The UN Women’s theme for International Women’s Day, held on 8 March 2021, was “women in leadership: achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”. This theme was aligned with the UN’s sustainable development goal (SDG) 5 of ‘gender equality’. To help in achieving the goal, the UN wants to “ensure women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life” by 2030.

In 2020, the UN stated that its current projections indicate gender parity in positions of power will not be reached for another 130 years.

Female representation in national and local parliaments

As of January 2021, about a quarter of the world’s national elected representatives were female. The average proportion of women in national parliaments varied between global regions; data from the Inter-Parliamentary Union showed that the highest proportion of female representatives was in the Americas (32.4%) and the lowest proportion (17.8%) was in the Middle East and North Africa.

The five UN countries with the most female representatives were:

  • Rwanda (61.3% in the lower chamber, 38.5% in the upper chamber)
  • Cuba (53.4%)
  • United Arab Emirates (50%)
  • Nicaragua (48.4%)
  • New Zealand (48.3%)

The UK ranked joint 39th on the list out of 188 countries (33.9% of MPs and 27.9% of peers are women), alongside Cameroon (33.9% of its lower and 26% of its upper chamber are women).

In the UN’s Gender Snapshot 2020, it was estimated that 36% of seats in local government worldwide were held by women. The Council on Foreign Relations (CRF) has collected data on female representation in some local legislatures. It has data on 130 out of 193 UN countries. Of these, only two countries had at least 50% female representation in local legislatures.

According to the CRF’s research, the five countries with the most local female representatives in September 2020 were:

  • Antigua and Barbados (67%)
  • Bolivia (50%)
  • Tunisia (48%)
  • Belarus (48%)
  • Senegal (48%)

The UK ranked 30th on the list, with women making up 34% of all local representatives.

How can female representation in politics be increased?

A recent UN Economic and Social Council report has examined the status of women’s participation in public life. The report said that certain initiatives, such as the use of gender quotas and certain types of electoral systems, contributed to increasing women’s participation in legislative bodies.

Gender quotas

The UN Economic and Social Council said that “gender quota legislation is the main policy intervention that has improved women’s participation in national and local decision-making”. The report then gave some information on how quotas have been implemented across the world:

  • 44% of countries (84) have adopted legislation on gender quotas at the parliamentary level. In these countries, women are on average elected to 26% of seats in parliament, compared to 21% of seats in countries that do not implement legislated quotas.
  • At the local level, 43% of countries (77) have legislated gender quotas. In these countries, women’s representation in local government is 7% higher than countries without. A quarter of these countries require a 50% distribution of seats between men and women, but most countries aim for between 30% and 40%.

In its report Atlas of Electoral Gender Quotas, the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance (IDEA) stated that there are three main types of gender quotas used across the world. These are:

  • Legislated candidate quotas: Set out in law, these quotas regulate the composition of candidate lists used by political parties.
  • Legislated reserved seats: Also set out in law, these measures reserve a certain number or set percentage of seats for women. This is achieved through special electoral procedures.
  • Party quotas: These are quotas adopted voluntarily by individual parties for their candidate lists.

According to IDEA’s gender quotas database, of the five countries with the highest female representation, three use some form of quota; Nicaragua uses a legislated candidate quota and Rwanda and the United Arab Emirates have reserved seats for women in their national parliaments.

Electoral systems

In its report, the UN Economic and Social Council also said that the type of electoral system used had an impact on number of female representatives elected.

It said that female representation is on average 10% higher in countries that use proportional representation or mixed systems, compared with those which use majority or plurality systems, such as first past the post (FPTP). However, the report noted that gender quotas have also “substantially contributed” to progress made in those countries.

This sentiment has been reflected in the UK by organisations such as the Electoral Reform Society and the Fawcett Society. They have said that FPTP, the voting system used in UK national parliamentary elections, hinders further progress in achieving gender equality in the House of Commons.

The Electoral Reform Society has argued that FPTP “represents a constant drag on women’s representation”, because it effectively “reserves” seats for incumbent male MPs. They said that this is because:

  • FPTP does not promote diversity and competition, as only one MP is selected in each constituency.
  • The majority of seats rarely changes between parties at elections—once an MP is elected to represent a ‘safe seat’, it is unlikely they will lose at a subsequent election.
  • MPs are rarely deselected by their parties.

The Electoral Reform Society and the Fawcett Society have called for the current electoral system to be replaced with a proportional representation system, such as single transferable vote. Under this system constituencies are represented by multiple MPs which, they argue, would open up opportunities for women to contest seats currently viewed by parties as ‘safe’.

According to IDEA’s electoral system database, of the five countries with the highest female representation in national parliaments, two countries (Rwanda and Nicaragua) use a form of PR for their national elections, whilst one (New Zealand) uses a mixed system.

Barriers to increased female representation

Writing for the World Economic Forum, Anne-Marie Slaughter and Francesca Binda have argued that quota systems can be “controversial” and seen as “a blunt instrument”. Instead, they have called for a “more nuanced approach” that focuses on reducing the barriers for women to participate in the first place. They identified these barriers as:

  • The election system itself.
  • Lack of access to finance.
  • Weak professional networks.
  • Social and cultural obstacles, such as greater care obligations.

They then suggested several measures to address these issues, such as state funding for political parties that support female candidates, policies to support working parents and targeted training for female candidates.

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Cover image by Kyle Glenn on Unsplash.