From an egalitarian point of view, the participation of women in the political process — not only as enfranchised citizens but also as candidates and elected officials — is in and of itself an important goal. In addition, from a social justice point of view, the participation of women in the political process is likely to help advance the state of women's issues and gender equality. Theorists posit that the ability of women to be successful in active participation in politics rests upon three types of factors: political, socioeconomic, and cultural. More research is needed to better understand how best to support women in gaining gender equality in this important arena.
Keywords Economic Development; Gender; Gender Inequality; Gender Role; Human Rights Movement; Marginalization; Sexual Discrimination; Social Justice
Looking at things from a gender perspective, it is necessary to note that it was only a couple of generations ago that women in the United States did not even have the right to vote, let alone run for office. Although individual states extended the right to vote to women earlier, women in the United States did not win the national right to vote until 1920 with the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the US Constitution, which states that "the right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex. Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation." Since that time, of course, women have made great strides forward in the political arena, not only registering their opinions through their votes, but also by banding together to form political blocs that encourage change or by running for and being elected to political office themselves. Yet, the share of parliamentary seats held by women across the globe remains low. According to data from the International Women’s Democracy Center, as of June 2008, Nordic countries had the greatest levels of women legislators in parliament, with an average of 41.4 percent. North and South America had the second highest percentages of female legislators, with an average of 21.8 percent. The Pacific Islands and the Middle East were the regions with the lowest average percentage of female legislators, at 13.4 percent and 9.6 percent, respectively.
Similarly, research performed by the Inter-Parliamentary Union has found that women represent only 18 percent of legislators at a national level around the world in 2008. Although such statistics may appear at first glance to be discouraging, women have actually made significant progress toward political equality over the past few decades. For example, in 2003, women won 48.8 percent of the seats in the lower house of Rwanda's national legislative body (Hughes, 2007-8). Recently, women have also been elected as heads of state in Finland, Liberia, and Chile and as the heads of government in Germany, Jamaica, and South Korea (Gomes, 2007).
Factors Influencing Female Political Success
The literature posits a number of types of factors that may affect the probability of a woman gaining election to a parliamentary body. The first of these comprises political factors.
- Studies indicate that women are generally more successful in electoral politics in situations where voters choose among party lists and multimember districts rather than in situations in which there are individual candidates and single member districts. In general, political parties are more likely to nominate women candidates (and voters are more likely to vote for them) if women are among other candidates on the party's ticket. It has been found, for example, that many voters vote for a party ticket whether or not some of the individuals on that ticket are women, rather than voting for individual candidates.
- Further, research indicates that the structure of the electoral system is important for the election of women candidates. For example, there are differences between "the party lists/multimember districts system of balloting and the proportional representation method of seat allocation, whereby each party wins a number of seats in proportion to" its share of the votes cast in the election and the way in which they are perceived by voters (Kenworthy & Malami, 1999, p. 238). As the number of seats in the district becomes smaller, the identity of the individual candidates becomes increasingly important to the voters and, therefore, to the party.
- In addition, the partisan composition of the legislature may also affect the number of women who win seats. More liberal parties typically express greater commitment to reducing gender inequality than do more conservative parties. As a result, liberal parties tend to nominate more women candidates than do conservative parties; therefore, it can be expected that the larger the share of seats held by liberal politicians within the legislature, the greater the proportion of women among those seats.
- Another political factor that can affect the proportion of women elected to the legislature is women's voting rights. Statistics indicate that the longer women have had the right to vote within the country, the greater the percentage of women to vote in the elections.
A second set of factors that are important determinants of women's chances of gaining election to the legislature are socioeconomic factors. The progress of women within the political arena is typically correlated with the progress of women in other arenas.
- One important area that appears to be related to women's political progress is their educational progress. Typically, individuals who are able to be successfully elected to the legislature bring with them educational credentials (e.g., law school, business school). Therefore, it has been theorized that in countries where women’s educational attainment is high the number of women who are qualified and motivated to run for office, and are, therefore, more likely to win election increases. In addition, voter participation and education tend to be strongly correlated. Therefore, many theorists believe that as women continue to attain higher educational levels, they will concomitantly turn out in greater numbers to vote, which could mean the election of more women to office.
- Another socioeconomic factor that has been found to be correlated with women's participation as candidates within the electoral process is their activity as part of the labor force. For example, it has been found that women who work outside the home are more likely to be active participants in politics. This can be due to a number of factors. For example, women who are active members of the labor force tend to gain confidence and other skills necessary to be successful in politics. Further, working outside the home could help women obtain funds to help them launch a political campaign. In addition, participating in the labor force affords women the opportunity to network with other individuals who can help them launch and run a successful political campaign. Many theorists believe that as women's participation in the labor force rises, they will turn out in greater numbers to vote and also be more likely to run for office. However, the mere fact of women participating in the labor force is not...
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