Challenges for women in politics: the glass ceiling - stereotypes in terms of portfolio assignments



Challenges for women in politics: the glass ceiling - stereotypes in terms of portfolio assignments

“The principles of gender-sensitive parliaments can be advanced if women occupy leadership positions as parliamentarians and as key members of parliamentary staff, as they are in a position to influence policy directions, change parliamentary procedure and practices, serve as role models to other women and provide a different perspective in debates”   - Plan of Action for Gender-sensitive Parliaments, IPU, 2013

Women everywhere are breaking the glass ceiling in politics but their voices still go unheard and their contributions are too often sidelined. In many places women are still seen as incapable of taking on responsibility in what are perceived as male-oriented areas, such as finance, energy, economic development, climate change, foreign affairs, defense, trade and infrastructure. This is often the case in parliaments where women are given ‘women’s only’ portfolios or only allowed to sit in women committees and are being pushed away from the other committees because of their gender.

Not just parliaments but all levels of government need to adopt affirmative action measures and amend the internal rules so as to give preference to women over men (according to their capabilities) for decision-making positions (including ministerial positions, committee chairs and leadership positions in the Parliament Bureau) in cases where qualifications are equal or commensurate with their representation in the government.

According to the IPU Plan of Action for Gender-sensitive Parliaments, parliaments need to encourage the proportional and equitable distribution of women parliamentarians across all committees, not just those relating to women, children, families, health and education.

Q1: Should parliamentary committees and ministries be gender balanced (even to the point of appointing a man and a woman as co-chairs in each committee)? Or do you believe that this would increase men’s animosity towards women’s participation? How would you address this?

Q2: Do you agree that affirmative action measures are needed to change women’s participatory and leadership role in parliaments and ministries?

Q3: Does your country have such measures in place? If so, have they proven successful?

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Frances Denz's picture

In the early 1980s a group of Labour Party women decided that they needed to have better representation in Parliament.  Starting at grass roots level there was a decree that each branch had to have a woman committee member.  A second tier of governance within the party was established to make women’s policy - by women, for women.  I became a member of that Women's Council.  Women's policy for women took precedence over other policy unless it conflicted with general policy.  A woman was appointed as the President of the Party - much to the shock of the male dominated party.  Furthermore she managed to garner the votes even though she lived in the most isolated part of New Zealand.  Considerably more women gained seats into Parliament in the following years, mostly because we felt empowered by the changes at the top level.  New Zealand then finished up with a woman Prime Minister - although from a different party, and later a woman Governor General, a woman Finance Minister and a woman Attorney General.  Many people thought we had broken through the glass ceiling.

This was sadly not the case.  Thirty years later we still have very few women on the boards of companies - about 11% on companies listed on the stock exchange - and the whole system is designed to close out opportunities for women.  Having said that, we also do it to ourselves;  we do not support women to achieve success in the business world, which is the new frontier for New Zealand women.  That is our next challenge.

I personally do not agree with quota.  The gate keepers are usually the men, and making them angry and defensive can be counterproductive.  We must become the gate keepers!

We need to develop a number of important components.  These include:

- Develop a thick skin and be prepared to take the hate and anger that occurs when you get a shift in power.  In the eighties I was labeled a witch and was hounded out of my town with threats of violence, bricks thrown through my shop windows and refusal of support by the police and the church.  I left town and took a different route to achieve my objectives;

- Celebrate the success of other women, and our own.  New Zealanders are very reticent and engage in the game of cutting down their "tall poppies" in case they get above themselves;

- Up skill ourselves so we become recognised as the experts in our own fields and learn to argue logically so we are taken seriously by others;

- Develop strong networks that will serve our endgame;

- Have a fund of money available to support women in their election campaign.  This is essential and is possibly something that women from wealthy countries can do for their less well-resourced comrades in other countries.  A few hundred dollars could make a huge difference to whether someone can put their name forward and fight a good battle;

- Teach women how to make policy.  Policy is a jigsaw of items that have to fit together to a larger whole.  Knowing where your ideas fit into the governance of the country is critical;

- Learn "governance" skills and pass them on to your team;

- Have the courage to become a leader.

