gender equality in politics has not yet been reached. I am not sure if women in other nations would like to wait decades before such equal representation is achieved.
Krasi Shapkarova is a recent graduate of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, with an MA in International Human Rights and concentration in forced labour and human trafficking. She is now based in the Washington D.C. area.