Gender equality in political life: a story of success or a failure in the 21st century?
Author: Idil Igdir
Department: Women’s Rights Team
The term “gender equality” refers to the state of equal access to resources and opportunities, regardless of the gender of the person concerned. This broad expression can be interpreted as the participation of any person in the unlimited sector, from the economy to decision-making. However, despite the clarity and brevity of the definition, the world has not yet fully grasped the term itself. We still continue to live in a system where most areas are predominantly male. In this context, the term “gender equality” is only seen by the world as a problem of “gender” and “equality” in the shadow of the patriarchal world order.
The presence of women in many sectors has always been challenging and sometimes even impossible. When it comes to politics, or as it is mentioned in decision making, the level of harshness and obstacles have reached a level that can be said to be nearly impossible to overcome. Nevertheless, women are resilient, and from the 1910s, women have begun to appear in high-level positions in political life. Having said that, when we look at the first modern female leaders, we see that the first female President was elected only in 1980. That’s just 42 years ago.
Below are the names of the first women who succeeded in politics throughout history: 
- Yevgenia Bosh: the modern world’s first female leader of a national republican government, as she served as the Minister of Interior and the Acting Leader of the People’s Secretariat of Ukraine in the Ukrainian People’s Republic of Soviets from 1917-1918.
- Khertek Anchimaa-Toka: the first-ever woman who was elected as the head of State in the world in 1940, even though Tuvan People’s Republic remains unrecognised and now defunct.
- Sirimavo Bandaranaike: the first woman to be democratically elected as the Prime Minister of a country, Ceylon, today’s Sri Lanka, in 1960.
- Isabel Perón: the first woman to serve as President, in Argentina in 1974, after serving as a vice-president, then succeeding to the presidency.
- Vigdís Finnbogadóttir: the first woman elected President of a country, in Iceland, in
Women in decision-making in today’s world
According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the proportion of women in national parliaments was 26.1 percent worldwide in 2021, while this ratio was 11 percent in 1995. Considering that there has been an increase of 15.1 percent in 26 years, that is to say an increase of less than 0.6 on average each year, we see that women still face obstacles globally and a democratic order has not yet been established for all without discrimination.
Notwithstanding that each country has different national laws and policies, as of March 2022, there are only 27 women serving as Head of State and/or government in the world. Moreover, with only 21 percent of government ministers today being women, the ultimate goal of having gender equality in this position seems impossible to achieve before 2077, given the level of progress, which is an annual increase of only 0.52 percent (UN Women Facts and Figures, 2021).
Therefore, while the world expects women from modern-developed countries to have 50 percent or more seats in Parliament, none of the top five countries that achieve this statistic are in Europe, the USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, or Nordic countries. According to IPU Parline, the global data on national parliaments, the best countries for gender equality in national parliaments today are Rwanda (61.3 percent in the lower chamber), Cuba (53.4 percent), Nicaragua (50.6 percent), Mexico (50 percent), and the United Arab Emirates (50 percent).
Level of progress of women’s presence in politics in different cultures of the world
- European Union (EU)
At the European level, as of January 2021, 38 percent of the MPs are female (Elgersma, 2021). A very promising rate for women in the European Union in today’s conditions. However, the EU does not have a very bright history with regard to the presence of women in European politics and institutions. Ursula von der Leyen, the current President of the European Commission, is the first woman to hold this position since the inception of the institution in 1958. Moreover, in the case of EU heads of government, the incidence of women has, so far, not exceeded 14 percent, meaning there have never been more than four women occupying high positions at the same time (Elgersma, 2021).
Nevertheless, in 2022, there have been changes when it comes to policy towards women. As of 2021, Stella Ronner-Grubacic from the Netherlands became the first EU Ambassador for Gender and Diversity, while in 2022, Roberta Metsola from Malta was elected President of the European Parliament, being the youngest President of the European Parliament (EU Diplomacy #Women4Multilateralism, 2022).
