On January 11, 2013, King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz of Saudi Arabia announced that he is granting women 20 percent quota to the Shura Council, the legislative body that advises the king on matters pertaining to the country. This decision translates into 30 women in the previously all-male body. This decree is seen as the first step, albeit a small one, toward the ultimate goal of women suffrage and guaranteed women’s rights. King Abdullah has further declared that during the next municipal elections in 2015, women will be able to vote as well as run for office. Even with having each country grant women the right to vote, however, barriers still exist that prevent women from being nominated, running for, and being elected for a political office. With a few exceptions, primarily the Nordic countries (Sweden, Denmark, Norway, and Finland), Belgium, and the Netherlands, most states have a long road to cover before women could have an equal chance of being nominated and elected for political office, and specifically for a leadership position, such as the President or the Prime Minister.
Around the world, the numbers of women entering political elections and winning leadership positions are certainly at an all time high. According to the International Knowledge Network of Women in Politics (2013), the percentage of women heads of state is 42% in Europe, 23% in the Americas, 19% in Sub Saharan Africa, 16% in Asia, and 5% in the Arab World. Despite the increased number of elected women during the last several decades, however, it is evident that there is still a huge gap in terms of women’s political representation between countries in which women have the opportunities to advance and countries that still present both formal and informal barriers to women’s empowerment and success in the realm of politics.
Several different approaches have been utilized to examine this persistent phenomenon in attempt to determine the variables with the greatest impact. A plethora of studies in the field focuses on the significant influence of institutional variables, such as the type of the electoral system and the presence of gender quotas in parties’ recruitment process. Others have emphasized the role of structural variables as shaping the likelihood of female presence on the political scene. Some of the variables mentioned in that category often include the socioeconomic status of women and the number of women with professional careers in fields such as law or journalism. And yet a third group of scholars center on the significant effects of political culture on increasing or decreasing women’s chances of running for and winning an election.
While it seems that proponents of the political culture approach have focused on the impact of culture in specific areas in the world, namely the Arab World and other restrictive in terms of women’s rights governments, I think it is of utmost importance to note the impact of culture and attitudes toward women in the developed Western world as well. While some nations, such as the Scandinavian countries, are leaders in respect to female political leadership, others, such the United States and France, are trailing behind. Even when women are in terms of law equal to men and have equal access to political offices, it is clear that beliefs about the nature of women, as not aggressive or rational enough to handle politics, impact the likelihood of women to be elected to higher political offices. In countries in which personal characteristics matter in a potential candidate, women tend to run for office in limited numbers if at all. The United States is a great example. It is clear that the representation in the media of female and male politicians is quite different. It has been argued that masculine characteristics are valued in the realm of politics and women either will not be elected because they are not aggressive enough or will be targeted for not acting as ‘proper’ women if they do behave in what is deemed “a masculine manner”.
If those emphasizing the importance of factors that are part of the formal institutions in a state, such as electoral systems and types of quota, are correct, addressing the issue would be perhaps easier than addressing factors that are part of the informal structure of the state or political culture factors. The impact of personal characteristics and the influence of the traditional culture are hard to bypass and a paradigm shift is necessary for the beliefs and attitudes of those involved to change. More women in politics and a change in the treatment of these women - by other politicians, by the media, and most importantly by the general public - might result in an equal representation. Changing formal institutions, however costly and difficult it might be, is perhaps easier to imagine and implement than changing the informal institutions or the political culture of a state.
If political culture is indeed what determines the likelihood of women running and being elected for office, then the road to addressing and targeting the barriers to such achievements will be hard to travel. If we take the Scandinavian countries as an example, it is well-documented that it took several decades for women to reach the level of high political representation in these countries. And even in these countries complete gender quality in politics has not yet been reached. I am not sure if women in other nations would like to wait decades before such equal representation is achieved. As such, I completely support organizations, such as MissRepresentation, that aim at changing the political culture as well as the beliefs of the general public toward women in politics in the hope of achieving a society in which one’s gender is irrelevant to the job position of a political leader.