Women in Government
Women in power make a difference as we’ll see. Women’s politicians’ leadership style tends to be more inclusive, valuing consensus building and nonhierarchical collaboration, less confrontational and more democratic. However, a survey of 2,100 US college students reported that men were twice as likely as women to have often thought about running for office and women were 20% more likely to never have considered it.[i] They’re less likely to think they will be qualified to run for office, they receive less encouragement, are less likely to have played team sports and care about winning, and they’re less exposed to political information.
The first country to give women the right to vote was New Zealand in 1893.[ii] Since then women have been president or prime minister in countries including Australia, New Zealand, India, Sri Lanka (the first country to have a woman prime minister), Bangladesh, Thailand, Liberia, Israel, South Korea, the Philippines, Kosovo, Lithuania, Ireland, United Kingdom, Norway, Denmark, Finland, Argentina, Brazil, Costa Rica, Haiti, Malawi, Slovenia and Jamaica. Since 1950 around 70 female heads of state were in power; about a third came in on a father or husband’s coattails. For example, Sonia Gandhi (Italian by birth) is the influential head of the ruling Congress Party in India due to her marriage to Rajiv Gandhi. He was the son of former Prime Minister India Gandhi, who was the only child of the first prime minister of independent India, Jawaharlal Nehru.
Michelle Bachelet, Director of UN Women, reported in 2012, “Today women make up less than 10% of world leaders. Globally less than one in five members of parliament is a woman,” up from 11% in 1995. Her agency reported that only 5% of heads of state were female in 2011, and only 16% of government ministers were women. Sushma Swaraj, a female leader of the Hindu nationalist BJP party, criticized her: “Despite the fact that the Congress is being headed by a woman, the party is immune to the problems of women.” A reason for resistance to women leaders is that we associate female authority with childhood, since mothers usually spend more time raising children than fathers, theorizes Gloria Steinem. Women leaders are most supportive of women when at least 30% of their peers are female,[iii] hence the Iron Ladies like queen bees Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and India Gandhi didn’t focus on assisting women. However, a “critical mass” of women leaders can generate a backlash by threatened male legislators.
A UN study of 188 countries reported that only 20 had parliaments where women make up at least a third of the representatives. Rwanda and Andorra were the only countries with a majority of women legislators, while seven parliaments had no women. Arab states have the lowest numbers of women in parliament. After the ouster of Mubarak in Egypt, under Islamist President Morsi the percentage of women fell from 12% to only 2%. Some of more egalitarian countries are the Scandinavian countries, South Africa, the Philippines, Cuba and Nicaragua.[iv] Cuba elected more women than men for its 2013 National Assembly, keeping in mind there’s only one candidate per seat.
In China the percentage of women on the Party’s Central Committee fell to 4.9% in November 2012, with no women on the powerful Politburo. Seven men with dyed black hair and black suits were presented at the Great Hall of the People. Many are the sons of Party elders. The government values pretty young women; the People’s Daily, the Party’s official newspaper, published an online sideshow of women at the 2012 Party National Congress called “Beautiful Scenery.”[v] Yuan reports that media coverage of every major event such as a conference or game includes reports about the “ritual girls” who greet the public. He added, “Car exhibitions won't go without attractive female models. And they wear less and less, some bikinis.” . At the current rate of progress, it will take 40 years to reach gender parity in the world’s national legislatures.[vi]
A Foreign Policy magazine survey of 43 international women politicians reported that most experienced sexism while in office, which they said it is the greatest obstacle to more women entering politics. Yet only about a half call themselves feminists. Examples of sexism they experienced were being told they should be home with the kids, sexual harassment, exclusion from informal networks, and condescending attitudes. The women’s politicians’ main suggestion for how to increase the number of women politicians was to establish gender quotas as implemented in over 108 countries. They said the Scandinavian countries are the best place to be a woman while Afghanistan is the worst, as illustrated in a documentary titled I Was Worth 50 Sheep. It’s about a girl who at age 10 was sold into marriage with a man in his 50s, miscarrying four times (2011).[vii]
Women legislators make a difference in public policy (support for education, health care, and infrastructure such as clean water), democratic governance (greater responsiveness to citizens, more effective conflict resolution), and leadership (more collaborative and less hierarchical).[viii] A cross-cultural study found that women legislators’ involvement result in more spending on education[ix] and a World Bank study found the presence of more women in public life is followed by less corruption, as cited in Foster’s article in the endnote above.
