Closing the Gender Gap in Politics



Closing the Gender Gap in Politics

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More than 40 years after the entry into force of CEDAW and 26 years after the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing, progress around women’s full and equal political participation has stalled and gender balance remains a long way off. Women only make up 25% of all national parliamentarians, 36% of local government members, and 21% of ministers.[1] Only 23 countries are headed by a woman Head of State or Government, and States have yet to have a woman leader.[2]

While some countries have made progress towards gender balance in politics, the vast majority are lagging behind. In 114 countries, between 10% and 29.9% of parliamentarians are women, and in 25 countries, women make up less than 10% of parliamentarians. Women account for less than 30% of ministers in 130 countries, 12 of which have no women's representation at all.[3] Gaps in politics persist because of structural barriers and challenges that reinforce discriminatory beliefs, norms, practices, and policies.

In this year’s Agreed Conclusions of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW 65), States agreed to a raise the bar to 50/50 gender balance in all elected positions by taking all necessary measures to break barriers and accelerate progress, including: set specific targets and timelines to achieve gender balance in all branches of government and at all levels through temporary special measures such as quotas and appointments; encourage political parties to nominate equal numbers of women and men as candidates; eliminate, prevent and respond to all forms of violence against women and girls; and develop, fund and implement policies and programmes promoting women’s leadership.

At the current rate of progress, gender parity will not be reached in national legislatures before 2063, and among Heads of Government before 2150.[4] The world cannot afford to wait any longer to achieve equal representation for women. With 50/50 gender balance in politics as a global goal, fast tracked actions are needed to close the gender gap in politics once and for all. 


Following the CSW 65’s outcome, this e-Discussion seeks to raise awareness about the slow progress towards achieving full and equal participation of women in politics and to gather experiences and recommendations on how to best accelerate progress and close the gender gap in politics. Women and men in politics, civil society activists, practitioners and researchers are invited to join this e-Discussion from 11 May to 1 June 2021 by answering the below questions. The submissions will contribute to the elaboration of a report that will augment the knowledge base available on the topic.     


  1. What are the levers of success in countries with high representation of women in politics?
  2. More than half of countries have no temporary special measures, several of which have less than 10% of women in parliament. What can be done to ensure gender balance in politics is achieved in such countries? What role can political parties play?
  3. Women are under-represented in all spheres of public life, including in public administration and the judiciary. What measures do you propose to ensure women have equal representation in all public life sectors?

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[1] Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls: report of the Secretary-General:

[2] Based on calculations by UN Women, as of 1 April 2021.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Women’s full and effective participation and decision-making in public life, as well as the elimination of violence, for achieving gender equality and the empowerment of all women and girls: report of the Secretary-General:

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admin's picture

Contribution posted on behalf Dr Maryse Helbert, Lecturer at Leiden University, College The Hague.

Quotas and Political Engagement:

Although I understand how the conversation on quotas is very contentious, I do believe that only when stringent quotas will be put into place that progress will be made in matters of women's representation in politics. Rwanda in that matter is the best example. When I talk about quotas, I mean stringent rules to implement quotas. In France, for instance, the Parity law was implemented in 2001 with some sort of quotas, but not much progress has been make due to the sloppiness of the law. In other words, if for an election, there is no compliance to the parity law, the list/party should not run for election.

There are many arguments against quotas. One of them that liberal women are running is the conversation on merit. the argument runs as follows: I don't want to be in politics due to numbers but for my qualities.

While I do understand this argument and in some way respect it. First, notion of qualities or merits is very spurious. In other words, what criteria do we use to spot merits.

Second and the best example to highlight the difficulties in putting merits as a criteria to get into politics is Julie Bishop in Australia. Julie Bishop was a member of the liberal party. There is a serious lack of women in politics in the federal government in Australia. However, Bishop was always against quotas in the name of merits. She climbed the different stages of her political party through her merit, she said and she was right. She even became foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Having such a rank, traditionally, is the door to contest the next election as the next prime minister (when the former minister of Bishop party would resign). However, for Bishop, it wasn't the case. The tradition got broken when it was a women at the right place to be the prime minister. Instead, they chose a man. It means that no matter your merit, the patriarchy gets over it.

