15 March 2019 9 MIN reading

Women and/in politics

In the wake of the International Women’s Day, media reflect increasing importance and presence of women and feminism in politics and in political discourses. Gender is now trendy and in electoral times women are extremely coveted voters and feminism a double-edged sword. But is this just a superficial makeover or is it a real shift? Let’s approach light and dark of women and/in politics.

In Spain, the latest poll by the Center for Sociology Studies (CIS) showed that, for the April 28 (general) and May 26 (European, regional and local) elections, 60% of undecided voters are women. This means four million women voters still don’t know who to vote for. Moreover, 25% of women under 35 are still undecided. Women have been shown to be sensitive to equal-rights issues and young women especially, which means a women-friendly and even feminist-friendly political campaign wouldn’t be a surprise.

Indeed, this is exactly what Spanish parties are doing. The integration of the feminist agenda in the discourse of the campaign is beyond doubts: Ciudadanos, once against the existing higher penalties for men in case of gender violence, has come up with a “liberal feminist manifesto”, including regulatory measures for prostitution and surrogacy. The Popular Party is now suggesting a national pact on the salary gap, while Unidos Podemos, amongst many other claims and in order to demonstrate its linguistic commitment, has changed its name to Unidas Podemos. Irene Montero, the spokesperson for the Group in the Congress, said in a recent interview that she is convinced that the next Podemos leader will be a woman.


For the current Spanish Socialist government, feminism was its presentation card: Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez appointed women in 65% of his Cabinet’s positions, the highest number of women ministers of any Cabinet in the world when taking office in June 2018. And a week ago, a royal decree was published extending paternity leave for new fathers from five to eight weeks in 2020 (and up to 16 weeks in 2021, making it equal to women’s leave).


Polls show that Spanish people are more feminist than most of their European peers. As an example, a Eurobarometer in 2017 states that Spain is the fourth among the 28 EU member states in a ranking of countries with less pervasive gender stereotypes.


A similar -albeit more modest- “feminist awakening”, at least formally, is taking place at European level. Imbued by the International Women’s Day effusive atmosphere, EU leaders such as the socialist and popular spitzenkandidaten, Frans Timmermans and Manfred Weber were calling on gender parity in EU institutions and raising their voices for equality. Weber, EPP’s spitzenkandidat, recorded a video where he cut his tie, wearing 16,5% less of it to raise awareness that women still earn 16,5% less than men in Europe. Frans Timmermans went to the 8M march in Madrid:  “ I am in Madrid with my daughter because it is one of the biggest marches for equality in Europe. I want to be with the Spanish women, to support their fight for gender equality and take it together to Europe.” “So inspiring!” he said on Twitter.


Moreover, at EU level, some powerful women are visible at the top of the institutions: Federica Mogherini is the High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy and Margrethe Vestager, the current European Commissioner for Competition, was described as the rich world’s most powerful trustbuster by The Economist. Together with Vera Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, they are two prominent candidates to join the team of leading candidates for top EU jobs from the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE).


However, despite the presence of these prime donne at European level, the inspiring mobilizations in European cities and notably Spain for the International Women’s Day, and the consensus on the need of equality/feminism, inequality is still a fact and the disparities in the share of women in politics are huge. It would take 107 years to overcome the gap in women’s political representation worldwide at the rate we’re actually going, and the situation in Europe isn’t much better, according to POLITICO’s new podcast Women, power and the EU election. The Joint Research Center of the European Commission and DG REGIO of the European Commission launched a Regional Gender Equality Monitor which confirmed that women are still under-represented in politics across Europe.


There is no doubt if you check the bleak picture of the Council webpage, displaying pictures of the members of the EU Council: there are only three women out of 28 Members (UK Prime Minister Theresa May, German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel and Dalia Grybauskaitė, President of the Republic of Lithuania). At the European Parliament, the proportion of women (37;3%) is far from parity. Women representation is around 45% for S&D, ALDE, and the Greens, but it is clearly lower in case of right-wing parties: EPP 30.9% and ECR 25.7%.


Amongst candidates to the Commission presidency, for the moment only the Greens have selected a woman: one of their two final candidates is Ska Keller. The European Left Party has elected two leading candidates as well, and one is a woman, Veronica Tomic. The rest is an all-men list (Weber, Timmermans, Zahradil,…).As for other EU Top positions: more all-male round of nominations! Whereas, for example, group leaders in Parliament backed a woman, Laura Codruța Kövesi (Romania) as their pick to be the first-ever EU chief prosecutor, the EU economic and monetary affairs’ nominations would not suffer the same fate. Three men were nominated to become Executive Board member of the European Central Bank, head of the European Banking Authority, and Single Resolution Board member respectively. On 14 March the European Parliament’s Plenary session voted a resolution decrying the poor gender balance in these nominations.


In Spain, support for feminism has snowballed in recent years, and the presence of women in politics has increased little by little. Unfortunately, there’s a backlash led by the far-right targeting ‘supremacist feminism’ and making it a key part of its message.


In conclusion, since higher female representation increases the quality of governance (the recent 2019 regional gender equality monitor clearly supports this vision) making more space for women in decision bodies is a must. Parity democracy has a transformative nature: balanced gender representation in decision-making enables the production of different ideas, different styles, and awareness and this can only be positive for society as a whole. A good example is the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality of the European Parliament, which has put new issues like work-life balance, employment segregation, gender-based violence or working women’s poverty on the political agenda. If representatives reflect the composition of society (“mirror representation”), they will certainly reflect their needs and claims. It is, therefore, not a matter of superficial makeover. However, the mere inclusion of women-related issues in political pre-electoral discourses is not enough, and neither is mere women’s presence in institutions: a truly feminist shift, in politics, in the institutions’ mindset, should be the ultimate objective.


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