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Beyond the Numbers: Meaningful Progress Towards Gender Equality in Public Life

Women are represented in public office today at the highest levels in history. The percentage of women members of parliament globally has risen from 11.6% in 1995 to 23.6% in 2017. Record numbers of women are running for office, and there are many fantastic organizations recruiting, training, and supporting these women. While the world is still far from gender parity, these facts indicate steady progress.

However, digging deeper into the experiences of women once they take office shows that getting elected is only half the battle. Women incumbents are more likely than men to face challengers; they are pigeonholed into “feminine” portfolios such as health or education; and/or they are tokens, placed on electoral lists simply to fill a quota requirement. The fact that women are represented in higher numbers is progress, but we must also invest in their leadership and career development once they take office to truly shift culture and move towards gender equality in public representation.

Much of the increase in women’s representation in government can be attributed to gender quotas. Today, half of the world’s parliaments use some type of electoral quota. Quotas take various forms – they can either be required by law or voluntarily adopted by political parties, and some reserve a percentage of seats for women, while others mandate that women have to make up a percentage of candidates on an electoral list.

Quotas have the potential to disrupt the traditional male hold on public leadership. Unsurprisingly, those in power have generally not welcomed this shift and have at times manipulated the quota system to perpetuate their control. For example, Indonesia requires 30% of candidates on party lists for parliamentary elections to be female. To comply with this quota, some parties recruit celebrities, singers, models, actresses, and female relatives of male politicians with the hopes that their name recognition, looks, and/or wealth will get them elected. This practice is so common that the term “caleg cantik,” which translates to “beautiful legislative candidates,” has entered the public vernacular.

The same practice occurs in Brazil, but the women candidates are called “orange” candidates – “orange” being prison slang for “fraudulent.” In Iraq, women on electoral lists tend to be relatives of prominent male politicians. In each case, the candidates typically have no training or experience in government and are expected to either resign once elected or quietly do the bidding of the party leadership. This tokenism allows those in power to claim they are pursuing gender equality while keeping their hold on power and perpetuating the norm of women as unfit for public leadership.

Clearly, electoral success does not always equate to meaningful progress towards gender equality. The barriers that women face once they take office are often just as formidable as those that they face while running. For example, in the United States, women are more likely than men to face challengers in their re-election campaigns, ostensibly because they are presumed to be easier to beat. Additionally, women are often assigned traditionally “feminine” policy portfolios such as health, education, or children’s issues while being excluded from “masculine” portfolios such as finance and defense. In 2017, for example, there were 102 female ministers of social affairs around the world and only 19 female finance ministers.

The list of challenges women in public office face goes on – they are frequently denied party resources, lack access to facilities and benefits for mothers, and are subject to harassment and violence due to their public position. In a recent study, 82% of female parliamentarians globally reported that they had experienced psychological violence, such as threats and harassment, while in office. Traditional attitudes towards women make public leadership difficult at best, and dangerous at worst.

To address these challenges to women in public leadership, we must equip women with the tools to be successful, not just when they are running for office, but throughout their careers. That’s why Vital Voices is launching VVEngage, a signature fellowship that will provide training, mentoring, and networking opportunities for women who are in public office or lead prominent civil society organizations.

Through training in skills such as negotiation, strategic communications, cross-sector engagement, and good governance, VVEngage aims to ensure that women leaders can advance in their careers by, for example, negotiating with parliamentary leaders for seats on prestigious committees, or successfully dealing with gendered media attacks. VVEngage will also create a network of peers and mentors who understand the unique challenges of being a woman in public leadership, providing space for support, self-care, and learning.

To move towards true gender equality, women must gain access to public office, but they also must have the opportunity to thrive and advance once they get there. They must become political party leaders who put talented women on electoral lists and invest party resources in their campaigns. They must become parliamentary leaders who pass legislation on gender equality and put women on diverse committees. These women leaders will serve as mentors and role models for young women who aspire to public leadership. They will begin to normalize public leadership for women, shifting traditional attitudes and lowering the barriers for future generations of women leaders.