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can we wait another 146 years?

The Politics & NGO division of WiB had the pleasure to host a talk with Professor Paola Profeta, the director of the AXA Research Lab on gender equality. She gave insights into one of the three and the possibly most critical dimensions of the global gender gap as defined by the World Economic Forum – political empowerment.

In 2021, the gap in political empowerment was only closed by 22% and thus the worst-performing gap. Across the 156 countries covered by the index, women represent only 26.1% of all parliament seats and just 22.6% of prime ministers. The few women who actually make it into parliaments and governments are much less likely to be married and have children, as research by Joshi and Ryan (2020) suggests. Thank god, in the year 2021 we all have seen successful examples of a balance between a political career and motherhood, thinking of the story of New Zealand´s prime minister Jacinda Arden. However, just a few weeks ago, a British legislator told MP Stella Creasy to stop bringing her baby to Westminster Hall as it would violate the rules.

This is the result of what Professor Profeta calls the “double penalty” when it comes to mothers actively engaging in politics. First, women are punished for being a woman. Politics are a highly competitive sphere and even if men and women undertake the same means to prevail in that competition, they are perceived very differently. Ambitious women are still seen as bossy, disagreeing women as exhausting. Having children adds another layer to the penalty: the often impossible combination of motherhood and career women face in every career path. Most political careers start at the local level and on a voluntary basis– but how to attend time-consuming meetings in city hall at night with a toddler at home?

However, as Professor Profeta points out: men have children too. Why are we not asking the same questions when it comes to their political career? As always, culture seems to play an important role. The more rigidly gender roles are still reproduced in societies, the fewer women are likely to even participate in the labor force – and thus in professional politics.

The lack of female representation in politics has severe consequences. Politics are very visible, everybody can name at least the name of the Prime Minister or the mayor, at a much lesser extent this is true for CEOs. Women in those positions send an important signal to society and have a positive impact on gender parity in the private market. Women as leaders have a beneficial effect on the political agenda – they tend to think differently in terms of priorities, directing much more money to childcare services, education, health, and social care systems. That in turn empowers other women by reducing the burden of care. And another effect of female leadership has just recently been researched by Professor Profeta: female leaders are much less self-centered and self-interested compared to their male colleagues. For the latter, there is a measurable connection between the electoral cycle and public spending: facing upcoming elections, investments in local infrastructure and projects start to increase. This strategic behavior harms public finances by causing deficits. With female leaders, this could be balanced out.

So, can we really wait for another 146 years to close the gap in political empowerment? This is the time it would actually take at the given pace. According to Professor Profeta, the answer is a clear no. In her research, she is looking into effective measures on how to improve the selection and election of female candidates. As political parties act as gatekeepers when it comes to the list of electable candidates, they should ensure the inclusion of female candidates.

Across countries and parties, quotas have been introduced, showing a positive effect on the number of elected women – clearly indicating that it is not the women, but the pool of offered candidates is the problem. However, some parties try to game the system by introducing pinkwashing campaigns – placing the required number of women at the very bottom of the list. In these cases, Professor Profeta suggests a zipper-like system of male and female candidates. While these first measures overcome the bias of political parties, a second reform of the electoral system needs to address the bias of voters against women. In a real-life experiment, Professor Profeta and colleagues introduced a system of double preference voting for municipal elections in Italy. In addition to gender quotas on candidate lists, the system gave the individual two votes if one of the preferred candidates was a woman. The outcome was an 18 percentage point increase in the number of females elected. This shows that people are willing to elect women if they are given a second vote.

And here we are again – quotas, the bugaboo of every liberal-conservative politician (or person) worshipping meritocracy. Those claims overlook the fact that the current situation penalizing women actually harms competition and the selection based on merits, as goes Profeta´s standard answer. Scientific evidence actually suggests that quotas help to enhance the overall quality of politicians – female as well as male candidates. Contrary to common belief, unqualified women are not selected on the basis of quota. Instead, men face tougher competition from highly educated, ambitious women which in the end makes the whole society better off. The only group losing ground on the basis of quotas are mediocre men – and well, where is meritocracy when it comes to them?

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