By Cynthia Richie Terrell on April 16, 2021
Women’s representation in politics globally continues to increase, albeit slowly, according to new data from CFR’s “Women’s Power Index,” an interactive tool first published in February 2020 that ranks 193 UN member countries on their progress toward gender parity in political participation.
Three countries have made significant progress toward gender parity in political representation since the Index was updated last fall. In the wake of the 2020 election, the United States featured the largest improvement in its score and ranking, moving from #128 to #43. As President Joe Biden sought to fulfill his campaign pledge to appoint a gender balanced cabinet, the number of women cabinet members rose from 17 percent to nearly half (47%), with two cabinet vacancies still remaining. The number of female members in U.S. Congress rose to a record-breaking 27%.
Across the Atlantic, in Brussels, a historic cabinet composed of eight women and six men under Prime Minister Alexander De Croo helped Belgium leap ahead in the rankings, from #32 to #13. And in Lithuania, Ingrida Simonyte, the newly elected female prime minister, appointed a nearly gender-balanced cabinet, which boosted the country’s score and ranking to #29. Once again, Costa Rica and Rwanda sit at the top of the rankings, demonstrating how gender quotas and reservations make a powerful difference in elevating women’s leadership.
Twenty-two countries are now led by women, an achievement reached only once before, in 2019. Sophie Wilmès (Belgium), Jeanine Áñez (Bolivia), and Simonetta Sommaruga (Switzerland) departed from office, and Kaja Kallas (Estonia), Ingrida Šimonytė (Lithuania), Maia Sandu (Moldova), Samia Suluhu Hassan (Tanzania), and Victoire Tomegah Dogbé (Togo) were sworn in. Estonia has both a female head of state and government.
Despite this progress, women’s representation remains nowhere near gender parity. The global average political parity score rose—slightly—from 26.9 to 27.5, on a scale in which 100 represents full gender equality. UN Women estimates that it will take until 2077 to achieve gender parity in ministerial positions and until 2063 for reach gender balance in national parliaments. And while the overall global trend toward gender balance in political representation is growing, in some countries it is declining: Romania, for example, fell ten points on the index, plummeting to the lowest ranking in Europe after Prime Minister Florin Citu appointed just one woman in a cabinet of twenty-one people. This backsliding was evident elsewhere: although women’s representation rose in eighty-eight countries since September 2020, it fell in sixty-one others.
According to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a correlation exists between a country's electoral system and high levels of female political representation. In Western European countries where 20% or more of the seats in parliament were held by women, all had a proportional electoral system, where "political groups receive seats in proportion to their electoral strength," according to the study. Worldwide, the study found that of all the countries with women making up 30% or more of parliament, none operated under a majoritarian system.
But electoral systems are only part of the picture when it comes to bolstering women's participation in government. According to the IPU, countries with well-designed gender quotas, varying measures designed to ensure that women constitute a certain portion of political positions, elect significantly more women to parliament.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway – which all operate under either a proportional or mixed electoral system – use some form of voluntary quotas set by political parties, or other forms of affirmative action. In Sweden, for example, a "zipper system" is employed by a number of political parties, requiring that candidate lists alternate between male and female candidates, which ensures that for every three candidates one woman must be included.
Among other liberal democracies, Australia, which operates under a partial proportional electoral system with voluntary gender quotas limited to its Labour Party, ranks No. 8 for perceived gender equality according to the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings. Recently, however, the gender quota debate has resurfaced within the country's NSW Liberal Party, as rape allegations and harrasment claims surfaced and brought up questions about the situation for women in Canberra. Some in opposition of the gender quotas say they are anti-democratic or discriminate against men. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly open to gender quotas, however, citing that the party had tried the "other way" of getting women elected, which had not produced the intended results.
Still, Australia slightly beats out Canada, which ranked within the top five of the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings, and the U.S. when it comes to women's representation in government, with 31% overall, a testament to its Senate, in which over half are women, and who were elected by the country's proportional electoral system used within its Senate elections.
Although it ranks highly for gender equality by perception, according to the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings, Canada's representation for women in parliament is weaker than its European counterparts, while the country operates under a first-past-the-post electoral system, unlike the Northern-European nations that join it atop the list. The U.S., although it ranked No. 18 for perceived gender equality, falls just under Canada in terms of women's representation within its federal government. The country has neither a proportional electoral system nor a quota system, and although it has seen its highest levels of political representation among women in recent years, it lags behind nearly every other Western democracy, with women making up 27% of representatives.
The landmark bill was approved by Parliament’s Consideration of Bills Committee today and will now go to a vote in the House, where cross-party support is required seeing as it will require a change to the Maltese Constitution.
It shouldn’t be a problem though, as both the government and Opposition have come out in favour of the bill in principle.
“We look forward to reaping the fruit of this law in time for the next general election,” said Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar, who had spearheaded this bill when she was Parliamentary Secretary for Reforms.
This bill will introduce a ‘gender corrective mechanism’ that would automatically kick in if the lesser represented gender gains under 40% of the total seats.
Currently, just 13% of MPs are female.
Up to 12 seats, split evenly between PL and PN, would be added for women or gender-neutral people who failed to get elected in the first round, to ensure a minimum 40% representation of the underrepresented sex.
This mechanism will only apply if MPs from two political parties are elected, with the government shooting down an Opposition request to extend it to third parties.