Good luck to all of you who are going to make change happen in your countries.  It is a wonderful thing to undertake, and can be scary and exciting - and necessary.

Frances Denz. MNZM

CIHAM AC's picture

Good afternoon to those participating in this forum.

My name is Josefina Rios and I’m currently running a civil association called Centro Interdisciplinario Humanista para el Avance de las Mujeres, A.C. We are in Mexico City. We are a newly formed organization created by women with over fifteen years of experience on issues of Gender, Leadership, Citizenship, Public Policy and Human Rights, to name a few of our work areas. We have a great interest in women’s leadership, which has led us to organize workshops for many years, and we want to continue doing them. We believe that it is extremely important to recognize, train, strengthen and promote the social and political leadership of women and that, while there has been progress in many areas, these are not yet sufficient to achieve equity and a greater presence of women in public spaces.

About the subject of this discussion, I want to share my views regarding the context in Mexico City.

Today we can talk about a greater citizen participation of women, a greater number of women showing not only their interest or desire to run for elected office, but also seeking the resources to access them as well as major changes to the electoral procedures, such as quotas. However, things are not going as fast as we would like. Today, there is no equal participation of women in politics and parliaments.

While the presence of women has increased, as pointed out above, women parliamentarians are not part of commissions of strategic interest within parliaments, such as economy, budget, technology, national security, foreign policy, etc. The same applies to the ministries, where three or four women are part of the Government but in non-strategic areas.

As an example, when the current president of Mexico presented his cabinet, I hoped to see a greater number of women, but only three or four women were present. We have women responsible for the areas of Social Development, Tourism and Health, which are the only ones I can remember right now. But their ability to make decisions has been very limited by the president. Until today, in my country, we have never had a woman occupying a strategic secretariat within Government: Interior, Treasury, Defense, Economy, etc. It is very disappointing to see politicians “using” the discourse of "fairness", “equality of opportunities”, “just and equal societies” with no real results to show for it. It is disappointing to see that in the president's public events, he is surrounded by a large number of men, men who applaud and flatter him. I remember the "old days" when the struggles of women were emerging, however today I observe some regression in my country.

There seems to be an implicit message in the fact that the president is surrounded mostly by men, men that are making the important decisions in our country: Energy Reform, Education Reform, Fiscal Reform...  At this point I wonder: Where are the women? Where are the women who have already had experience in the Parliament or in the ministries? I also wonder why women have not learned yet how to build alliances to reduce this inequality?

I think that the fact that the president is surrounded mostly by men while women have little involvement in strategic decision making (including his wife) is a reflection of what men think: that those issues are their exclusive responsibility.

At this point, women have a say only in basic issues, not in the strategic ones. So I think it is extremely important to conduct affirmative actions to challenge and transform the kind of leadership that women are exerting today because even though we represent more than half of the population, our voices, our ideas and our expertise are not visible.

(original comment in Spanish)


Charmaine's picture


In relation to Q1 - my experience working with parliamentarians and their committees is that in fact, it is development partners themselves who are often at fault for targeting women MPs to work on "women's issues" - with the result that many parliaments then decide that the remaining committees/issues are the purview of the male MPs. This results in an already marginalized group of MPs being responsible - and looking self-interestedly so - for promoting and protecting women's rights. We need to learn from that approach and improve our own advocacy. That said, all committees should be as gender balanced as possible - noting the limitations though, of having smaller numbers of women MPs in all parliaments, except Rwanda. In reality, many parliaments simply do not have sufficient women MPs for it to be practical to have women on all committees or women as co-chairs of all committees (see for example, the Pacific which has 2 Parliaments with no women and 5 Parliaments with only 1 woman MP each). 