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Contribution posted on behalf of Tayo Agunbiade, author and researcher at the Nigerian National Assembly, Nigeria

1. Most of the countries that have high representation of women in politics have instituted one form of quota or another. The quotas have come either as legislation or are woven into national Constitutions. 

Recently, Chileans voted for a Consistent Assembly that will have equal number of men and women. Certainly this will guarantee that gender- sensitive provisions that will ensure equality in Chile, will be written into the Constitution. This is a template for other countries to emulate.

Quotas have proven to be an successful instrument to ensure women are included in political party hierarchies, selected as candidates, have seats reserved and have a voice in parliament.

Lets look at a few examples in Africa. In the Inter-Parliamentary Union's Report, the countries with high numbers of women in parliament have legislation in place that creates avenues for women to enter into public decision making institutions. Rwanda serves as the perfect example with constitution mandated reserved seats for women. In West Africa, Senegal sets another example of a more inclusive democracy. Similarly, Namibia and Mozambique are also good instances having over 40 per cent seats occupied by women. My country, Nigeria has one the lowest in the world. Efforts are being made in the National Assembly to enact laws to address this gap. Provisions for quotas as special temporary measure and reserved seats for women are included in the proposed legislation.

2. The countries that have less than 10 per cent of women must devise ways to introduce gender equality into participation in party politics. For example, instead of relying on voluntary party quotas, legislation can be enacted and enforced to ensure parties have a certain number of women on the list of candidates. Non-compliance will attract a penalty from the election- monitoring body.

Political parties must be made to ensure that their structures include decision making and executive posts for women at the top of the party hierarchy including the governing board and are also  part of the candidate nomination and selection process.

The introduction of temporary special measures that will be reviewed over a period of time, have also helped to close the gap in representation in state institutions as successfully practised in several countries. Women form a substantial voting bloc and can use their power to persuade their political platforms to select women candidates for state and federal legislative seats. 

3. Equal representation in public life sectors for career civil servants may be achieved by ensuring a level playing field at entry point into the public service, as well as during the promotion and appointment exercises. 

Elisha Bano's picture

2. More than half of countries have no temporary special measures, several of which have less than 10% of women in parliament. What can be done to ensure gender balance in politics is achieved in such countries? What role can political parties play?

**Providing scholarships for female students to take up Political Science, Law, International Relations or related field. Part of the scholarship would be to intern with organizations, ministries and/or political party to groom them into the positions and help them get into those fields and grow in those areas/fields. This helps them as students to get an education, get in on merit base and we are helping them with the necessary push by aiding them with the required resources.

Prerna Jha 's picture

It is very important that young girls are mentored to harnessing their leadership skills and knowledge. I’m a young graduate who is very interested in politics and leadership but doesn’t know which path to take and also about the opportunities.

admin's picture

Contribution posted on behalf of Mykola Yabchenko, Civil Society for Enhanced Democracy and Human Rights Project, UNDP Ukraine

Quotas and women empowerment in Ukraine

Women account for 54% of Ukraine’s 42 mln. population, but they are underrepresented in politics and have a limited impact on making decisions important for the communities.

The first gender quotas were introduced in 2014 in the Law on political parties where it was stated that either sex should make up at least 30% of the party list. Unfortunately, not all parties followed this norm because there were no penalties for breaking the law and most parties put women at the bottom of their lists. This resulted in only 12% of women in the Parliament of 8th convocation despite 30% gender quota. In 2016 this norm was changed to voluntary, and have additional financing from the state budget for the party which follows the quota was introduced.