It has a 20-year sunset clause, after which it will automatically expire.
Proponents of the bill argue that it’s necessary to boost female participation in Maltese politics, which has been consistently low over the decades, while critics warn it will undermine democracy and tokenise women.
Despite being 75 years old, Malilegaoi is seeking another term. But the election, held on April 9, with ballot counting ongoing, has upended that and has brought a powerful band of women to the forefront of Samoan politics.
A former ally of Malilegaoi, having served as his deputy prime minister up until last year, Fiame Naomi Mata’afa, defected from the HRPP, claiming it was “sliding away from the rule of law.”
In the year since, she and her largely female advisers have forged the most effective opposition party in the country, which now threatens the long-time leadership of the HRPP.
According to current polling, Mata’afa’s party, Fa’atuatua I le Atua Samoa (FAST party) has won 25 of the 51 seats available, while the ruling HRPP party also holds 25, with independent candidate Tuala Iosefo Ponifasio holding one seat, leaving him as the potential “kingmaker.”
“The faint hope I had for democracy is now not faint anymore,” he told the Samoan Observer. “It seems that people have cast their vote, for whatever reason and for whoever encouraged them. I am happy democracy seems to be working well.”
Despite the successes, Maualaivao said there’s still a long way to go.
“There are still many structural impediments that exist here that make it difficult for women to run for office. 19 villages still do not recognize women as matai [village chiefs] which is mandatory in order to run for Parliament…Only 11 percent of registered matai are female,” she said.
“So having a voice and being heard in your community is key to moving into the political arena, which is a major challenge if you are female and from a village that does not let you participate in decision making. If your village doesn’t endorse you, you can’t run for Parliament.”
Fiame Naomi Mata’afa not only smashed through the barriers in Samoa, but if elected, she will be the second female ever elected to be prime minister of a Pacific Island nation.
The election has also brought the seat reservation quota for women into the limelight. Samoa is the only country in the Pacific that has a constitutional amendment mandating 10 percent of seats in Parliament be held by women. The rule was introduced on the logic that given the opportunity, women would prove to voters that they could lead and would in turn be voted in instead of having to have an amendment guarantee their position.
Maualaivao said the Samoan election has proven that the amendment works.
Party processes are not easily accessible by the public. Research suggests that the Liberals, NDP and Greens require a diversity search committee as part of candidate nominations; it appears that the Conservatives do not. There are no voluntary quotas, and there is no voluntary transparency on the recruitment and nomination of women, as the Commons committee “encouraged.”
As a result of relentless scrutiny and advocacy by women over decades, national parties have slowly increased the number of women nominated. The women who are nominated, however, are elected less than men. In 2019, 39.3 per cent of Liberal nominations went to women, but in the election, just 31.1 per cent of Liberal MPs elected were women. The Conservatives nominated 32 per cent women but only 18.2 per cent of Conservative MPs who won seats were women; the NDP nominated 48.5 per cent women and had 37.5 per cent elected; the Greens nominated 46.1 per cent women and had 66.7 per cent elected.
Professors Melanee Thomas and Marc André Bodet argue, using data from the 2004 to 2011 federal elections, that women are more likely to be nominated by a party in ridings that party cannot win. Women are disproportionately nominated in other party’s strongholds, not those of their own party.
After the 2019 election the CBC quoted Prof. Thomas commenting on its report that for every 100 women running, 16 won, while for every 100 men running, 29 won: “The issue is that parties consistently across the board keep nominating women in places where they can’t win.”
It is time to shed some light, indeed shine a spotlight, on nominations. Canadians have every reason to want better information, transparency and financial accountability through existing mechanisms under the Canada Elections Act and the Chief Electoral Officer.
Candidates should be required to disclose their sex/gender on their nomination paper. (Currently this is not mandatory, and this information is not included in the List of Confirmed Candidates published by Elections Canada.) Canada should adopt a definition of “stronghold riding,” (for instance, ridings in which a party has won in two previous elections) and should report on results in stronghold ridings by sex/gender. We should also change our political financing rules to incentivize or sanction the parties to achieve gender equity.
Canadians have every reason to want their federal parties to eliminate the gender gap in nominations and results. Given the historic reluctance of the parties in the Commons to increase public scrutiny of their operations, these modest initiatives could be launched in the Senate, thereby giving Canadians a forum to study the proposals and express their views.
“Our vision of gender parity means that a man or a woman has an equal chance, at all times, of ascending to each ambassadorship. This should be true across all geographic regions, in posts both large and small,” the Leadership Council for Women in National Security (LCWINS), a group of current and former national security professionals, and 30 former female ambassadors said in a letter.
Piper Campbell, former ambassador to Mongolia and the U.S. mission to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), said the timing of the letter was to influence a selection process that, to the groups’ understanding, was still ongoing.
“That’s something that we hope can still be impacted,” she said.
During the presidential campaign, Biden signed a pledge with LCWINS to pursue gender parity in senior national security and foreign policy government positions.
LCWINS has been tracking the representation of women in the Biden administration, including more than 200 Senate-confirmed national security leadership positions, 200 ambassadorships and many more non-Senate confirmed roles. So far, the tracker has found Biden has the highest representation of women ever in a presidential Cabinet, at 42 percent, but that his National Security Council falls short of parity with only 36 percent of roles held by women.
Only one member of the council, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Linda Thomas-Greenfield, is a woman of color.