In relation to Q2 - lessons learned around the world support affirmative action for women, both in the legislature and in the public service. There clearly is a glass ceiling and such measures are necessary to enable women to break through. That said, we should focus on TEMPORARY special measures - noting that quotas should never been seen as permanent, but as a temporary "quick fix" while we continue to work away on addressing more complex cultural/social reasons for women's challenges in breaking through to public leadership positions. As an advocacy approach, I have found that it is particularly useful to talk about the importance of quotas resulting in "role models" for other women - seeing even a handful of women in parliament encourages other women to feel that it is possible for them to be in similar leadership positions. Conversely, I have pointed out to many MPs that quotas are also helpful because where women may look at male-dominated parliaments and feel that they have little chance of ever winning a seat (especially in countries with "big men" cultures), if they know that they will only be competing against other women, they may feel that they have a better chance and will be more willing to take the risk of running for election (noting full well that they will have to expend time and financial resources on campaigning and possibly even their job if they work in the public service). 



alykan's picture

Hi, I'm Alicia from Santiago de Chile and I’m currently at the University of Santiago de Chile.

Regarding Q1, parliamentary committees and ministries should be balanced from a gender perspective, men and women should have the same choice and opportunity to be elected for their skills and abilities related to the responsibility that corresponds to the given position. The situation in my country where women have little access to positions of responsibility is due to a culture that confines women to their private space, even today. Secondly, political parties undermine the possibility of women to run in a given election. Women often suffer from a lack of financial support for campaigning – a problem that men do not have.

Rather than having a man and a woman as presidents of parliamentary committees, I think they should be elected for their capacities. Women should be encouraged, motivated, supported and empowered to become representatives and to occupy political positions. The media have an important role in this matter. Women are under-represented in the media; therefore, journalists should collaborate in the political visibility of women.

What happens in Chile with women politicians is similar to what happens in all Latin America.

Finally, how to encourage women’s social and political leadership? How to contribute to an increased awareness that women are able to occupy decision making positions?

My country has had a female president, Michelle Bachelet, and now she is running for president in the 2013 elections. She contributed to cultural changes in society towards gender issues; however those changes are still insufficient.


Teresa Salazar's picture

My name is Teresa Salazar Dávila, I am from Peru and I live in Lima. I have experience in Peruvian Syndicalism and I am currently a militant in a political party. In our case, for more than 20 years, we have taken account of Equality and Gender Equity issues into our agenda and when I joined the party Todos Por el Perú, it was the only party that respected gender quotas for parliamentary lists for Congress and the Andean Parliament, which did not happen in other political parties which ignored the law. We believe that, just like it happens in Peru, the quota law is unknown or it not being applied correctly. Our Congress should apply gender equality at all levels, such as in committees and voting participation... Gender mainstreaming must be established not only by a given rule, but also by political parties themselves as they are spaces of democratic decisions. Therefore, we believe that awareness among men and women must be raised for those who do not pay attention to quotas. Congratulations to all participants, to the ones that are giving their input as well as to the organizers of iKNOW Politics for this forum. We hope it will be successful. Thanks.

(original comment in Spanish)



OmowumiAsubiaroDada's picture

Q1: Should parliamentary committees and ministries be gender balanced (even to the point of appointing a man and a woman as co-chairs in each committee)? Or do you believe that this would increase men’s animosity towards women’s participation? How would you address this?

Yes, all positions at all levels and within all arms of government should have equal representation of the two sexes that make up the human race- male and female. However, we should recognise that this may not lead to a gender responsive parliament/executive. As Charmaine noted, it may not be possible to have women chair or co-chair every committee in the parliament. Take for instance the Nigerian parliament made up of 2 chambers- House and Senate. There are about 80 committees in the House and about 70 in the Senate. Meanwhile, there are only 24 women out of 360 members in the House and only 8 women out of the 109 senators in the Senate. It would be practically impossible to have women chair or co-chair all these committees. I think what is most important is while ensuring visibility of women within the leadership structures of any arm of government (whether parliament or executive), we should also ensure we are strategic enough to implement initiatives that will make both male and female parliamentarians custodians of gender equality principles. It is double jeopardy for only female parliamentarians/legislators to be saddled with the responsibility of gender equality and women's empowerment. It should be a societal cause. 

