Breaking down barriers for women in politics

If we want Parliament to be a truly legitimate institution, we must focus on increasing women’s representation, writes Hilde Coffé

Gender equality in political power in industrialised democracies has grown tremendously in the past 50 years. More women are running for, and being elected to, national parliaments than ever before.

Despite this success in women’s representation and the emergence of high profile women in politics around the globe, women are still underrepresented in most parliaments, with an overall world average of 23.6 percent. In New Zealand, 31.4 percent of the Members of Parliament elected after the 2014 general election were women, and it has been around 30 percent since the first elections under MMP in 1996.

Although women’s political representation is now taken for granted, the struggle for equal representation remains. As half the population, it is, however, important women appear in parliament in the same number as men.

Even if women would legislate exactly the same as men, their presence is essential for the legitimacy of parliament and for symbolic reasons. Research has indeed shown that women MPs are seen as role models and encourage women to engage in politics and increase women’s political interest and knowledge.

If women bring to office different interests and priorities than men, arguments for their inclusion are even more powerful, and research has confirmed that while there is diversity among women MPs, women do tend to prioritise different policy issues, vote differently on legislation and introduce different types of bills than men.

While research shows that women who run for office perform as well as their male counterparts, women are less likely to be invited to run for office by parties and less likely to be encouraged by their families and friends to do so than men.

In New Zealand, for example, research by Dr Sandra Grey, from Victoria University’s School of Social and Cultural Studies, has shown clear gender differences in involvement in debates on child care and parental leave. Women politicians were also more responsible for advocacy of child care and parental leave - often initiating discussions. Finally, an examination of government spending on women’s health since 1990 shows that increased spending on women’s programmes occurs alongside increased numbers of women in New Zealand Parliament.

An obvious and interesting question is, of course, why women are still underrepresented in politics. Many explanations have been provided and can be broadly grouped into demand- and supply-side factors.

Supply-side factors refer to the pool of women with political ambition and the will and experience to engage in politics, while demand-side factors refer to factors of political parties, countries and electoral systems that impact the likelihood women will be pulled into parliament. For example, women are known to fare better under proportional systems and in countries that have introduced a legislative gender quota.

While research shows that women who run for office perform as well as their male counterparts, women are less likely to be invited to run for office by parties and less likely to be encouraged by their families and friends to do so than men. American research has also revealed women’s lower levels of political ambition as a major explanation for their under-representation; an ambition related to their perception of the electoral environment as highly competitive and biased against female candidates, their belief they are not qualified to run for office, their lack of confidence and risk aversion.  

While women are underrepresented overall in New Zealand Parliament and abroad, it is important to note significant differences, in particular between parties but also between ethnic groups.

Women tend to be overall least well represented among European MPs, and the difference in pattern between European and Māori is particularly striking.

In New Zealand, women currently have the highest proportion of MPs within the Green Party and the Māori Party. Of the two major parties, women are significantly better represented within the Labour Party (37.5 percent) than within the National Party (26.7 percent). This is similar to the pattern seen in most countries, with left-wing parties generally having more women MPs than right-wing parties; a pattern that can be explained by left-wing parties’ egalitarian ideology, their greater presence of women in leadership roles and greater likelihood to have gender quotas.

Significant differences in women’s representation also occurs between ethnic groups in New Zealand. Women tend to be overall least well represented among European MPs, and the difference in pattern between European and Māori is particularly striking. In each election year, women have been better represented among Māori MPs compared with European MPs, with percentage differences rising to almost 20 percent at times. In most election years there is also a slight tendency for women to be better represented among Pasifika and Asian MPs than among European MPs. These findings give some support to the proposition in academic literature that parties may view ethnic minority women as an ‘efficient’ means of balancing a party’s candidate slate, with these MPs embodying in the caucus two types of underrepresented groups (women and ethnic minorities).

To conclude, despite an increase of women’s representation in politics, men still dominate most parliaments around the globe. From a normative point of view, such underrepresentation of a group that comprises half the population seems wrong. This argument holds, particularly since women’s representatives are known to bring a different focus and different policy initiatives to parliament.

If we want Parliament to be a truly legitimate institution, continued attention to increasing women’s representation, and the barriers creating their underrepresentation, is crucial.

Associate Professor Hilde Coffé will be giving a free public talk on ‘Women’s Continued Political Underrepresentation in New Zealand and Abroad’ at the National Library, Wellington, 5.30pm–6.45pm on Thursday, August 3, as part of Victoria University of Wellington’s Democracy Week. RSVP to events.natlib@dia.govt.nz.

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