A Stanford University study of female members of the US House of Representatives found they delivered more money to their home districts, proposed more legislation and got more co-sponsors for their bills.[x] Women in state legislatures are more liberal on issues like reproductive rights and social welfare. Women legislators are more likely than men to support policies helpful to women, to be less conservative, to focus on cooperation among citizens and issues instead of focusing on individuals, and are less driven by desire for fame and power, according to well-documented studies by the Center for American Women in Politics at Rutgers.[xi]
For example, at Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s confirmation hearing she emphasized:
Of particular concern to me is the plight of women and girls, who comprise the majority of the world’s unhealthy, unschooled, unfed and unpaid. If half of the world’s population remains vulnerable to economic, political, legal, and social marginalization, our hope of advancing democracy and prosperity will remain in serious jeopardy.
Clinton says this is a “Full Participation Age,” because in the information era the world can’t afford to lose the talents of women.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf (born in 1938) became the first female African president in 2006. She said voters told her during the campaign, “Men have failed us. Men are too violent, too prone to make war. Women are less corrupt, less likely to be focused on getting fancy cars and fancy homes for themselves.” Her election relied on women going village-to-village and door-to-door campaigning for her. She appointed women as Ministers of Youth and Sports, Gender and Development, Commerce, Foreign Affairs, and Finance. She believes that being mothers gives women leaders “a sensitivity to humankind” that will make the world a better and safer place.[xii]
Johnson Sirleaf explains in her autobiography This Child Will Be Great that African women are honored as mothers and aunts, but are not considered equal to men. Her husband felt free to hit her. She was reluctant to divorce him because fathers get custody of children, but finally did get a divorce and he did take custody of their four boys. She went on to be educated in the US to be an economist and worked for Liberian government agencies, the UN and the World Bank.
She was jailed and threatened when young rebels fought a civil war: Samuel Doe was only 28 when he and his fellow soldiers forcefully took control of Liberia in 1989, followed by civil war between battling warlords that lasted until 2002. The soldiers forced children to fight with them, killed 250,000 out of the three million Liberians and uprooted most who survived. When soldiers kidnapped and threatened to kill Johnson Sirleaf she calmed them down by saying, “Think about your mother. How would you feel if someone did this to her?” Democratic elections were finally held in 2005 that resulted in Johnson Sirleaf’s victory at the polls. When she asked children what they most wanted, they said to go to school. Her first year as president, school fees were abolished in public primary schools and reduced in high schools, creating a 40% increase in school enrollment. Parents can be fined if children work on the streets during school hours.
In 2010, she reported on her accomplishments:[xiii]
Women hold strategic positions in the Cabinet and in other government bodies. I have established a market development fund supported by private donations to empower rural women through better working conditions and literacy training. A second fund, also from private donations, provides funding for the building of 50 schools, training of 500 teachers and scholarships for 5,000 girls throughout the country; girls and women have voices in claiming participation in societal endeavors.
She was reelected in 2011 when she won over 90% of the vote, soon after she received a Nobel peace prize along with two other African women activists. One of them is Laymah Gbowee, co-founder of the Women’s Peace Network in Liberia that helped to end a decade of civil war.[xiv] Gbowee commented, 'What we did in Liberia was to create havoc. Peaceful, feminine havoc. Women brought sanity to Liberia." Their women’s Mass Action Campaign started in one community and spread to 50 others. Gbowee told the Nobel Prize ceremony that, “We walked when we had no transportation, we fasted when water was unaffordable, we held hands in the face of danger, we spoke truth to power when everyone else was being diplomatic, we stood under the rain and the sun with our children to tell the world the stories of the other side of the conflict.”