These initiatives could be advocacy efforts to advance the leadership of women in legislative structures or to have a mechanism that can engage with the whole parliamentary/legislative structures and make them gender responsive.

In  Nigeria, civil society, development partners and the Parliamentary committees on women affairs established the Gender technical Unit which is physically located within the Parliamentary complex. The gender Technical Unit is saddled with the responsibility of not only building the capacity of female parliamentarians to deliver on the job but to ensure that gender responsiveness is mainstreamed into ALL legislative processes. GTU does this by providing one on one training to female legislators and recruiting male gender champions who are opinion leaders in the two chambers. Other ways are engagements with the legislative processes/structures. One good example was the involvement of the Unit in the review of the House rules/House Standing Orders. The Unit submitted to the review committee the need to have house rules that can ensure parity in representation of committee members. Although the recommendation was not taken by the review committee, the engagement paved way for other engagements/advocacy efforts (the first advocacy visit to the newly elected Speaker with a demand for more visibility for women in committees amongst other things) which led to more women being given choice committee such as Foreign Affairs, Aviation (just to mention a few). 

Therefore, advocacy efforts is very critical and especially at strategic times when positions are to be shared or appointed within any arm of government. 

I think female parliamentarians should also ensure they contest for legislative leadership positions so as to be among the first 6 in the House/Senate. The woman who contested for Speakership of the House (Hon, Mulikat Akande Adeola) became the first female Leader of the House. 

Q2: Do you agree that affirmative action measures are needed to change women’s participatory and leadership role in parliaments and ministries?

Yes AA measures are required. Without AA policies/laws, it has become difficult for women to climb into any leadership positions in Nigeria. However, we also do not have any law on Affirmative Action so the journey has been arduous. The measures are needed because there are other systemic causes of low representation of women in public life and this involves changing of mind set which is a transformational and generational task. Before this can achieved, an interim measure of affirmative action policy or better still law will be useful.

Q3: Does your country have such measures in place? If so, have they proven successful?

Nigeria has the National Gender Policy which stipulates 35% affirmative action for women in all positions. However, this is just a policy document and it has been very difficult to hold government responsible to it. Also, some political parties have some policy statements that give specific positions to women within the party structures but this has been noted as very tokenistic in nature. 

I think for a country like Nigeria where political parties still remain the only legitimate route for either elective or appointive positions, it may be more strategic to get more women into political parties as authentic card carrying members of the party and mentor them to vie for positions within the parties. Often, the decision of who becomes a minister or which individual gets a party ticket to contest for elections is determined by the party leaders. Because women are in very small numbers in their hierarchy, they often lose out in appointments and elections. Interestingly, even within the parliamentary structures, the party has a huge influence on the parliamentary/legislative leadership composition and if women are not in decision making positions within the parties, they cannot have a say in what the party determines for the legislative houses/chambers. 

Indra Biseswar's picture

Hello everyone. My name is Indra Biseswar (PhD) and I worked for 10 years in Ethiopia and 2 years in Uganda, mostly on gender issues.

Q1: I affirm the approach to have a gender balance in parliamentary committees and ministries for many reasons. At first it is not only a demand from various regional and international bodies, but mostly a must in this 21st century. It is outrageous to continue excluding half of humanity in the democratic process and development of a country at large. Women have made tremendous strides and caught up centuries of exclusion and ignorance in just the past 50 years. A country should be ashamed to call itself democratic when it fails to include the potential of half of the population. The competitive economic development of many African countries is often built on the backs of women working more than 14 hours a day to keep society floating, especially in times of distress (wars, natural disasters, ethnic conflicts, and so forth). Patriarchal ideologies, at times, prevent women from realizing their potential and claiming their rights. Patriarchal dominance is constructed in such ways as to keep them incapacitated (a historical process) through the use of sexism, harassment, discrimination, stereotypes and so forth.

If gender balancing in ministries and parliament committees would mean an increase of animosity among men toward women, I would say we have to confront those and challenge it from all angles. Countries that have signed CEDAW, the African Charter on Human and People's Rights and many more cannot hide under the shields of ignorance and culture. Culture itself is not static. Men cannot continue using ancient practices and beliefs (that were time bound where illiteracy was high) against women's mobility in modern times, while they have freed themselves.

