Following the cabinet reshuffle in the UK this week and the promotion of 10 women the UK media has been awash with stories of the ‘male, pale, stale’ backlash of disgruntled ousted male ministers and (depressingly) the fashion sense of newly appointed women ministers.
What was, as always, underreported was a meaningful analysis of the barriers to women’s political participation that prevent them from rising to political leadership positions.
Women hold only a fifth of the world’s parliamentary seats and they are underrepresented as voters. It goes without saying that this is a reflection of gender inequality and must be addressed in the name of upholding women’s rights. However, it is also a barrier to the effective functioning of democracy.
Out of sight out of mind - political decision making processes are not gender blind
When women are underrepresented in politics, their interests are underrepresented in public life. The way in which government revenue is spent, services delivered and laws are made is never ‘gender blind’. The economist Janet Stotsky points to several studies that show that women economists and voters prioritise government policy which addresses inequality and supports vulnerable people who are poor, unemployed or in ill health.
These are issues that affect women personally. They are disproportionately represented amongst the poor and in the role as carers of children, the elderly and the sick. When the public services they rely on are absent, deprioritised or cut by the male dominated state, women have little or no time available to participate in political life and demand or deliver better government policy.
And so the cycle of women’s political inequality continues
As well as time constraints, the barriers to women’s political participation are also social. Political decision making happens in ‘smoke filled rooms’, pubs and bars, men only teahouses and often late into the night. These are often male spaces where women’s participation is prevented, discouraged or socially frowned upon.
The schmoozing, networking and literal one-upMANship of politics isn’t always an option for women. As deputy leader of the Labour party Harriet Harman put it earlier this month:
"I couldn't hang out drinking in the bar when I was feeling sick from pregnancy or rushing back home to put the babies to bed. Because I didn't conform, the punishment for being different was often nasty."
Threats against women in the public eye
For women in the countries where we work, the consequences of breaking from social norms and into public life can indeed be nasty – life threatening in fact, women human rights defenders globally increasingly face threats and acts of violence.
ActionAid works with women to achieve political empowerment and challenge social barriers through collective action. By creating spaces where women can safely come together and discuss their needs and daily challenges, they often identify solutions. By taking these solutions to local decision makers and demanding change, they enter public life and advocate for change.
What can be done to support women to fight inequality?
In a community we work with in Nepal, this collective action has led to the establishment of a local government supported community childcare centre. This facility supports women in their childcare work, thereby freeing up their time to participate more actively in politics if they choose to. Thereby breaking (or at least cracking) the cycle of women’s political inequality.
If political leaders really want to end stale, male and pale politics, it is the barriers to women’s equal participation in democracy which need to be addressed. Decision making processes must be more inclusive and women’s multiple roles must be supported and recognised so that they are safe and free to challenge political inequality.
Ideally without having to spend ages thinking about what to wear.