The number of women in elected office is on the rise, but that hasn’t necessarily translated into more power.
Statistically speaking, there has never been a better time to be a woman in politics.
Optimists point to the growing number of female elected leaders as a sign of progress; last year, more women served as parliamentarians, ministers, and heads of state than ever before. The United States is no exception to this trend, with women running for office—and winning—in record numbers in elections in 2020. President Joe Biden also made U.S. history by choosing the first woman and woman of color as vice president and selecting more female cabinet leaders than any of his predecessors.
But simply counting the number of women in political office does not provide a full picture of women’s political power, either in the United States or elsewhere. In fact, doing so distorts perceptions of progress and reinforces the flawed assumption that simply increasing the number of women in high-level political positions is a silver bullet for women’s political empowerment. As policymakers in the Biden administration focus on implementing the Women, Peace, and Security Implementation Plan and on retooling U.S. foreign policy to better support women’s political leadership abroad, they must move beyond a narrow focus on numeric representation. Understanding—and measuring—women’s political empowerment in more comprehensive terms is the only way to make sustainable progress on gender equality.
In political institutions where patriarchal exclusion has long been the norm, women’s presence does of course represent a meaningful change. That’s why major international gender equality indices, like the United Nations Development Program’s Gender Inequality Index or the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index, measure women’s political empowerment by tracking women’s share of legislative and ministerial positions over time. A focus on elite representation also informs many international development programs aimed at bolstering gender inclusion in politics, which often use the number of women elected as a key indicator of success.
At the same time, there are clear limits to merely adding women to formal political spaces while institutions, norms, and practices remain unchanged.
For one, individual women’s presence within parliaments and governments does not necessarily translate into meaningful political influence. Gendered discrimination and informal power structures often inhibit women’s decision-making power. Male political leaders may also promote women loyal to the dominant political project while pushing out those who challenge the status quo. Rwanda exemplifies this trend: although the country leads the world in women’s parliamentary representation, women politicians and activists who criticize the ruling government face harassment and repression.
Moreover, increases in women’s political representation at the national level do not automatically translate into increases in women’s everyday political agency and power, particularly in highly stratified societies.
In East and Southeast Asia, for example, women’s political engagement—in the form of discussing politics, voting, campaigning, and protesting—has in fact decreased as women have gained greater access to national parliaments. This pattern suggests that the “role model effect” of women in high politics does not always trickle down to everyday citizens. Instead, it is possible that women may disengage from politics if they view elite women’s participation as having little impact on their lived experiences of gender inequality and discrimination.
Given the limitations of using women’s presence in legislatures as a proxy for empowerment, what does a more nuanced approach to gender equality in politics look like?
1) First, policymakers looking to bolster women’s political leadership should prioritize reinforcing women’s decision-making power.
This is, of course, easier said than done. Power—and power dynamics embedded in political institutions—are difficult to measure. One starting point is to examine where women are situated within political and organizational hierarchies, and why. For instance, following the implementation of a progressive new gender quota in Nepal, as of 2017 women held 40 percent of municipal government posts there—much higher than the global average.
However, men still dominate local-level decision-making: around 98 percent of mayoral and municipal chair positions remained in the hands of men, with women often relegated to deputy seats. Similar dynamics persist in developed democracies: women are more likely to become party leaders in minor opposition parties or in parties losing seats. Leadership posts may be more desirable when parties are gaining seats, while parties losing seats may be more open to a change. Women in European democracies are also much less likely to be appointed to “core” ministries like defense, finance, and foreign affairs.
Investing in women’s collective rather than individual power—particularly via their participation in civil society—may help to erode such persistent gendered hierarchies. A strong women’s movement can buttress women politicians in male-dominated institutions and build popular support for gender equality reforms. It can also ensure that diverse women’s interests are heard in the political process (rather than just those of an elite few). Yet women’s rights defenders in many parts of the world are facing a rising tide of repression and attacks by state and non-state actors—as evidenced by the case of Saudi activist Loujain al-Hathloul and recent arrests of women’s rights activists in Poland. Despite this worrisome global context, 99 percent of development aid focused on supporting gender equality still does not directly reach feminist and women’s rights organizations. It goes instead to government agencies or major international nongovernmental organizations. Efforts to reinforce women’s global political leadership must therefore go hand in hand with measures to allocate a greater share of international resources to local women’s groups and coordinated multilateral action to stave off illiberal restrictions on women’s rights and civic participation.
2) Second, gender equality in politics cannot be addressed separately from other axes of social and political exclusion.
Decades of research underscores that even though women as a group share experiences of discrimination, they also confront intersecting identities—such as class, age, ethnicity, race, sexuality, and political affiliation—that can serve both as catalysts of and barriers to their political advancement. Scholars of intersectionality, therefore, emphasize the importance of examining gender in conjunction with other social hierarchies. Instead of assuming that the advancement of some women will naturally pave the way for others, it makes more sense to ask which women are politically empowered in a given political context, and why. Doing so can help policymakers and advocates uncover more nuanced explanations for women’s continued political disempowerment. The driver of inequality may not only be patriarchal dynamics but also the intersection of gender with other vectors of social inequality and political exclusion.
3) Third, measures of gender progress in politics need to take better account of changes in gender norms.
In the past, policymakers and practitioners often hoped or assumed that increases in women’s political representation would automatically transform patriarchal attitudes and behaviors. This has not been the case. Data from the World Values Survey highlights only a slow shift toward more gender-egalitarian values over the past 25 years, even in places that have experienced dramatic socio-economic and political transformation. This is not a stumbling block exclusive to younger democracies: Rates of approval for women’s political leadership have also stagnated in G-7 countries and even declined in France, Italy, and Japan in recent years. Persistent patriarchal gender norms fuel covert and overt resistance to women’s political participation, which in some contexts may lead to harassment and violence. They also perpetuate the unequal distribution of domestic responsibilities, which around the world remain a central barrier preventing women’s equal engagement in public life.