The proportion of seats held by women in national parliaments has jumped from a little over 11% in 1997 to over 23.6% in 2017 (1). It might seem like a mighty development but the total percentage of the global female population is nearly 50%, rather far from representation. Numerous studies are being poured into the area of ‘women in politics’. Female Leaders from Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Sonia Gandhi to Angela Merkel, Theresa May, Hillary Clinton, Aung San Suu Kyi are being discussed globally and their leadership styles being assessed.
The general conception is that there IS a difference between men and women in politics, but how far does this difference go?
Do women vote differently?
During the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2006, critics argued that she was playing the ‘woman card’ and trying to win ‘woman voters’. In truth, there are no women voters. Women also vote, like all voters, based on policy issues or personal preferences that range beyond gender. This was evident in a majority of white women voting for President Donald Trump. Earlier research from the 1960s indicates (2) that women tended to vote more conservatively, perhaps given their lack of participation in the workforce and thus lack of involvement in trade unions and so organizations that were generally regarded as the left. Newer research (3) outlines the erosion of ‘traditional values’ where more women were now voting for leftists parties. This voting behavior splits between Western and Eastern European societies; in the latter women still tend to vote more conservatively, which might be because of the patterns of industrialization and the pace of induction of women into the workforce.
The problem is that the ‘gender gap’, not only in politics but in most realms of everyday life, is treated in isolation and so politicians and parties might be led into believing that women will vote for women who seem more conservative, motherly, compassionate or involved strictly in women issues. For example, Kirsten Gillibrand, among other female contenders, has announced her bid to run for the 2020 US elections as the democratic party re-brands itself as ‘the party of the women’. Gillibrand is campaigning on issues of sexual assault and sexual assault allegations, and the #metoo movement, however previously she was also found in equal support of and against gun regulation, anti-immigration and corporate interests. All of these issues may be of equal or no importance to different women voters, the party’s strategy of trying to target ‘women voters’ through focusing on strictly women issues shows a narrow understanding of women in politics and the issues that women voters can actually care about.
Is it then, that there are different expectations from women when in politics?
In a poll, around 38% of Americans agreed that women politicians are held to standards higher than male, with more women agreeing than men (4). At the same time, another study (5) found that two-thirds of people believe it’s easier for men to get into politics than women, again, with more women agreeing than men. Most people cited their reason as the requirement for women to prove themselves, which is greater than for men. People tend to believe that men and women have different leadership styles strictly due to their gender. Voters and politicians alike expect women leaders to be more empathetic, compassionate and more likely to compromise. On the other hand, when women politicians are seen as tough, they are almost always stripped of their femininity.
Is it difficult for women to get into politics?
Yes. What does that lead to, though? The amount and type of effort that women community leaders, MPs, or politicians, in general, might put into campaigns, community engagement is different.
However, once in power, are women and men that different?
According to most of the indicators on a woman’s journey to power so far, it seems yes. But historical evidence says otherwise. Women in politics, in policy-making, in making decisions on war, in corruption scandals, have not been so different from men.
Aung San Suu Kyi, was revolutionary in bringing democracy to Myanmar, something her father was not able to do, but she also succumbed to military pressure. Her decisions and the choices available to her were not related to her gender. Benazir Bhutto was revolutionary in her fight against military dictatorship in Pakistan but like her opposition Nawaz Sharif, she did not shy away from using the same political tactics to oust him from power, like most politicians in Pakistan, despite everything to do with democracy, she left her party (Pakistan People’s Party) to her son’s leadership when he comes of age, in her will. Hillary Clinton spoke of waging the same wars that Obama had been waging for years. Granted Donald Trump did not prove to be a better candidate, and gender was one of the major issues picked up in the US election 2016, Clinton, if elected president, was expected to govern like one, her being a woman would not change major US policy interests.
Does that mean politics is inherently patriarchal and women, once in leadership roles, abide by the very patriarchal structure they tore through to reach there? A reductionist view would say yes. A comprehensive view might suggest that power and politics do not abide by gender rules. If there are no kind, compassionate male politicians, why is there the expectation that women politicians will be different?
What sounds like the appreciation of women in politics; women are more empathetic, less competitive, less likely to go to war, is actually saying that women aren’t equipped to run the state.
Women are part of the same evolutionary game that men are, society and social structures might have changed the rules for each gender but the end goal remains the same. The popular assertion which has since been discredited many times but is still widely in use, ‘men are from Mars and women from Venus’ doesn’t just say we’re different, it implies that we must be kept in separate in spheres. The idea comes from prehistoric times when the male species’ larger size equipped it better for certain tasks and the female for others but times have changed, vastly changed, and politics involves words, communication and often manipulation, that has nothing to do with anatomy. Anthropologist Sarah Hrdy in her book, ‘The Woman who never evolved,’ highlights the idea that female primates were just as ‘competitive, independent, and sexually assertive.’
Whatever differences exist, do because of differences in experiences; women politicians might be more likely to introduce women empowerment and women protection laws but that’s about it. The idea that women leaders will make the world more peaceful or politics less dirty is too naive, puts too much responsibility on women, and holds an insufficient understanding of politics. This does not mean politics should be left to men, but that it should provide equal opportunity to all regardless of gender and hold all genders equally accountable.