Women business leaders also make a difference. A report by Catalyst, a nonprofit organization working to advance women in business, found that US companies with the most women in their top management teams outperformed companies with the lowest number of women managers.[xv] Despite this advantage, Catalyst reports that women are only 14% of senior managers and 3% of chief executives in the US—only 21 of the Fortune 500 chief executives are women.
Some European countries set quotas for the percent of women represented on corporate boards and get results, as in Norway were women are 40% of corporate board members. A 2012 report by the Credit Suisse Research Institute found that large international companies with women on their boards had more income growth than companies with all male boards. However, when the European Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding asked companies to appoint more women to their supervisorary boards, the result was “nothing,” so she proposed a 40% quota.[xvi] The UN’s Michele Bachelet reported that, “The World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap Report calculates that for 114 countries for which data is available, advances in gender equality correlate positively with higher GNP.” Models of best practices are available online.[xvii]
The World Economic Forum also reported that countries with more equal rights do better economically than countries where women are left out.73 They surveyed government ministers who said that progressive governments assist women in combining work and family with parental leave, childcare, taxation policies, and quotas for women politicians. For example, women farmers often don’t have the same access to seeds, fertilizer and technology as men. The UN Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that if women had the same resources, they could reduce the number of undernourished people in by world by around 150 million.[xviii]
Another way to look at how change will occur as young women assume more leadership and agency is to look at matrilineal societies. These societies trace descent from the mother, her adult children live with her, and children are raised by their maternal uncles rather than their fathers. Examples from the past and present matriarchal societies are listed in the endnote (current societies are noted in bold).[xix] In some of these cultures women chose lovers as they please rather than monogamous marriage. For example, the Moso are a matrilineal people who live in China near the Tibetan border. They’re Buddhists like the Tibetans and believe in ghosts and deities including their mountain goddess who is considered the mother of the Moso.
An interesting autobiography of Erce Namu, a girl who grew up in Moso traditional culture, explains that wealth was held communally and shared equally. Namu said that although the oldest woman was the head of the household, she shared decision-making: “In ideal terms, Moso families are democratic units where all relatives expect to be included in decision making.”[xx] Older people are deferred to whether male or female. Children address their biological father as “uncle” since maternal uncles raise their sisters’ children. Daughters are favored over sons and only daughters have their own bedroom, called a “flower room,” where lovers may tap on the bedroom window to spend the night if the woman agrees. The Moso say visiting keeps relations between men and women pure and joyful without the fights between married couples: “Love is like the seasons—it comes and goes.” Harmony is highly valued, so it’s forbidden to argue or gossip. Namu reported, “Nobody in Moso country today can recall either murder or beating or robbery, or a truly ugly fight between neighbors or jilted lovers.”[xxi] The implication is that women in power will bring more democracy, peace and sexual freedom as well as equal rights for girls.
What Governments Can Do to Increase Equality
Michelle Bachelet, former president of Chile, maintains that transitional measures are necessary to accelerate women’s representation in government. The 2012 World Bank report on gender in development and its Adolescent Girls Initiative gives the following examples of proactive government programs.[xxii] Governments can reform traditional family law, as in Kenya or in Ethiopia where the law requires both spouses to agree on administering family property. When the US eased divorce laws, domestic violence decreased. Morocco eliminated references to the husband as the head of the household. Countries like Bangladesh, Brazil, Chile and South Africa have a Minister of Women’s Affairs and equal rights are included in the constitution in the Philippines.
The Scandinavian countries provide an excellent model of how to support both men and women in enjoying multiple roles at home and work. Juggling multiple roles and less access to funding sources discourage women from running for office. In Sweden, eight in 10 women work outside the home because they have long parental leave (480 days paid parental leave before the child is eight) and free childcare, although it’s not a perfect system.[xxiii] In the Netherlands families can take a day off each week and the government subsidizes daycare as a family benefit. In Canada, couples with a baby may take six months leaves of absence with 90% pay. In Australia, a mother on maternity leave can earn 18 weeks of pay at minimum wage and her partner can take two week of paid leave, as well as the right to request flexible work hours. As with every global problem, the model solutions exist.
