This paper presents the results of a survey (2006-2008) on how parliamentarians are working to attain gender equality in national politics. Respondents identify four factors that are most influential in creating a more gender-sensitive parliament: 1) the support of the ruling party in parliament; 2) the work of parliamentary committees; 3) the work of cross-party networks of women; and 4) the rules that govern the functioning of parliament.
The research is based on responses from 272 parliamentarians in 110 countries, and involved personal interviews with 20 parliamentarians. Forty percent of the survey respondents were male.
Although the number of women in parliaments around the world has been increasing steadily over the past decade, in 2008 women still occupied less than 18 percent of all parliamentary seats. Men and women entering politics are deterred by different factors. For men, perceived lack of support from the electorate can discourage their entry into politics, while for women domestic responsibilities are seen as the single most important deterrent. In addition, women face different obstacles to winning a seat in parliament, including prejudice and cultural perceptions about the role of women. Respondents identified the adoption of electoral quotas and the implementation of sensitisation programmes as important mechanisms for overcoming such obstacles.
The survey finds that women parliamentarians have redefined legislative priorities to include women’s concerns and perspectives. In particular, women in parliaments in all regions of the world are at the forefront of efforts to combat gender-based violence. Women have been instrumental in ensuring that issues such as parental leave and childcare, pensions, gender-equality laws and electoral reforms that enhance women’s access to parliaments appear on the legislative agenda. In addition, responses indicate that:
- While many women are also becoming involved in areas traditionally thought of as the domain of men, such as fiscal policy and foreign affairs, women have the least influence on legislation concerning finance, foreign affairs, national security and defence.
- Women remain concentrated in committees that deal with social issues, education, health and family affairs. Such concentration is also true at the executive level. Women held 1,022 ministerial portfolios in January 2008, but only six women held a defence portfolio.
- Eighty-six percent of respondents agreed that greater numbers of women in parliaments would increase women’s influence on political policies and priorities.
- More than half of respondents believe that gender equality is only ‘occasionally’ or ‘rarely mainstreamed’ in parliament. One third of respondents think that gender equality is ‘regularly mainstreamed’.
- By a more than two-to-one margin over their male counterparts, women believe that parliament is still dominated by a gentleman’s club or old boys network.
- Only eight percent of respondents believe there have been substantial changes in the rules and practices of parliament because of the presence of women.
Findings suggest that the number of women in parliament matters because, at the very least, the more women there are in parliament, the easier it is to address women’s issues and to change the gender dynamics in the chamber. In addition, while some men in parliament raise issues of concern to women, more needs to be done to forge constructive partnerships between men and women. Respondents identify several structural changes that could help to promote women’s access to and full participation in parliament. These include:
- Strengthening existing committees on gender equality or caucuses of women parliamentarians
- Changing parliamentary processes and facilities to make them more family friendly
- Conducting more research and training to make parliaments more sensitive to the needs of women and men
- Providing parliaments with more funding for support services and outreach work.