Gender as a lens for democratic progress – openDemocracy guest week

(Above: In July 2015 WFD supported the first ever Women’s Parliament in Kampala)

This month Westminster Foundation for Democracy explored how gender works as a lens for democratic progress, in our second week guest-editing openDemocracy’s front page.

WFD’s research team chose this topic because, put simply, women matter. Leaving women out of key decision-making bodies risks alienating over half of the population from policy outcomes that have a significant impact on their lives.

Representation of all groups – including women – in institutions like parties, parliaments and civil society is essential to ensure the interests of all citizens are represented.

The benefits of women in politics – an argument won?

The perception that women’s claim for representation has been resolved with the increased number of female politicians in the UK parliament and the appointment of the second female Prime Minister is false, according to Professor Sarah Childs, Director of the Gender Research Centre at the University of Bristol in her article ‘The ‘problem’ of women in politics has not gone away’.

In the UK 70% of all MPs are men which means they are over-represented relative to their percentage in the population. But Professor Childs hopes that the newly established Commons Reference Group on Representation and Inclusion will take the necessary steps to change this statistic and ensure women’s representation is addressed in line with the IPU Good Parliament Report.

Sam Smethers, Chief Executive of the Fawcett Society, echoed this sentiment in her article that suggested even in 2016 women can’t afford to be complacent over the idea that the increased participation of women in politics is a good thing. “I take it for granted that it’s generally accepted as morally right for 52% of the population to be represented” she wrote.
Pointing to the double standards often placed on the shoulder of women leaders, Smethers’ article raised an important issue that women who want to be active in politics feel globally. Nang Phyu Phyu Lin, Chair of the Alliance for Gender Inclusion in the Peace Process in Myanmar, said: “If men want to participate in politics no-one questions his [political ability]. But if a woman wants to participate in politics, people – including women – question that women and demand proof [of her knowledge and ability].”

Barriers to women’s participation

Birgitta Jonsdottir, Pirate Party MP for seven years and prominent figure in Iceland’s political revitalisation, spoke to openDemocracy’s Phil England to discuss n Icelandic politics’ transformation in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Since then Iceland has come top of the World Economic Forum index on gender parity for the past seven years. Are the two linked? Birgitta advocates that women must play a role in shaping their own futures. “I have had the same opportunities as a man because I don’t genderise myself when I’m following my dreams and passions. I understand that the language about women in politics is sometimes quite depressing…. But at the same time I don’t care what people say about my style of being active in politics” she said.

This contrasts significantly with the hand African women and girls are dealt where traditional norms and stereotypes regarding a woman’s role prevail.

Eliza Anyangwe, freelance writer and founder of The Nzinga Effect – an organisation that seeks to change the narrative about Africa by changing the narrative about African women -thinks “the logic that just having women in politics will itself serve to challenge patriarchy and negative social norms is flawed.” Despite having three female leaders across the African continent there has been little improvement in the economic, social and cultural parity of women, she argued. Connecting political representation to these arenas is key to changing the narrative.

UN Women’s contribution gave a practical example of what can be done to support women candidates to overcome the barriers they face. By providing advocacy and leadership training alongside campaign and management skills, the UN women programme in China trained young women ahead of the local elections, giving the confidence and encouragement women needed to get involved in political life. Participant Liao Bin from Hunan province in China said: “Chinese women are as capable to govern and lead as men, and must be given equal opportunities to do so.”



Our openDemocracy editorial partnership seeks to contribute to public knowledge about effective democracy-strengthening by leading a discussion about what approaches work best, including addressing the representation of women. If you would like to contribute to the debate, contact

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