There is an ongoing dialogue in the society that there is a demand for more women in politics. Opinion polls demonstrate that more and more people believe that politics is NOT strictly for men. UNDP commissioned Omnibus showed that on average 73% of women and 75% of men will not base their electoral choice on the sex of a candidate. The number of women in politics is also increasing with the society’s perception shift, and 2019 more women appeared in the party lists resulting 20.6% of women in  the Parliament of the 9th.

New election code was adopted by the Parliament in 2019. It establishes 40% quota for the both parliamentary and local elections - each five candidates in the list should have two representatives of the either gender (sex).

As for the representation of women in local self-government bodies. The gender quota introduced by the changes to the Election Code in 2019 worked during local elections in October 2020, but not as effectively as planned. Party election lists feature over 40% of candidates as women, but the percentage of those who made it into their seats is much lower.  Share of women in the oblast, rayon, and city levels have increased - from 15% in 2015 to 27.6% in 2020, from 24% to 34.3%, and from 29.2% to 32.9% respectively. However, the share of women in settlement and village councils decreased to 37.9% (from 46.1%) and 41.3% (from 55.7%) respectively. Open lists resulted in shifting more men to the top of the lists of elected councillors. Experts believe that it might happen due to ongoing decentralization when more power and money goes to the local level and that is why more men are now interested in becoming councillors.

At the same time Ukraine has dropped in the Gender Gap index for 2021 – in the Political empowerment subindex its position moved from 83rd (score 0.171) to 103rd (score 0.147).

UNDP in Ukraine has several initiatives aimed at empowering women in politics. We have conducted an analysis on Women’s political participation and representation at the subnational level (available only in Ukrainian) but some findings were presented in this blog in English

Agata Walczak's picture

A lever of success in countries with high level of women's representation has been a sustainable shift to a culture that normalizes such representation and participation in public and political life. This kind of shift does not happen overnight or by itself. A well-executed political advocacy and broad-based public campaigns for the introduction of a temporary special measure can bring about a political change and be an empowering effort in itself. Likewise, a well-designed TSM can contribute to a longer-term change in 'hearts and minds' needed to normalize equal representation. It would be naive, however, to expect it to drive such change by itself. Several factors must be taken into account.

First, culture change will sometimes take place over a period longer than what's meant by 'temporary'. There are examples of places where the removal of a TSM proved premature and resulted in a reversal in women's representation. To better understand and support sustainable change, there is a need for an objective test as to (1) how to measure success of a TSM, and (2) when it is safe to remove one.

Second, it is important to note that numerical representation mandated by a TSM does not automatically translate into a substantive opportunity for women to take full advantage of elected positions. To be able to thrive in institutions designed by and for men, women must have equal access to resources, education, mentoring and training. Breaking down systemic barriers to representation requires commitment and action that's structural and permanent rather than temporary: elimination of discriminatory and gender-blind social and economic policies, programmes and practices, and a shift to more equal ones.

Commitment on the part of political parties is critical to ensuring both the advancement of women into winnable positions and to empowering substantive equality. Measures such as equality incentives or benchmarks tied to public funding for political parties or limits placed on campaign spending by candidates can be effective in jump-starting the process of achieving equal representation. But to ensure that such advancement is not merely tokenistic and that it not part of real long-term change in the existing power relations, a commitment at the level of values is vital. This requires a fundmanetal reflection among party membership, facilitated by the leadership, as to the need for equality and diversity in politics, and whether and why measures are required at the level of the party's rules and ways of working to promote it.

Ambassador Akua Sena Dansua, Ghana's picture

Q1. To avoid repeating literature on countries doing well with high representation of women in politics, I wish to identify levers contributing to this positive phenomena as historical antecedents, committed political leadership, electoral reforms, strong affirmative action, strong advocacy by civil society organizations (CSOs) including women’ groups, favourable legal, legislative and enforcement regimes, strong collaboration and partnership with men and men’s groups as well as strong media support among others.

