Expert: Lack of Women in Politics Is Down to Parties, Not People


There were three different news stories this week with a common theme. First was the news that Estonia will get its first ever female finance minister, the second the World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index, and the third a whole array of articles about women who have decided to run in the upcoming parliamentary elections. The common denominator here is women in politics.

First was that the prime minister chose Maris Lauri to become the next finance minister. If her candidacy gets the seal of approval from the president, the number of female government ministers will rise to a record six. That is almost half of the total 13. The closest Estonia has ever come to such numbers before was in 2002-2003, when the government of Siim Kallas included five female ministers. The more recent governments have only had one or two, and once three, female ministers. So the government of Taavi Rõivas will go down in the history books.

The second news item was not so pleasing. The World Economic Forum's Global Gender Gap Index ranked Estonia not so glorious 62nd of the 142 assessed countries. The situation could be worse: it placed 88th in terms of political empowerment. Whereas Estonia has gotten used to being among the top dogs in all sorts of international rankings, the gender gap index does not even label us European; we were outstripped by a number of African and Latin American countries.

I compared the rankings with the European Gender Gap Index and there, too, Estonia was among the last third in terms of empowerment. To be more precise, of the 28 EU member states, we are 9th, when you count from the end.

And the third item - the string of news about renowned women entering politics - gives us new hope that come next year, we can leave countries like Zimbabwe and Guyana behind. Three well-known women have recently announced that they will run for Parliament. Although all parties are currently looking for new faces, all three have decided to join the ruling party.

One could ask if it is really all that simple, just get the women to run and the gender gap will magically decrease. The electorate is generally held to be the toughest filter to make it through to the parliament and the social stereotype says that in Estonia politics is a man's world. This is, however, not quite true. Along general lines, who will secure a seat in the parliament is determined by three key factors:

- perceptions and attitudes prevalent in the society, which dictate whether women will want run in the first place

- political parties as "porters," who decide which of the candidates get a top positions in the party lists and who features more prominently in the election campaigns

- the electorate, who have the final vote

Both the theory and practice show that women who occupy top spots in the party lists - that is, positions where they stand a better chance of gaining a seat in the parliament (in Estonia this means being among the top three in regional and having a high position in the national list) - do get elected.

Let's look at the 2011 elections. A simple analysis shows that the parties that had more women occupying the top positions also got more female members elected to the parliament. Differences were substantial back then. The Center Party had most female candidates in the top three of their regional lists and the top twenty of the national one. So the Center Party faction also has the largest percentage of women with 27. Follow the Social Democrats with 21, IRL with 17 and the Reform Party with 15. With elections approaching fast, perhaps the Reform Party finally has a reason to change this.

It is, therefore, incorrect to say that the electorate simply sees politics as a man's world. Parties' reluctance to see women as necessary and important political players has been a much larger hindrance to greater empowerment. Fortunately, it seems that things have started to change for the betterand the "porters" are finally adapting to new rules and realities. People have shown that the lack of women politicians is not their doing.

Annika Uudelepp is the Director of the Board of the Praxis Center for Policy Studies.

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