Even though the world was far from reaching gender parity before the coronavirus pandemic struck, the impact of COVID-19 on gender equality is already tangible.
According to the World Economic Forum’s 2021 Global Gender Gap report, more than 135 years will be needed for countries to close the gender gap, an increase of more than 35 years from the WEF’s 2020 report. Across the four sectors measured – political empowerment, economic participation, education and health – the greatest disparities are seen among political empowerment, a measure of gender parity within politics which takes into account political representation from the parliamentary level to heads of state, a gap that will take 10 years longer to close.
“Gender equality” is one of 76 metrics in the 2021 Best Countries report, where survey participants were asked how closely they associate that attribute with a nation. In 2021, the Netherlands was perceived as the most gender equal, followed by Sweden, Denmark, Canada and Norway. The top scorers, based on perception, have high rates of women represented in politics, relative to the rest of the world, and some, particularly in the Nordic region, have been leaders in gender equality for decades.
But what are the broader implications of achieving gender parity in politics? And why are some nations more successful at doing so than others?
She Persisted, a study on women, politics and power in the new media landscape, calls women’s equal representation in government a “precondition for truly inclusive and representative democracies,” adding that women’s representation in government “improves policy-making and increases the public’s trust in the institutions where they serve.” When women are represented in government, they tend to advocate for policies that benefit women, such as maternity and paternity leave and other types of family-friendly policies, according to Shirley Graham, professor and director of the Gender Equality Initiative in International Affairs at George Washington University.
Some experts argue the reason why some countries are better at promoting women’s representation in politics is because some government and electoral systems may support women’s representation in politics better than others. The U.S. two-party system, for example, is “a system that doesn’t help minorities gain access to political power,” Graham says.
According to a study by the Inter-Parliamentary Union, a correlation exists between a country’s electoral system and high levels of female political representation. In Western European countries where 20% or more of the seats in parliament were held by women, all had a proportional electoral system, where “political groups receive seats in proportion to their electoral strength,” according to the study. Worldwide, the study found that of all the countries with women making up 30% or more of parliament, none operated under a majoritarian system.
But electoral systems are only part of the picture when it comes to bolstering women’s participation in government. According to the IPU, countries with well-designed gender quotas, varying measures designed to ensure that women constitute a certain portion of political positions, elect significantly more women to parliament.
The Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark and Norway – which all operate under either a proportional or mixed electoral system – use some form of voluntary quotas set by political parties, or other forms of affirmative action. In Sweden, for example, a “zipper system” is employed by a number of political parties, requiring that candidate lists alternate between male and female candidates, which ensures that for every three candidates one woman must be included.
Among other liberal democracies, Australia, which operates under a partial proportional electoral system with voluntary gender quotas limited to its Labour Party, ranks No. 8 for perceived gender equality according to the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings. Recently, however, the gender quota debate has resurfaced within the country’s NSW Liberal Party, as rape allegations and harrasment claims surfaced and brought up questions about the situation for women in Canberra. Some in opposition of the gender quotas say they are anti-democratic or discriminate against men. Prime Minister Scott Morrison is reportedly open to gender quotas, however, citing that the party had tried the “other way” of getting women elected, which had not produced the intended results.
Still, Australia slightly beats out Canada, which ranked within the top five of the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings, and the U.S. when it comes to women’s representation in government, with 31% overall, a testament to its Senate, in which over half are women, and who were elected by the country’s proportional electoral system used within its Senate elections.
Although it ranks highly for gender equality by perception, according to the U.S. News & World Report Best Countries rankings, Canada’s representation for women in parliament is weaker than its European counterparts, while the country operates under a first-past-the-post electoral system, unlike the Northern-European nations that join it atop the list. The U.S., although it ranked No. 18 for perceived gender equality, falls just under Canada in terms of women’s representation within its federal government. The country has neither a proportional electoral system nor a quota system, and although it has seen its highest levels of political representation among women in recent years, it lags behind nearly every other Western democracy, with women making up 27% of representatives.
While voluntary party quotas are generally preferred in liberal democracies, other forms of quotas are seen throughout the world, and tend to vary regionally. In parts of Asia and the Middle East, for example, reserved seat quotas are more common, while legal candidate quotas are more common in Latin America and the Balkans.
And although gender quotas of various forms have been widely adopted, they too are not total solutions. Over 50% of countries have some form of gender quota or affirmative policy for women to become parliamentarians, yet only 25% of all parliamentarians are women, according to Graham. “So that points to deeper social, cultural, religious norms and values that create barriers to women moving into those positions of power and leadership,” she says.
Even countries with high rates of women in government are not models of gender equality all around. In Rwanda, for example, although the country has the highest proportion of women in parliament in the world, at around 61%, the country also has high rates of gender-based violence.
“You can’t just pull one lever, and make it all OK,” Graham says. “It works across all the institutions, all the structures, all the systems and society – we need to be making sure that women have equal access, education, health, workforce, politics, law, etcetera.”