Q2. Observations in Q1. are equally relevant here. Political parties were or are supposed to be among levers identified above but unfortunately are rather one of the worst culprits when it comes to enforcement of gender balance in politics. With top- heavy and masculine leadership full of strong and egoistic instincts, these male political leaders are very avers to female inclusion in their leadership for obvious reasons, not to talk about seeing women in higher political leadership such as in Parliament or in Cabinet,where more women will be empowered to challenge men in decision- making and in other spaces. I dare say that the lack of progress made in ensuring gender parity in leadership positions starts from political parties whose mainly male leadership kicks against most innovative policies and programmes initiated by their parties and make politics and the electoral processes so expensive and out of the reach of women. Politics remains the playground of men who will explore any means to raise resources to compete and win positions.

Q3. There should be stronger and continuous advocacy by identifiable stakeholders including women and women’s groups, governance institutions including Parliament backed by strong enforcement mechanisms, media support, more role-modeling, coaching and empowerment programmes in addition to points made in Q1 and Q2.

The primary clarion call after the Beijing Conference in 1995 among others was for at least 30% representation of women in politics and in various leadership positions. Globally, we did not make appreciable progress in this direction due to several factors available in existing literature. I am therefore pleasantly surprised to note that in the CSW65 (2021) Agreed Conclusions, is a recommendation for 50/50 gender balance in all elected positions by “taking all necessary measures to break barriers and accelerate progress” We can only wait with baited breath to see what happens.

It is also worth nothing that in some countries, incumbent political leaders and parties do not engage opposition political parties/ politicians in governance issues. including gender empowerment programmes for obvious reasons an attitude that defeats the good intentions and purposes of such programmes. I had a personal experience last year during the observation of the Beijing+20 commemoration in Ghana. With my strong background and experience in gender activism and empowerment among others as a Beijing Conference attendee, former Parliamentarian and former Minister for Women and Children’s Affairs under whose leadership many innovative policies and programmes were initiated with the the support of the UN Sytems in Ghana, some members of the national planning committee ( UN Staff) nominated me as one of the Speakers, a nomination that was turned down by strong incumbent political forces . I was denied the opportunity to participate and share my thoughts and experiences with younger women who I could have influenced positively to aspire into political and other leadership positions in Ghana.

Consequently, I wish to make a strong recommendation to the UN and its national offices to initiate a process of identifying pools of meritorious and capable women leaders for use as role models, coaches or resource persons either in- country or across region for the desired impact.

Additionally, the UN and other regional and sub- regional groupings such as the AU and ECOWAS should include enforcement mechanisms in their statutes in addition to naming and shaming defaulting countries to propel strong and definitive action in ensuring gender equity or parity in politics in other spheres of leadership.

It is also time for the UN and its Agencies to be innovative by identifying and including a new cadre of younger but equally capable and competent female role models for inclusion in their programmes and activities who young women can relate with easily and emulate in various leadership positions regionally or globally.

Terry Ince's picture

More than half of countries have no temporary special measures, several of which have less than 10% of women in parliament. What can be done to ensure gender balance in politics is achieved in such countries? What role can political parties play?

It is true that more than ham lf of countries have no temporary special measures and less than 10% of women in parliament. It is also true that the political parties in these same countries have a high percentage of women who contribute on all levels within the political party. These women play leadership roles through coordinating events, mobilizing communities and individuals as needed. However, these same women are often reluctant to either step forward themselves, are over-looked or discouraged when they do.

Political parties have an abundance of potential women leaders within their parties, and should be encouraged to develop those future leaders, not in the image of the male leaders. Women should demand that they be seen as treated as equal partners in political parties, instead of keeping with the status quo. Women who are in leadership roles in political parties should be leading the call for more representation - not simply making up numbers, but ensuring women are a part of the development process.

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Contribution posted on behalf of Dr Santosh Kumar Mishra, Technical Assistant (retired), S. N. D. T. Women's University, Mumbai, India.

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