Q2 and Q3: I always agree on affirmative measures in circumstances where it is hard to get women in political decision-making. Affirmative measures come in different types and overall depend on the good-will of the ruling party or regime. This often leads to the opposite than what is envisaged.

The case of Ethiopia: When the party leaders (mostly men) or the government (also men), impose policies of affirmative measures to increase the enrolment of women, we note the expectation of loyalty and adherence to the party rules. Outspoken women are often co-opted and silenced. Affirmative action measures work against women and create humility and muteness. Most women entered politics because of the government's affirmative actions. Many are political loyalist and belong to the ruling party. They entered politics not to rock the boat, but for their career. Many of these women are also expected to represent the country's women at all levels abroad. However, the majority among them have no clue what gender issues are (lack of training and education in the field). Being a woman is often taken as sufficient to represent the interest of women in the country with disastrous outcomes. The current situation is the monopolization of gender and women's rights agenda by the ruling party's women's ministry (after harshly silencing and repressing all civil society activism in the field).

The ruling party (EPRDF-TPLF) tried to implement the recommendations from CEDAW and other international and regional treaties on affirmative action measures. In reality, this has turned into an instrument of self-interest, showing the international community its good intentions while keeping the women suppressed. Because these forms of affirmative action measures are only used as a showcase, they lack sustainability. When the party will leave, so will the women and their posts. The opposition parties in the country, regrettably, have not embarked on affirmative measures to get women on board or even think of a gender programme on their election agendas. Perhaps they will also do so only when they come to power!

In order to remain vigilant on the the enrolment and increase of women in politics, the role and activism from civil society women organizations is crucial, for they are the only ones that can turn the tables. They can advance strong civil society women leaders to enter politics and keep them there through continuous consultation, mentoring, support and training. This will not only make those political women more assertive and outspoken, but also increase their political knowledge ability and contribute to the sustainability of women in politics. With civil society organizations banned and working on issues of (women's) rights a crime in Ethiopia, this might as well be an illusion.


anamaria's picture

In my country, Bolivia, we have female presidents in the two legislative chambers as well as some female ministers in the government. But Bolivia's society is still sexist, since there is no parity in real life and many women have to work under men's shadow to continue working in politics. As a woman it is often difficult to pay campaign costs; sometimes it is an unfair fight conducted by women against other women. The lack of political education or the impossible fight against corruption are some other factors preventing more women from participating in politics. We will be able to become successful and achieve real gender equality in politics only by remaining united, empowering ourselves and fighting for our values.

(original comment in Spanish)

africanwoman's picture

As a former female Senator in Nigeria, the few female parliamentarians got what they lobbied for in terms of parliamentary committees.  The important factor was political party affiliation and degree of interest by others in the particular committee and level of support for the senate leadership when they contested for their posts...

The main discrimination was in discussion on the floor. There were issues that were considered "women's issues" which practically every woman was called to comment on even if she didn't indicate she wanted to.  If the issue was considered serious and "male" and a female raised her hand she was generally ignored. With so few women in many parliaments I am not sure you can balance portfolio by gender. 

Red de mujeres por la Democracia's picture

I'm from Bolivia, my name is Sandra and I think that in my country the current laws are totally clear. Gender parity is established at a 50% for men and women at all levels: local, regional and national.

Next year we have elections in Bolivia, and hopefully political parties will follow the rules. However, the problem is not about implementing positive action measures as Bolivia already has laws regulating gender equality. What we need is the economic empowerment of women so they can really get to the decision-making positions. I believe that we should work more on training and getting financial resources for them. Once that is accomplished, we will have a real chance to reach decision-making positions and power.

(original comment in spanish)

susanacampari's picture

In Argentina, women’s representation at the legislative level is the highest in Latin America; the laws regulating gender equality are being followed.

However, I do not think that’s enough because having more women does not necessarily mean that they are able to fight for a gender agenda in long-term policies. The democratization of political parties is still a pending issue, especially in the interior provinces of the country, where it is clear that policies implementing gender equality are weakest.

