This opinion article was written by Jenn Galandy, Policy Advisor at the UK Cabinet Office. This article was chosen as one of the finalists in Apolitical’s women in government writing competition.
The lack of female ministers and political leaders in government is a major policy issue affecting women everywhere.
The lack of representation by women in top positions is linked directly to the wider barriers women face in achieving fair and equal representation in politics and specifically the number of women in public office.
The United Nations statistics for 2019 show that Spain has the highest percentage of “women in ministerial positions” at 64.7% women. Out of the other 188 countries on their list, it is only in 21 countries where women make up 40% or more of all ministerial positions, and half of the 188 countries listed have less than 21.1% of women in ministerial positions, with the western world averaging around 30%.
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If you look at the portfolios typically held by female ministers, a majority of the positions held by women are in social care, family, education, environment — also known as “softer positions”. The “harder positions” — such as economy or defence — are typically held by a man. According to the UN, only 20% of the ministerial positions in these two fields (economy or defence) are held by women.
Clare Walsh, the academic who coined the term, describes “harder positions” as positions with more “power making abilities.”
These are typically biased towards men because of cultural stereotypes that “claim” men are more qualified, whereas women are typically given “softer ministerial positions,” which require less responsibility or power.
Putting women in their place
A good example of this can be found by looking at Canada’s Liberal government under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. When he was first elected, Trudeau chose a gender-balanced cabinet split equally by men and women, and relatively young in age. Many world leaders were inspired by this, and the United Nations encouraged countries to follow course.
Not many women were in “top positions” but there were a few strong women who were chosen to be at the front of serious policy platforms, one of them being Jody Wilson-Raybould who was sworn in as the Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada in 2015.
There are two issues here: a lack of women promoted into top positions, and then when women are promoted — and show strength in these positions — they are demoted
Fast forward to spring this year, where Trudeau has been caught in a scandal, which involved “firing” one of his top ministers — one of the few women in a top position in Canada’s Liberal government — Justice Minister and Attorney General of Canada Jody Wilson-Raybould.
Trudeau allegedly asked Wilson-Raybould to interfere in a case, where she believed it was inappropriate to do so. She stood up against Trudeau, and so Trudeau put her in her place.
He denied her allegations, demoted her, and re-shuffled her to a role that many Canadians considered to be less powerful — a “softer position.” He then re-shuffled the cabinet and brought in more men to replace most of the women he originally had in top positions, including Ms. Wilson-Raybould.
Trudeau was found guilty by the Ethics Commissioner of Canada, for wrongly influencing former Justice Minister Jody Wilson-Raybould.
The next Canadia Federal election is this coming October 2019, and Trudeau is still down in the polls, as an after-effect from this scandal. This in turn may cost him the chance of winning this election, and his second term as Prime Minister.
And to think, all he had to do was “believe” Jody, like the 67% of Canadians did.
The politics of presence
There are two issues here: a lack of women promoted into top positions, and then when women are promoted — and show strength in these positions — they are demoted.
Why does this happen? The political scientist, professor Linda Trimble, argues that the media and society has a tendency to focus more on women’s personal life or appearance than their male peers. This in turn can feed into the idea that women are “unqualified” which makes it more difficult for women to obtain top positions in government, or, when they do, give an excuse that they are “too emotional” to stay in their role.
When the news of Wilson-Raybould’s sacking hit the media, she was strong and confident in her response to the media, even as she was said to be “emotional” and “too much” by Trudeau (and those closest to him).
The lack of gender-focused education and lack of information on issues that affect women in politics is acute
Trying to break this barrier of being seen as “less competent than men” and bring in more women to top positions can be an ongoing vicious cycle; because in order to promote the needs of women and implement policies which help women break these barriers and succeed in politics, you need the presence of representation of more women in politics.
However, because only a few governments consist of a majority of women, and women are especially rare in power-making, these priorities are not being on the agenda and thus the cycle continues of mostly male assemblies having limited capacity for articulating either the interest or needs of women.
Trimble’s idea is that the “politics of presence” (which is the actual representation of women in a political assembly) is how we can actually promote gender issues and make politics more equal.
With the media focusing on women’s appearances, rather than thoughts or ideas. With a lack of female presence. And with a culture (especially in the western world) that shows women as being “too emotional”; you arrive at a situation — the one we are in right now — where less than 30% ministers in the Western governments are women, and in the most influential positions, women are almost absent entirely.
Confident, courageous and capable
What’s more, this huge problem is rarely addressed in the public dialogue.
The lack of gender-focused education and lack of information on issues that affect women in politics is acute. There is limited research on the impact of women in ministerial positions or even in the lack of women in ministerial positions, and because of that I would argue that the general public in many countries do not even know this is an issue that needs to be addressed.
In order to change this, we need more women at the highest political level, and we need to encourage and promote women to seek public office.
We need to encourage women working in government to promote a gender-focused approach to our own work, as well as encourage more women to get involved and change the culture, which attributes women as “weak” and instead show them that we, as women, are just as “able” as men.
Once we have brought attention to this policy issue, we can change things and break down the barriers women face in politics, and show the world that we are confident, courageous and most importantly — capable! — Jenn Galandy
(Picture credit: Unsplash)