Enduring Gender Inequality in Politics: Where to from here?

By Emma Dalton

Women political leaders are no longer anomalies. But gender parity in politics is still a long way off. This paper considers why politics remains so male-dominated, why the importance of increased women’s presence in policy-making is important, and explores some potential approaches to address the problem. 


Enduring Gender Inequality in Politics: Where to from here?

Many women were extremely disappointed when Hillary Clinton failed in her bid to become the president of the United States. Their disappointment was exacerbated by the triumph of her opponent, possibly the most overtly misogynistic president-elect the United States has ever seen. My 78-year-old Aunty was very hopeful that a woman would be president of the world’s biggest power during her lifetime and felt, as a woman, betrayed and heartbroken by the result. She was not necessarily a Hillary fan, so why did she, and so many other women, want a woman to win? Do they believe that women make better leaders? For my aunt, it had more to do with symbolism and validation. If a woman can be elected to arguably the most powerful position in the world, it sends a powerful message to women and girls that they are as important as men. The troubling message that we hear instead, with stark and enduring gender imbalance in politics in most parts of the world, is that women do not have what it takes to occupy such powerful and prestigious positions. Yet we know that women are as intelligent, competent and qualified as men, and legislation exists that mandates gender equality, so the issue of political under-representation – why it continues, what it reflects, and how to address it – is a curious and pressing one.


The Problem

Clinton’s loss notwithstanding women heads of state are no longer unusual. Taiwan, South Korea, Iceland, Pakistan, Germany, Australia, New Zealand and the Philippines are only a few of the countries that have elected women national leaders. Despite this, parity in the realm of political leadership still appears to be a long way away. Women occupy, on average, 23 percent of seats in national assembly lower houses around the world. Broken down by region, the most gender equal lower houses are found in the Nordic countries where the proportion of women in national assemblies is approximately 42 percent, followed by the Americas at approximately 28 percent; Europe at approximately 25 percent; Sub-Saharan Africa at approximately 23 percent; Asia at approximately 20 percent; the Arab states at approximately 19 percent and the Pacific at approximately 14 percent.1

If a woman can be elected to arguably the most powerful position in the world, it sends a powerful message to women and girls that they are as important as men. 

Why is that politics remains so stubbornly male-dominated and why is it important for women to be present in political decision-making roles? Feminist political scientist Carole Pateman has shown that the theory of the “social contract”, which developed during the era of Enlightenment to explain the contract citizens have with each other and society, was was also a sexual contract that subordinated women to men in all realms of life, from family to politics.2 The political process that governs much of the world – liberal democracy – emerged during the same era when the superiority of men over women was a taken-for-granted assumption. Women were understood to belong in the “private sphere” and were believed to lack a sense of justice and an ability to reason. The exclusion of women from the political sphere was thus naturalised. When theories of “equality” emerged during the Enlightenment, they were theories devised for, by and about men. These theories and political structures and processes have been gradually altered over time to now include women and racial minorities, but many feminists have been critical of the “add women and stir” approach because it remains premised on the idea that the male as the benchmark human being. As Pateman notes, liberalism itself is patriarchal but this reality is obscured because the political world is imagined as a neutral space, underpinned by egalitarianism.3 Under these circumstances, women in politics are implicitly encouraged to emulate the prevailing norms in order to succeed.

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Some are hopeful that as women’s presence increases in legislative assemblies, the less pressure there will be to assimilate to masculine norms, because women will start to change the culture. There is an often quoted suggestion that once a minority group reaches 30 percent of a group, the members of that minority begin to have an impact on the group.4 This is difficult to measure, but some studies have suggested that, in some cases, this applies for women in politics as well.5 The kind of differences women can make if they are well represented include introducing anti-domestic violence policies, agitating for gender quotas, and anti-discrimination policies.

The kind of differences women can make if they are well represented include introducing anti-domestic violence policies, agitating for gender quotas, and anti-discrimination policies.