Governments can increase girls’ school enrollment by giving families small payments or bags of grain as in Ecuador and Malawi and by teaching families about the return on girls’ education, as in Madagascar. “Second-chance” programs offering vocational skills, internships, and life-skills encourage girls to return to school in Senegal. Mexico’s 2012 federal budget set aside 15% for children’s programs including education and Oportunidas that pays poor families to send their children to school and get medical checkups.[xxiv] Most Latin American countries provide some incentive for school attendance and medical care for children. Mercedes, an Argentinean high school teacher, complained to me that although the government gives students lunch, a uniform, and a laptop and some of them get money to attend school, most of her students don’t value education or go on to university. Some of the girls get pregnant in order to collect welfare as their parents do: Most of their parents don’t have jobs and don’t provide models for their children. When I asked her how students are different than when she was in high school, she said they’re more hyperactive and less respectful. School-based programs, such as in South Africa and Canada, discuss gender roles and relationship skills with the intent of reducing violence against women.
Since the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) and partner organizations began the Gender-Responsive Budgeting Initiative in the mid-1990s, the project has expanded to nearly 40 countries. A gender sensitive budget allows citizens to see how women’s issues are funded or underfunded. Hugo Chávez, the late president of Venezuela, put this type of budget in place in 2005, as did India. UNYouth points out that youth-serving development programs often benefit educated, urban and male youth, although educating girls cuts infant mortality, increases her earnings and investment in her family, and increases her country’s income.
Quotas for Female Legislators
Over 97 countries use gender quota systems resulting in women being nearly 33% of their legislatures, compared to 12% in countries without quotas, according to UN data.[xxv] Quotas can be assigned by national legislation or the constitution or by political parties, as in the Nordic case. Sweden’s quota system resulted in women holding 45% of its parliamentary seats in 2012. In Germany, the Christian Democratic Union established a 33% quota for party officials in 1996. In France, a 1998 law required political parties to nominate an equal number of male and female candidates for elections, but parties often choose to pay fines rather than comply. In Spain, parties may get around the quota by including women on their list whose last name puts them lower on the alphabetical Senate ballot. If women are put at the bottom of the lists for national elections, they have no chance of being elected. Colombia requires that 30% of all political appointees be female, including the cabinet.
After quotas were established in Albania the percent of women legislators doubled to over 16%, Nepal has almost one-third women legislators--the highest in Asia, and Rwanda has over half female legislators. Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women gives other examples of successful implementation of quotas.[xxvi]
When the Indian government established quotas for women leaders in local government, public services such as sanitation and schools improved, girls had role models, and there were more arrests for crimes against women.[xxvii] In women-led councils the number of drinking water projects was more than 60% higher. However, a pharmacist I interviewed in Delhi said too often the wives of politicians are appointed, included an illiterate woman appointed to an education post in his area. A bill to reserve seats for women in the parliament is pending, as only 6.5% members of parliament are women. The upper house passed the Women’s Reservation bill in 2010, after 13 years of debate. It would amend the Constitution to reserve one-third of seats in parliament and state assemblies for women, similar to the existing reservation in local government. The lower house tabled the bill again in 2012, perhaps because of unwillingness to give up some seats occupied by men.
Argentina passed a law in 1991 requiring that one in three candidates nominated for election to the legislature must be women. It also has a woman president, two female Supreme Court Judges, and legalized gay marriage. However, the living condition and opportunities of women in cities is very different than women in rural areas. A political party in Costa Rica alternates men and women candidates on electoral lists.
Some countries reserve seats for women, mostly in South Asia and Africa. In Iraq, 25% of the seats in parliament are reserved for women, but they don’t have much power. The Minister for Women’s Affairs, Nawal al-Samarraie, quit when the government cut her budget to $1,500 a month for the entire ministry. In Morocco reserved seats increased the percentage of women in parliament from 0.6 to 10.8%.