(original comment in spanish)


Jerusaambira's picture

Women are working hard to assert themselves in the political arena. However, cultural beliefs have led to gender stereotyping. This has left the woman emerging as the victim of this phenomenon while the man takes an upper place not withstanding his academic and professional qualification.

In Kenya the current and most recent constitution stipulates that in all appointments, not more than two thirds of the appointees should be from the same gender (note from the same gender). But a one third ceiling has been fixed for women. The cabinet of eighteen secretaries for example has six women. Our supreme court of seven members has two women and this is the scenario at all levels of government and political appointments. We see a spirited effort to keep women at a third, right from the national to the county level. One county governor did the reverse by appointing a cabinet that had majority women and he was threatened with removal from office by county assembly members.

Men and women go to the same learning institutions and acquire the same academic and professional qualifications by competing equally. There is no reason why women should not hold the same portfolios in equal measure. Leadership positions in all areas including parliamentary committees and ministries should be gender balanced. Chairmanship of parliamentary committees in Kenya is not gender balanced. I need to point out here that most of our constitutional commissions are chaired by men. The same goes for the parliamentary committees, with some having a chair and vice chair who are men. Here we see a case of a ceiling which has been fixed to imply that chairmanship is for men. This kind of stereotype hinders the women's struggle for gender equality.

Gender balance would not create any kind of animosity towards women if it is unilaterally applied by all departments. It would give women the strength and power to fight for their rights and eventually the men will learn to live with the reality of gender balance. The kind of animosity we see now is because no country has the political will to practice gender balance in portfolio assignments.

While affirmative action measures would change women’s participation and leadership role in parliament and ministries, cultural beliefs remain a great hindrance. In Kenya we have 42 different communities. Some of these communities still believe the place of a woman is in the kitchen. The women are also entrenched into these beliefs so much so that they cannot step out to be counted and compete for the various political opportunities. In some cases one hears male leaders appealing to the women to come out and go for the positions available. The introduction of the county woman representative to parliament is what has seen some of these communities have a woman in parliament since its mandatory. However, it came with challenges since men from such communities had to be persuaded to mark the ballot paper to elect a woman representative to parliament with most of them declaring that they had no business voting for a woman. In Kenya we appreciate the effort the government is making to empower women. But it is worth noting that most women are still waiting for the government to bring "this and that". My take is that women have to rise up and go for leadership positions even where affirmative action measures have not been put in place.



franciscojaviersalinas's picture

“The principles of gender-sensitive parliaments can be advanced if women occupy leadership positions as parliamentarians and as key members of parliamentary staff, as they are in a position to influence policy directions, change parliamentary procedure and practices, serve as role models to other women and provide a different perspective in debates”   - Plan of Action for Gender-sensitive Parliaments, IPU, 2013

This is what it says in the first paragraph, so, I wonder, when a woman becomes mayor of the city, call herself what she might, and that same woman is the first one that does not know or does not care to enforce gender equity, what can we do? Already, when she took office and was asked if there was gender equity in her cabinet, very sure of herself, she said "I AM THERE", when in her cabinet she was the only woman…

In questions put to her in relation to how many women are working in the municipality, she replied: WE HAVE ALMOST 40% of women, and this is true, but she never specified that these women were employed at very low levels, never in leadership positions or let alone in positions of medium responsibility.

The advancement of women in politics is very slow here in Mexico and slower even when it’s a woman herself who creates the biggest obstacles to having more women in power.

In our parliament in the State of Guanajuato, Mexico, there are 36 Members of Parliament in total, of which only 8 are women, even though the law stipulates that there must be 40% women. A user has asked in several forums why parliaments don’t have 50% women to guarantee a real equity. I hope that our legislators do not go the same way as the mayor I referred to in earlier paragraphs.

If partial equity exists, and it has been achieved through several women wanting a real change of culture, then here goes a big Congratulations to those women who struggle and have given their lives to defend political and human rights.

(original comment in Spanish)