Others argue that regardless of the number of women present, making changes to the political culture is extremely difficult because of deeply-embedded and long-standing traditions of masculine norms. Masculinised informal norms permeate political institutions and present obstacles to women’s participation. Some basic examples of this include the shortage of women’s toilets6 (many buildings were constructed at a time when women did not participate thus women’s toilets were literally an afterthought), the practice of holding meetings after normal work hours (on the implicit assumption that participants have no family care responsibilities), an aggressive style of debate and the sexual harassment of women. Sexual harassment is an overt manifestation of a culture that is hostile to women who participate in traditionally male spaces. It is one way of reminding women that they are “out of place”, and can have an impact on women’s capacity to fully participate in politics. Japan is an interesting case study with regards to this issue because of recent harassment incidents and consequent feminist consciousness-raising projects.7 A culture of sexual harassment of women politicians has been uncovered that points to a particular code of sexist male conduct in politics that seems to be less censured than it is in other spheres of public life. It also underscores a lack of awareness of the damaging nature of sexual harassment to women and to a workplace environment. It is tempting to believe that when Japanese women occupy the “critical mass” of 30 percent of seats in legislative assemblies, sexual harassment will cease, but data uncovered by the survey would appear to suggest that we should not necessarily hope for this. Almost 50 percent of women from councils where women constituted more than 30 percent of seats had experienced sexual harassment. Little research is available on sexual harassment of women politicians in other countries, but in Australia and the United States, there is well-documented evidence of media harassment of women political leaders.8

Despite feminists’ general hope for more women in office, most also acknowledge that presence of women leaders is not necessarily an indication of gender equality in politics or in wider society.

Research from other countries also contains messages of caution against assuming that things become easier for women to have influence in politics once they reach a critical mass.

In Sweden, a country often held up as a bastion of gender equality, and a country with a high level of female political representation, some researchers have found that there is a possible tipping point where women’s increased presence may have actually a negative impact on male politicians’ willingness to act in the interests of women.9 Furthermore, despite feminists’ general hope for more women in office, most also acknowledge that presence of women leaders is not necessarily an indication of gender equality in politics or in wider society.


Will More Women in Politics Lead to More Gender Equality?

The push for more women in politics is premised on a number of beliefs, the two most significant ones being a) it is a matter of democratic justice that both genders be represented equally, and b) women are more likely to represent women’s interests better than men. The first point involves unpacking concepts like democracy and representativeness, a task not possible in this article. Instead, I will briefly flesh out the second point, which is, perhaps the more contentious one, particularly because we know that some women leaders do not act in the interests of women and can even be anti-feminist. Some query whether we can even talk of “women’s interests” given the divergent lives of women. However, as a result of women’s socialisation as women they often have priorities that differ from men’s (such as a need to be safe from sexual or other violence, a need for support for carework that is usually women’s responsibility, access to women’s health and reproductive rights, and so forth.). Yet, the presence of one or two women leaders in a country does not usually lead to, or reflect, gender equality in broader society. Korea, for example, whose female president Park Geun-hye was impeached in 2016, has the second lowest proportion (after Japan) of women in politics amongst OECD countries. Despite having had a woman president, Korea fares poorly in indications of sex equality in society, with the largest gendered wage gap amongst OECD countries, at 36.7 percent, and poorest representation of women in national level politics, at 17 percent. Japan is very similar to Korea in its international standing with regards to gender inequality. At just 12 percent, Japan has the lowest proportion of women in its national legislative assembly amongst OECD countries and has never had a woman head of state. In 2016, however, three women were elected to positions of political power in Japan, prompting commentary about the possibility of the political glass ceiling being smashed in that country.10 Notwithstanding the symbolic significance of the emergence of women in politically powerful positions, a closer look at the women who were elected to power suggests that we can expect minimal positive changes for women in Japan (particularly for those in most need, such as single mothers, victims of domestic violence and those in poverty).11 Nevertheless, in 2001, in the same country women politicians formed a cross-partisan bloc to push for enactment of the Domestic Violence law, a significant indication of the potential for women politicians to act in women’s interests. Studies from other countries also suggest that increased women’s presence in politics has the capacity to “feminise” politics by, for example, giving social welfare issues a wider scope.12 Gender parity in politics is not only about representativeness; having a more gender balanced body politic is important for a healthy democracy. So what are some solutions to the under-representation of women in politics?


