Gender Equality Still Lacking in Europe′s Parliaments | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 20.01.2007
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Gender Equality Still Lacking in Europe's Parliaments

While Germany has its first female leader and France could soon follow, women are still underrepresented in most European legislatures. Experts say political parties are largely to blame for the situation.

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With 47.3 percent women, Sweden's parliament is a rare case of near gender equality

Germany's first female Chancellor Angela Merkel arguably became the most influential political figure in Europe a few weeks ago as her country took over the presidency of both the EU and the G8. Merkel was also voted the world's most powerful woman by Forbes magazine in 2006.

Jahresrückblick November 2006 Frankreich Segolene Royal

Segolene Royal would be France's first female President, if elected

The German head of government is a high-profile example of the success of women in European politics and could soon be followed by Segolene Royal, who is hoping to become France's first female president in May.

But unlike Merkel and other female leaders, many women in European parliaments still owe their mandate to gender quotas. Similar to equal employment quotas, they are designed to boost the number of women in politics and balance out the number of male and female representatives.

Do quotas work?

The use of gender quotas has been criticized as giving women an unfair advantage over male candidates and can take away a woman's sense of empowerment that they had earned the position.

Symbolbild Männerdominanz Gender Mainstreaming Gleichberechtigung

A ratio that's still reality in some legislatures

"This legislation (gender quotas) would mean that people would not deserve to be there, but that they are forced there," said Godfrey Bloom, a European parliamentarian and member of UK Independence Party. "It debases the currency for these poor ladies who cannot prove that have earned the position."

But Drude Dahlerup, a professor of political science at Stockholm University and an expert on gender quotas, said measures like quotas are a way to compensate for discrimination against women.

"If everything was fair in society, I wouldn't argue for quotas, but you don't have equal opportunity in society," she added.

Resistance to change

Die Nationalversammlung in Paris

Some French parties would rather pay fines than adhere to gender quotas for the national assembly.

Dahlerup attributed the unpopularity of quotas in Europe to the "notion of liberal democracy." She said the quotas are often seen as interfering with the democratic system.

She cited France as an example: There must be an equal number of men and women political candidates for national parliamentary elections, or parties must pay a fine. Most of the parties that can afford to pay the fine are choosing to do so rather than have the required number of female candidates.

There has also been resistance to have a quota system in Italy, where a vote on a so-called "pink quota" was rejected by the Italian parliament in April 2006. This bill would have meant that one-third of all national election candidates would have to be women, to boost the current 11.5 percent female representation, the forth lowest in the European Union.

Political parties hold the power

Wahlurne mit Wahlzettel

It's up to parties to put more women on their ballots

Dahlerup said the political parties are the "gatekeepers" to the parliament, who have the power to change the gender balances. This applies to a parliamentary system, not direct democracy which operates in the US and Switzerland, which only require one-off majority votes for most of the time.

"They (political parties) could change political representation tomorrow if they wanted because they control the nomination process," Dahlerup said. "In spite of what many people think it is unfortunately the party and not the voters who get to decide."

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