- 2. United States of America (USA)
An impressive development has recently taken place in the United States, with 145 women currently sitting in Congress – 121 in the House and 24 in the Senate – representing approximately 27 percent of the legislative branch. Despite this low rate, this figure represents a historic number for the USA. On the other hand, according to the Capital Canary Report of February 25, 2022, only nine out of 50 State governors are women in the country.
Moreover, on January 20, 2021, Kamala Harris made history by becoming not only the first female Vice President of the United States but also the first Black and first Asian-American Vice President.
On March 10, 2022, another history was written as the Hungarian Parliament elected the country’s first female President, Katalin Novak. She, later on, stated that “it is because I am a woman, and not despite of it, that I want to be a good president of Hungary” (ALJAZEERA, 2022).
- United Kingdom (UK)
According to the latest figures on House of Commons Library, the United Kingdom has set its own record by having 35 percent of women MPs in the House of Commons – therefore 225 women out of 650 MPs – in 2022. Since November 21, 1918, “the Parliament Act (Qualification Women)”, 559 women were elected to the House of Commons, which means that in 104 years, 55 percent of these women were first elected in the Labour Party and 31 percent for the Conservatives. In addition, six ministers are currently women in the UK Cabinet, 27 percent (Watson & Uberoi & Mutebi & Bolton & Tunnicliffe & Danechi, 2022)
With a history of being one of the first countries to give women the right to vote and be elected, in 1934, Turkey could not go further throughout its history, especially with the rise of sexism and discriminatory policy against women. The country had only one woman Prime Minister in 1993 with Tansu Çiller. And the first female minister in the Turkish government was Turkan Akyol in 1971, as Minister of Health and Social Security. Moreover, the only woman to have served as interior minister was Meral Aksener, the current leader of the Good Party in Turkey, in 1996. Thus, in total, since the first woman minister in 1971, there have been only 25 women ministers in Turkey.
According to 2020 figures, the proportion of women in the Assembly is 17.29 percent, compared to 9.1 percent in 2007. Also, there is currently only one woman serving as a minister in the Presidential Cabinet.
Israel has not been a country that gives many opportunities for women to serve in government. Golda Meir became the only woman to serve as Prime Minister of Israel in 1969, and later, along with Tzipi Livni, became the first and only woman to also serve as Minister of Foreign Affairs. Hence, according to the Israel Democracy Institute on March 8, 2021, women in Israel make up less than 30 percent of the entire Knesset (Israel’s legislative body, as the country has an unicameral parliamentary system).
On the other hand, on January 24, 2021, Merav Michaeli was elected head of the Labour Party in Israel. Five months later, on June 13, 2021, she was appointed as Minister of Transport and Road Safety in the Bennet government.
One hundred years after the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, women remain in the shadows and therefore underrepresented. In July 2021, it was recorded that among all delegates to the 13th National People’s Congress, China’s top legislature, and members of the 13th Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, China’s “highest political advisory body”, only about a fifth were women. Furthermore, unfortunately, not once since the Party took power in 1949 has a woman been appointed to China’s highest political office.
- MENA Region (Middle East and North Africa)
The MENA region, which covers 19 countries, has the lowest female representation in the world, according to the latest IPU figures. In the 2021 elections in the region, the result was surprising for everyone. While the world was waiting for an improvement in the presence of women in politics, the outcome of this election gave us the opposite. The representation of women, who hold 16.9 percent of the parliamentary seats in the region, decreased by 0.9 percent compared to a year ago.
Masculinising Politics with Old Stereotypes
Equal participation in politics refers to equal opportunity for individuals, regardless of their gender, to play a crucial role in decision making or in leading the country’s policy. However, barriers have been placed in front of women with countless and endless labels. Over the years, as the world of decision-making and politics has become a male-dominated field, certain old-fashioned and sexist labels have begun to be attached to women. This, in turn, has led to stereotypes of female politicians being overly soft, emotional, sensitive, superficial, and inadequate compared to naturally fit male politicians.
