Gender equality and women in decision-making roles

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Is gender equality achieved by increasing the number of women in decision-making roles? A few weeks ago, my boss gave me the assignment to look into the topic. However, it was not a question that I had to answer. It was rather a statement saying “Gender equality is achieved by increasing the number of women in decision-making roles” – and I had to go proof it.

Many things in this world are not just black and white. Do not get me wrong, I would always push for the empowerment of women. And although gender equality can be pushed somehow by having more women in decision-making roles, simply putting a woman in power doesn’t have to bring any change at all. Read my short essay and find out more.

“Gender equality is achieved by increasing the number of women in decision-making roles”

The interests of men and women are different and even conflicting and therefore women are needed in representative institutions to articulate the interests of women. Hence, it is important to have more women in decision-making roles.

Conventions, declarations and international analyses place great importance on the participation of women in public life and have set a framework of international standards of equality. These include the Universal Declaration of Human Rights,[1] the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,[2] the Convention on the Political Rights of Women,[3] the Vienna Declaration,[4] paragraph 13 of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action,[5] general recommendations 5 and 8 under the Convention,[6] general comment No. 25 adopted by the Human Rights Committee,[7] the recommendation adopted by the Council of the European Union on balanced participation of women and men in the decision-making process[8] and the European Commission’s “How to Create a Gender Balance in Political Decision making”.[9] The Council of Europe recommends that the membership of any national parliament include a representation of at least 40 % of persons of each sex. The European Union set similar targets.

The mobilization of women in all parts of government and outside of the state in interest groups, social movements, political parties and other participatory processes allows for women’s interests to be articulated. Broad-based women’s mobilization can be oriented toward challenging and refashioning conventional approaches to policy problems that may close out considerations of gender equality, and toward making claims against the state and governance institutions that may threaten gender equality.[10] In 1995, the Beijing Platform for Action emphasized in paragraph 181 that “women’s equal participation in decision making is not only a demand for justice or democracy, but can also be seen as a necessary condition for women’s interests to be taken into account. Without the perspective of women at all levels of decision-making, the goals of equality, development and peace cannot be achieved.”

In a report, experts agreed that women’s participation in decision-making has implications for promoting gender equality. Firstly, Women have played an important role in writing and amending constitutions that address the issues of gender equality. Two examples for that include the French parity constitutional amendment on equal representation of men and women, and the post-apartheid constitutional drafting process in South Africa. Secondly, most countries have established national machineries for the advancement of women aimed, inter alia at promoting, supporting and monitoring gender mainstreaming, that is, a cross-sectoral approach to integrating gender equality concerns into all areas of public policy. These national machineries, in alliance with women legislators and local and regional women’s movements have made important gains in terms of removing anachronistic and discriminatory provisions from legal codes and promoting women’s rights. Thirdly, thanks in part to some women leaders taking up this issue, the eradication of violence against women in both the domestic and the public sphere has gained momentum as a global movement. The experts also noted that women play a key role in formulating and implementing gender equality policies and mainstreaming gender perspectives, particularly through alliances between national policy machineries, women’s movement groups and women in public office or through the triangle of empowerment.[11]

In 2015, the General Assembly adopted a resolution that includes in its agenda that “[r]ealizing gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls will make a crucial contribution to progress across all the Goals and targets. The achievement of full human potential and of sustainable development is not possible if one half of humanity continues to be denied its full human rights and opportunities. Women and girls must enjoy equal access to quality education, economic resources and political participation as well as equal opportunities with men and boys for employment, leadership and decision-making at all levels.”[12] The resolution states the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The Agenda is a plan of action for all countries and stakeholders, which act in collaborative partnership. The Agenda outlines the new goals and targets that will guide decisions over the next 15 years (from 2016 until 2030). Goal 5 is achieving gender equality and empowering all women and girls. Among others, this includes ensuring women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life.

What are necessary steps to increase gender equality by giving women decision-making power?

Achieving gender equality by giving women decision-making roles includes three objectives. The increase of women’s presence in public life is a valid political indicator. However, these women need to be politically influential. Very important is also the third factor of the likelihood that powerful women will use their influence to increase women’s rights and gender equality is a third objective, which involves a different set of considerations again, for instance about who the women in power are, which interests they prioritize, and whether they are likely to support feminist causes.[13]

Besides a numerical or descriptive representation of women in decision-making positions, which stands for an individual representing a group by the virtue of sharing similar characteristics with the group such as sex, the substantive representation in decision-making positions is at least as important. The latter speaks of individuals seeking to advance a particular group’s policy preferences and interests, without necessarily being a member of the group as defined by sex. Instead the focus is on what the representative is saying/doing and whether he or she is actually speaking/acting for a particular group in terms of the content of their positions and statements in public debates and policy discussions. It is important that representatives, which also include men, speak for women’s interests. Experts in the field have expressed concerns that women who are brought into governance machineries are not automatically able to make any significant shifts in the status of women or policy frameworks addressing women’s rights.

[1] General Assembly resolution 217 A (III).

[2] General Assembly resolution 2200 A (XXI), annex.

[3] General Assembly resolution 640 (VII).

[4] Report of the World Conference on Human Rights, Vienna, 14-25 June 1993 (A/CONF.157/24 (Part I)), chap. III.

[5] Report of the Fourth World Conference on Women, Beijing, 4-15 September 1995 (A/CONF.177/20 and Add.1), chap. I, resolution 1, annex I.

[6] Official Records of the General Assembly, Forty-third Session, Supplement No. 38 (A/43/38), chap. V.

[7] CCPR/21/21/Rev.1/Add.7, 27 August 1996.

[8] 96/694/EC, Brussels, 2 December 1996.

[9] European Commission document V/1206/96-EN (March 1996).

[10] EGM/EPDM /2005/REPORT.

[11] EGM/EPDM /2005/REPORT, paras 78-79.

[12] General Assembly resolution A/RES/70/1, para. 20.

[13] Tam O’Neil and Pilar Domingo, The power to decide: Women, decision-making and gender equality (September 2015)

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