Although only 25% of EU national parliament members and senior ministers are female, Spain requires that women make up 50% of its cabinet and 50% of all company boards and quotas for women corporate board members are also required in Norway. Former Spanish Socialist Prime Minister José Zapatero appointed 31-year-old Bibiana Aído as head of a new Ministry for Equality. However, she was removed after three years due to budget cuts.
[i] Nina Bahadur, “Political Ambition Gap Revealed,” HuffingtonPost.com, April 2, 2013.
[iii] Linda Tarr-Whelan. Women Lead the Way: Your Guide to Stepping Up to Leadership and Changing the World. Berrett-Koehler, 2011.
The Global Gender Gap Report indexes 135 countries with Iceland at the top. In the Arab world, the United Arab Emirates was the best and in Sub-Saharan Africa—Lesotho. Overall, progress is slow. The US was in 22nd place.
[v] The slide show subtitle was “Beautiful ritual girls, female reporters and delegates to the Party Congress become beautiful scenery during the 18th National Congress of the communist Part of China.”
People’s Daily Online, November 9, 2012.
[vi] Helen Clark comments about the impact of women in government.
See also Aghanistan Unveiled about the effects of the Taliban and the bombing campaign on Afghan women, and Chahinaz: What Rights for Women? About an Algerian student who explores rights for women in Muslim countries.
[viii] Stephanie Foster, “Global Impact of Women Elected Officials on Public Policy,” Connect, Vol. 1: Autumn 2011.
[ix] Chen, Li-Ju, “Female Policymakers and Educational Expenditures: Cross-Country Evidence,” August 27, 2008. SSRN: or
[x] A 2009 study by Stanford University and the University of Chicago
Grant Miller, “Women’s Suffrage, Political Responsiveness, and Child Survival in American History,” Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 123 (3), pp. 1287-327. Miller shows that female suffrage led policy makers to focus on child and maternal health, thereby lowering infant mortality.
[xii] Deborah Solomon, “Questions for Ellen Johnson Sirleaf,” New York Times Magazine, August 23, 2009.
[xiii] Lynn Harris, “Female Heads of State.” Glamour Magazine, November 1, 2010.
[xiv] Gbowee wrote Mighty Be Our Powers: How Sisterhood, Prayer, and Sex Changed a Nation at War, 2011. She’s featured in a documentary, Abby Disney’s Pray the Devil Back to Hell, 2009.
[xv] “The Bottom Line: Connecting Corporate Performance and Gender Diversity,” Catalyst, 2004.
[xvi] Elisa Martinuzzi, “Davos Forum Not a Woman’s Place,” The Chronicle with Bloomberg, January 29, 2013.
[xvii] “Closing the Gender Gap: A Repository of Successful Practices”
showcases over 100 practices for addressing gender parity
[xviii] Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, “The State of Food and Agriculture Report,” 2011.
[xix] Cherokee, Choctaw, Gitksan, Haida, Hopi, Iroquois, Lenape, and Navajo of North America; the Minangkabau people of West Sumatra, Indonesia; the Nairs and the Bunts of Kerala and Karnataka in south India; the Khasi, Jaintia and Garo of Meghalaya in northeast India; the Mosuo of China; the Basques of Spain and France; the Akan including the Ashanti of west Africa; and the Tuaregs of West and North Africa.
[xx] Yang Erce Namu and Christine Mathieu. Leaving Mother Lake: a Girlhood at the Edge of the World. Little Brown & Company, 2004, p. 277. Google her name to see photos.
[xxi] Ibid, p. 69
[xxiii] “Swedish Childcare System is Hardly a Utopian Model,” The Local: Sweden’s News in English, May 30, 2011.
[xxiv] UNICEF News Notes, December 23, 2011
[xxvi] Homa Hoodfar and Mona Tajali. Electoral Politics: Making Quotas Work for Women. Women Living Under Muslim Laws, 2012.
[xxvii] Lori Beaman, et al., “Political Reservation and Substantive Representation: Evidence from Indian Village Councils,” India Policy Forum, 2010.