By Kary Vannice
In 2018 there were more women in politics than ever before in recorded history. Women now hold 24% of all political offices globally. In 1998 that number was pushing 12%. So, women have come a long way, right? They doubled their representation on the political playing field in only 20 years. That should be cause for celebration. But what does it say about the world we live in that half of the population is female, but only a quarter of political leaders and policymakers are? Does it even matter? Are women in positions of power really making an impact and changing the way societies run?
Well, in order to answer that question, you first need to look at the societies where the percentages of women in public office are higher. And when it comes to women in high ranking positions, such as parliamentary offices, you need look no farther than Mexico. As of December 1st, 2018, Mexico’s congressional makeup was 49% in the lower house and 51% in the Senate. Mexico now ranks fourth in the world for women in legislative positions, according to a Washington Post article. Latin America, in general, has put women into positions of power at much higher rates than other regions of the world. Eight Latin American countries have already had female presidents, 12 currently have female vice presidents and nearly all have more women in political office than four years ago.
Latin America is not the only region of the world where women are gaining ground in the political arena. Sub-Saharan Africa has also seen a considerable leap in parliamentary representation in the last 20 years, from 11% to 23%. And, surprisingly, the Arab region is also seen a startling jump from 3% to 17.5% in that same time span.
Many male heads of state are following suit when selecting their top advisors as well. Justin Trudeau, Canada’s Prime Minister, selected an even number of men and women to his cabinet. The Spanish Prime minister topped that by making 11 of his 17 advisors women.
Many countries are writing gender quotas into law, creating a minimum threshold of women’s seats in their governing bodies. Still more are voluntarily setting quotas in each new election cycle. These quotas open the doors to women in politics and almost always lead to even more seats going to women than the minimum requirement.
But, again, all this estrogen in office begs the questions, are policies really changing, and are women changing the political game? Well, the answer to those questions is still up for debate, and it depends heavily on who’s doing the answering.
Organizations that champion gender equality and women’s rights make strong cases stating that women politicians are more likely to work across party lines, prioritize health and education, and pass stricter domestic violence laws. Ironically, however, women in top political positions, such as prime minister or president often shy away from advocating women’s issues for fear of being labeled a “feminist” and falling out of political favor.
Former Chilean President Michelle Bachelet was an exception to that rule. She championed working mothers by signing laws to protect them; she also expanded access to contraception in the predominately Catholic country.
There are several studies that provide in evidence-based conclusions that women in politics, at least in some countries, are indeed changing the way business gets done. One study, done in Brazil, demonstrated that women were 29-35% less likely to be involved in corruption, and were better money managers. Their administrations also resulted in better prenatal care, fewer premature births and better health for young children.
However, the tide of women in politics is still on the rise, and it may be too early to tell if a deep societal shift is really occurring. But the tide is rising steadily and as more and more women enter the political arena, we are sure to see a change in governmental policies that reflect that.
Perhaps former UN Secretary-General, Kofi Annan, said it best:
Study after study has taught us, there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women. No other policy is as likely to raise economic productivity or to reduce child and maternal mortality. No other policy is as sure to improve nutrition and promote health, including the prevention of HIV/AIDS. No other policy is as powerful in increasing the chances of education for the next generation.