As International Women’s Day gets underway under a banner of equal rights and opportunities, experts say there is still a long way to go to turn the world’s parliaments into shining examples of gender equality.
Women can vote, but its often men they have to vote for
Margaret Thatcher once said, "If you want something said, ask a man...if you want something done, ask a woman." And although there are now more women getting more done on the political stage than there were in the former British prime minister's heyday, there are still many more men up there doing the talking. More than there really ought to be.
In 1995 delegates meeting at the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing set themselves the goal of achieving 30 percent female representation in global parliaments. At that time, the figure was around the 11 percent mark. Fifteen years on the target remains untouched.
An appraisal of the situation at the start of this year revealed that 18.8 percent of parliamentary seats are now occupied by women, and it also highlighted a predictable and growing gap between the countries where women are a part of daily political life and those where they are still anomalies.
In Europe and the Americas, for example, governments have an average of 20 percent women members, but at the other end of the spectrum, a quarter of all assemblies worldwide have 10 percent or less female representation. Some, such as those in Saudi Arabia and Qatar, are entirely male.
The theme of this year's women's day is equal rights, equal opportunities
And as the 30 percent target is a worldwide one, it is the countries at the bottom of the pile which slow down progress towards greater gender equality. And it is also those countries where affecting change is the biggest challenge. To do so, Julie Ballington, gender partnership program specialist at the inter-parliamentary union (ipu), told Deutsche Welle, political will is a must.
"You need leadership that takes measures to advance women in parliament,” Ballington explained. “But you also have to look at electoral structures, at how party systems work."
While in Europe a number of countries have combined a system of proportional representation with quotas to ensure that 30 percent of the representatives on their party lists are women, there are other nations with electoral arrangements that makes it intrinsically very difficult for women to get anywhere near public office.
"For example women and men might be competing directly in districts," Ballington said, "and in highly patriarchal societies it is very difficult to win an election outright against a man."
Changing such structures not only requires electoral, but in many cases mental reform, for the issue of women in politics is bound up in age-old knots of gender perception. Knots that are particularly hard to undo.
Not mutually exclusive
Uta Kletzing, director of the politics program at the European Academy for Women in Politics and Business, told Deutsche Welle that electorates need to stop thinking in stereotypes.
"The situation can only change when the world learns that being a good politician and a woman is not a contradiction," Kletzing said.
Angela Merkel has gone some way to breaking traditional stereotypes
She says German Chancellor Angela Merkel has managed to prove that the two things can go hand-in-hand, but that despite her best efforts and her reelection, there are still those in society who claim that she is not a ‘real' woman. And it is not only men doing the claiming, women are every bit as ready and willing to judge female politicians for their gender, as men.
"I think the issue is that growing up in a society where we're taught that being a woman and being a politician doesn't sit well together, we are confronted with this stereotype, and just because we're women doesn't mean we stand above it any more than men do."
One region which has succeeded in breaking archaic ideas of gender segregation, is Scandinavia. At the beginning of this year more than 40 percent of ministerial positions in Finland, Norway, Iceland, Sweden and Denmark were held by women. In Finland, the leader of the pack, the figure is 63.2 percent.
Kirsti Niskanen, research director at the Nordic Gender Institute in Norway attributes the success to active campaigning, which began back in the 1970s.
"Maintaining the social political debate on equality issues and pressure from women's organisations both within and outside political parties, has been decisive for the development of gender equality," Niskanen told Deutsche Welle.
Two of the three parties in Norway's governing coalition are women, Kristin Halvorsen and Aslaug Haga
But she also says that even the relatively egalitarian Nordic states still have a long way to go before there can talk in tems of absolute parity. "The discussion has to be on the agenda all the time," Niskanen urged. "Gender equality is not self-evident."
Neither, for many women, is the route into politics. Kletzing says that although there are plenty who have what it takes to become good politicians, they often shy away from the considerable obstacles in their path. Quite apart from having to overcome the sexist prejudice of society, they need a secure income, a solid education, a thick skin and perhaps above all, they need the kind of time they simply don't have at their disposal.
"As long as women still have the main responsibility for household and children and for care in society they don't stand a great chance of finding the time necessary to work in political office," Kletzing said.
Sexist on the inside
And while some evidently do clear the hurdles, gender segregation does not stop once they take their up their assembly seats. The highest numbers of portfolios held by women worldwide are in social and family affairs.
Germany's former family minister Ursula von der Leyen welcomes her successor Kristina Koehler
"It's a bit of a catch 22 because the qualifications that women bring with them into politics are often in soft, less powerful social fields," Kletzing explained. "Which leads one to question whether the status of these social fields is lower because so many women work in them."
Kirsti Niskanen says that in the course of her research, she has come across evidence to suggest that women would often rather be involved in heavy-weight politics than shunted onto the traditionally female social and cultural sidelines.
"A study conducted in 27 industrial societies revealed the preferences to be the same for both sexes, namely international politics, economics and so on," she explained.
The truth about women
But how different would the world really be if women had the same grip on the reins of power as men? Julie Ballington says research conducted by the ipu shows that both male and female parliamentarians agree that women make a difference.
Spot the women at the meeting of G20 finance ministers
"When they come into a largely male-dominated parliament, you'll find that suddenly things start changing, discourses will change, the nature of the debate might become less controversial, just the physical presence of women may lead to certain reforms," Ballington said.
With the emphasis clearly on the word ‘different' and with no suggestion of ‘better', Uta Kletzing says that women tend to take a more holistic approach to politics. She believes they have the necessary life experience to incorporate the working world and the family world into their policies without subordinating them as men are inclined to do.
Yet perhaps more importantly, what equips women for politics is the very same prejudice that keeps them out of it. They have to know their stuff, they have to be truly competent, to concentrate on the issue in hand and put careful thought into getting what they want.
All things being equal, the time will come when there are more such politicians on the benches of the world's parliaments.
Author: Tamsin Walker
Editor: Rob Mudge