Why do we need more women involved in politics?
Because women's political participation results in greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across ethnic and ideological lines, and a more sustainable future.
Women’s participation in politics helps advance gender equality and affects both the range of policy issues that get considered and the types of solutions that are proposed. Research indicates that whether a legislator is male or female has a distinct impact on their policy priorities.
There is also strong evidence that as more women are elected to office, there is an increase in policymaking that emphasizes quality of life and reflects the priorities of families, women, and ethnic and racial minorities.
But having women in politics — and more broadly, having representation across all identities of race, sexual orientation, and socioeconomic status — has tangible effects on the health and functioning of democracy. Indeed, the body of research showing the value of having women run for and attain political office is vast and growing.
The primary rationale for the equal inclusion of women, and all identities present at the decision-making table, is basic fairness, says Kelly Dittmar, assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University–Camden and scholar at the Rutgers Center for Women and Politics. “If the system is meant to be a representative democracy, then it should be representative of the many populations it serves, and that includes women.”
“Having women and people of color in political office is beneficial because it’s a sign our political system is open and that everybody can participate no matter their position,” says Christina Wolbrecht, professor of political science and director of the Rooney Center for the Study of Democracy at Notre Dame University. If equal democracy is a sign of democratic openness, then our paltry representation of women shows democracy is not an accessible — or healthy — system.
Setting fairness aside, women are vital to Canadian politics because they bring symbolic power that comes with a cascade of benefits for democracy. Put simply, “It matters because you cannot be what you cannot see,” says Jennifer Piscopo, associate professor of politics at Occidental College. Increasing the number of women in political leadership makes it more likely young women and men will see women as both capable of and an equally natural fit for public leadership, Dittmar, the Rutgers professor, points out.
Symbolic representation also provides the crucial ingredient of trust needed for the successful relationship between the governors and governed in any democratic society. “When the folks in office are more diverse and gender-balanced we see people have more trust in government and participate in politics more. The paradox is all these stereotypes make it hard for women to get into office in the first place,” says Piscopo.
Gender equality and diversity in leadership is essential to a fair and democratic society. In 2018, only 11% of boards in Canada had one woman director and 27% had two. Experiences of gender-based violence are quite common in Canada, with women reporting about 536 incidents of police-reported intimate partner violence per 100,000 population in 2019. Those at highest risk live in rural and remote areas, Indigenous women, racialized women, women with disabilities, gender diverse, and LGBTQ2 people.
The United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting that concluded in late March was focused on the theme of “Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life.” Importantly, at CSW, US Vice President Kamala Harris emphasized the key connection between women’s leadership and strong democratic government: “The status of women is the status of democracy. The status of democracy also depends fundamentally on the empowerment of women, not only because the exclusion of women in decision-making is a marker of a flawed democracy, but because the participation of women strengthens democracy.”
Indeed, gender equality strengthens democracy. Research and on-the-ground experience shows that democratic institutions such as government ministries, elected decision-making bodies, political parties, and civil society organizations are stronger with gender equality. All must include women’s voices. But the world has a long way to go on this front. In national legislative bodies, 22 percent of parliamentarians, and 20 percent of parliamentary speakers, are women. Furthermore, women hold only 10 percent of political party leadership positions.
As Harris noted, women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy. This includes greater responsiveness to citizen needs and increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines. Women’s meaningful participation in politics affects the range of issues considered and the types of solutions proposed. Countries with high marks on civil rights and political liberties have higher proportions of women in national legislatures than countries with low marks. Higher numbers of women political leaders also correspond with higher standards of living, better outcomes in access to education, infrastructure and health, and more responsive government.
In addition to bringing their lived experiences to policymaking, women tend to work in less hierarchical, more participatory and more collaborative ways. Globally, women lawmakers are perceived as more honest and responsive than male counterparts, qualities that encourage confidence in institutions.