Women, who were judged by their physical appearance to the tone of their voice, were pushed to masculinise themselves in order to take their place, or rather survive, in this male-dominated order. Thus, women run the risk of being stigmatised as “feminists”, as if it were a pejorative term, if they expose the sexist culture they are subjected to or are too critical of men’s behavior. Such pressures and criticisms on women can have a significant negative impact on their political professional life and even on their leadership (Elgersma, 2021).
Furthermore, in a study conducted in 2010 by the Women and Public Policy Program at Harvard Kennedy School, it was shown that “when participants saw female politicians as power-seeking, they saw them as having less communality (being unsupportive and uncaring)”, but on the other hand, “when participants saw male politicians as power-seeking, they saw them as having greater agency (being more assertive, stronger, and tougher) and greater competence”, a perception that women politicians seeking power cannot have.
As it is not enough, the bias and discriminations that women all around the world have to face are not a rate that we can underestimate. From sexual harassment to the hostile environment, women but especially, women of color are facing even greater obstacles.
In addition, although more and more women are taking their rightful place in the decision-making power game in international politics, female politicians continue to face sexism and even disrespectful treatments from their male counterparts. Former Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel, who can be called “the Woman” or “World’s most powerful woman”, has been exposed to unacceptable treatment, from former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to Russian President Vladimir Putin and Former US President George W. Bush in her time. To give a concrete example, Russian President Vladimir Putin brought his large, unleashed dog to the meeting, knowing that Angela Merkel was afraid of dogs. Moreover, US President G. W. Bush even dared to give her a shoulder massage without asking for her consent (Semenova & Evdokimova, 2021).
Not long ago, in April 2021, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen faced the inadmissible and disgraceful attitude from the Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, when she was left without a chair during a meeting with the president.
In an article entitled “Why do we still distrust women leaders?” by Christine Ro in 2021, she revealed that “only 38 percent in Japan were comfortable with the idea of a female head of government or a CEO of a major company”.
Essential Roles and Effects of Political Parties
Political parties are the “gatekeepers” when it comes to gender equality in political life. As they remain as major entities for the representation of the people, their agenda and policy towards women are much more decisive and effective than one might think. Yet, according to the latest figures, political parties are male-dominated, with 85.8 percent of men in leading positions. This ratio reflects the parties’ reluctance to tackle the problem of inequality. Additionally, based on research conducted in 18 Latin American countries in 2019, a significant lack of initiatives to tackle the issue of gender equality, both within the party and in politics, was determined ().
On the other hand, some countries, like Rwanda, enforce certain laws, such as gender quotas for political parties. Currently, Rwandan law requires that the composition of leadership structures at all levels of political parties include a minimum of 30 percent of women (). Thus, introducing a quota or parity law on the nomination or formation of the parties’ national executive committees showed a tangible and significant increase in the fight against gender equality ().
As Ruth Bader Ginsburg, former Justice of the US Supreme Court said: “women belong in all the places where decisions are being made”. Despite the fact that the world has moved from advocating for women’s suffrage to discussing gender equality in political life, the hurdles are still ahead of women. The objective has never been and will never be to achieve a proportion of 30 percent women in the political field but an absolute equality. Therefore, normalising the presence of women at all levels of politics, in other words, overcoming the fact that women should be seen as “special” when they come to the same position as any man, is the most important goal in this field.
Therefore, if we have to answer the question of whether the 21st century has been a success or a failure when it comes to gender equality in political life, the answer would be resoundingly negative. The world still has a long way to go to achieve gender equality in politics.
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The Role of Political Parties on Women’s Participation and Representation, Paper1/2021, page5
 The Role of Political Parties on Women’s Participation and Representation, Paper1/2021, page5
 The Role of Political Parties on Women’s Participation and Representation, Paper1/2021, page5