Jun 30, 2012
Center for Democracy and Civil Society

Women in Parliament – What Difference Does it Make?

Together with Joshua Foust, her colleague at the American Security Project, Melinda Haring, a graduate of our very own Democracy and Governance Program, published this past week at Foreign Policy’s website a controversial piece challenging the notion that female representation in politics is an important indicator of democracy in a country.

Haring and Foust focused mostly in Central Asia, where both have extensive professional experience, to show how the mere fact that a country’s parliament has a large female presence points to nothing in regards to how good its democracy really is. Many repressive states, they argue, “have plenty of women in power but lag far behind on every meaningful index of democracy”. To demonstrate their point, they compare the percentage of female representatives in Uzbekistan (22%), Kyrgystan (23.3%), Kazakhstan (24.3%) and Belarus (31.8%), amongst others, with their respective rankings on Freedom House’s Freedom in the World index. Not surprisingly, each one of these countries scores very low in terms of democratic freedoms.

While the authors don’t deny that improving gender relations and female participation in politics are valid goals, they state that to focus on doing so as a path to improve democracy is a misguided effort. Much more important, they say, is to improve the balance of power between governments and opposition in the parliaments of these countries. In a significant number of them, all of the women representatives belong to the dominant party and bring nothing new to the table, simply conforming to the directions received from above. So, what difference do they make?

The same sort of comparison could be made in other regions of the world. Here in Mozambique, for example, women comprise 38% of parliament, and yet I can comfortably say that democratic rights are far from exemplary. There is a huge dominance by the party in power, which has been there since 1975, and a smaller and smaller place for opposition. More women in politics have not changed that reality by one bit.

“There isn’t necessarily a relationship between a country’s political freedom and the number of women in parliament. Gender equality in government is important, but it’s not the primary variable in ensuring true representation. Political freedom and good governance are basic rights that shouldn’t be confused with gender issues”, they say. According to Foust and Haring, the dollars donor agencies reserve for such programs would be put to much better use if they were funding party representation programs.

As much as I tend to agree that supporters of increasing the number of women in politics are too quick to relate this indicator to far broader democracy issues, I think Haring and Foust overlooked some other good results of female participation. Foreign Policy published a counter-argument by Susan A. Markham, director of Women Participation in Politics at NDI, to explore those in a little more depth. Markham says that “Research shows women are more likely to work across party lines even in highly partisan environments. Their leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals, and women tend to work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative way than their male colleagues.”

Moreover, to Markham, “there are many indications that as more women are elected to office, policy-making increasingly emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities”.

As with many other efforts and indicators, it seems that the problem is not the legitimacy of the goal itself, but the expected results of it. I would never argue that the importance of female participation in politics is negligible, in particular because, as Markham says, one cannot simply exclude 50% of the population and expect the political discourse to be inclusive. However, expectations and results attached to this goal many times go way beyond what is realistic. Having more women in politics is not necessarily going to bring democracy to any place, and the connection may even be much more indirect than supporters usually claim.

If you haven’t yet, make sure to read Haring’s piece here.



  • The authors argue that the justification for pushing more women to enter politics is to improve democracy. This is a dubious claim and far from the only reason to do it. Redressing gender inequality and providing female role models are equally as valid – if not more valid – reasons for doing so. They do not even acknowledge this point.

  • I agree with both of you. Statistics is somewhat important, but not always. A policy or argument based on statistics only (i.e. how many woman in a parliament) can be a double-edged sword for gender equality.

    Meanwhile, I also agree to that “Their leadership and conflict resolution styles embody democratic ideals, and women tend to work in a less hierarchical and more collaborative way than their male colleagues.” Male tends to rely on power, while female is more likely to rely on relationship and understanding. So yes, it is good to accept and apply new way of problem-solving. However, we should remember that their way also have some problems. We need more accurate analysis on how characteristics of different genders work for peacebuilding and democracy.

  • I agree with Soo. I would also like to see whether increasing the number of women in politics has an impact on gender inequity and whether they serve as role models for girls.

  • Andrea, this was an interesting read as always.

    Michele Swers wrote an outstanding book entitled “The Difference Women Make” about what policy implications arise as a consequence of closer gender-parity in the U.S. Congress. The core philosophical issue at hand is what we regard as most important to representational democracy: descriptive or substantive representation.

    Descriptive representation implies that those in power share some trait with their constituents (or subjects, as the case may often be). Be this a shared racial or ethnic background, religion, sex or gender, or sexual identity, the strength of descriptive representation exists both in the affinity itself, and in how that shared experience informs deliberation and decision-making. Conversely, if we regard substantive representation as most important, we care chiefly about the public policy output of a government, irrespective of who made the policy and what experiences the decision makers have had. The democratic ideal, it seems, is representation that cares deeply about public policy outcomes, but where the policymakers reflect the diversity of their constituents and advocate on the basis of their priorities and needs – which are known well through shared experience.

    One finding that Swers comes to – through a healthy amount of statistical analysis – goes like this. Analysis based on roll call votes or bills passed obscures the role of women in Congress because simply increasing the number of women in the institution doesn’t necessarily have any policy outcome.

    Party still matters. Voting patterns of Democratic men and women aren’t tremendously different from one another, but voting patterns among Republican men and women are significantly different; it also matters who is running the executive branch and what kind of national priorities exist. Political institutions still matter. Representatives still work within the confines of legislative rules. When in the political majority, women are able to advocate more forcefully for their constituents. At the same time, without seniority all of the policy-entrepreneurial spirit in the world won’t result in getting a bill into law. But that doesn’t mean that there policy outcomes are nonexistent. Legislatures are generally lumbering beasts, slow to change direction and with a great deal of institutional inertia. If our representatives share some experiences with us, share some priorities with us, and desire reelection, over time their policies will more-closely reflect our own.

    So I agree that “it is simplistic to assume that the mere presence of women in a parliament corresponds to greater political representation.” In a repressive state with a disempowered legislature, you could have perfectly descriptive-representation, yet no policies would change. Yet this does not imply that politics isn’t being influenced, nor does it imply that a homogeneous, male-dominated legislature would be somehow more effective. In a state ruled by parties of the rich, representation isn’t truly descriptive of the average constituent. Yet this does not negate the fact that the election of more women to the legislature will move towards a balance that better-reflects the population, and consequently, has a greater capacity to appreciate the needs of an underserved and underrepresented group.

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