Approaches to the Problem

In general, there is little evidence to suggest that voters favour male candidates over female candidates. The problem with the lack of women in politics must be addressed by changing the structures and processes of political institutions. Political parties need to seek out suitable women candidates and run them in winnable seats. Electoral systems need to change so that incumbent men and dominant political parties are not the obvious shoo-ins. Proportional representation systems, for example, are more friendly to women and other minority candidates than majority systems, which favour big political parties and candidates with institutional support. Implementing gender quotas is another method that has gained currency around the world. The success of gender quotas in raising the number of women elected to office and maintaining high rates of female political representation has been mixed, but overall, uptake has been remarkable. Some suggest that the doubling of women in politics over the last twenty years is due to quotas.13 The path to gender quota adoption is not necessarily straightforward. A number of contextual paths can make the implementation of gender quotas more likely. These include, among other things, a strong women’s movement and support from political party leaders.14 Gender quotas are not the silver bullet but are a step in the right direction in changing the very nature of the body politic in order to “create a properly democratic society, which includes women as full citizens”.15

Featured image: Park Geun Hye speech


About the Author

Emma Dalton is a Japanese Lecturer at College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce, Humanities and Social Sciences in the Department of Languages and Linguistics at La Trobe University, Melbourne (Bundoora).


1. Inter-Parliamentary Union website. “Women in National Parliaments.” http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm

2. Pateman, Carole (1988). The Sexual Contract. Cambridge, Polity.

3. Pateman, Carol. (1989). The Disorder of Women. Cambridge and Oxford: Polity Press in Association with Basil Blackwell Ltd.

4. Kanter, Rosabeth Moss. (1977). Men and Women of the Corporation. New York, NY: Basic Books.

5. Dahlerup, Drude. (2006). “The story of the theory of critical mass”. Politics & Gender 2(4): 511-22.

6. Madoka, Yoriko. (2000). “Kokkai no josei sabetsu ni mono osu.” (Pushing back against discrimination against women in the Diet). Fujin Ko-ron (1052), 35–37.

7. Alliance of Feminist Representatives (Femigiren). (2015). “Jijitai gikai ni okeru seisabetsu taiken anketo hokokusho” (Report on the sexual harassment questionnaire in municipal councils).

8. Baird, Julia. (2004). Media Tarts: How the Australian Press Frames Female Politicians. Melbourne, Scribe.

9. Kokkonen, Andrej. and Wängnerud, Lena. (2016). “Women’s presence in politics and male politicians’ commitment to gender equality in politics: evidence from 290 Swedish local councils.” Journal of Women, Politics and Policy.

10. Dalton, Emma. (2016). “Japan’s new icon for gender equality”. East Asia Forum http://www.eastasiaforum.org/2016/10/02/japans-new-icon-for-gender-equality/

11. Dalton, Emma and Miura Mari. (2016). “Japan’s politics is opening up to women, but don’t expect a feminist revolution yet” The Conversation https://theconversation.com/japans-politics-is-opening-up-to-women-but-dont-expect-a-feminist-revolution-yet-67243

12. Wängnerud, Lena. (2000). “Testing the politics of presence: Women’s representation in the Swedish Riksdag.” Scandinavian Political Studies 23(1): 67-91.

13. Sawer, Marian. (2015). ‘The case for quotas in politics: the absence of women isn’t merit-based’ The Conversation https://theconversation.com/the-case-for-quotas-in-politics-the-absence-of-women-isnt-merit-based-45297

14. Caul, Miki. (2001). ‘Political parties and the adoption of candidate gender quotas: a cross-national analysis’, , vol.63, no. 4, pp. 1214–29.

15. Pateman, Carole. (1989). The Disorder of Women, p. 52.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The Political Anthropologist.