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Journal of Democracy 12.3 (2001) 126-140

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Women and Democracy

Cultural Obstacles To Equal Representation

Pippa Norris

Ronald Inglehart


A fundamental problem facing the worldwide process of democratization is the continued lack of gender equality in political leadership. The basic facts are not in dispute: Today women represent only one in seven parliamentarians, one in ten cabinet ministers, and, at the apex of power, one in 20 heads of state or government.Multiple factors have contributed to this situation, including structural and institutional barriers. But what is the influence of political culture?Are attitudes toward women as political leaders a significant barrier to their empowerment? In particular, how important is culture as compared with structural and institutional factors? These are the questions that our study seeks to address.

Despite moves toward gender equality in many spheres, barriers to the entry of women into elected office persist. In June 2000, the UN General Assembly held a special session entitled "Women 2000: Gender Equality, Development and Peace," the latest in a long series of international conferences calling for the empowerment of women. The session focused on the need for full recognition of women's rights and fundamental freedoms, as well as demands for progress toward gender equality in education, health care, work, the family, and the public sphere. Women have mobilized at the grassroots, national, and global levels to [End Page 126] press government agencies and nongovernmental organizations to incorporate these agendas into national programs for action. The World's Women 2000: Trends and Statistics, a UN report,concluded that substantive advances for women have occurred in access to education, health care, and reproductive services, and that there is greater recognition of such human rights issues as domestic violence and sexual trafficking.

At the same time, however, the inclusion of women's voices in politics and government has proved a more difficult challenge. Out of 191 countries worldwide, only nine currently have a woman elected head of state or government. Despite the success of some redoubtable and well-known figures, such as Margaret Thatcher, Gro Harlem Bruntland, and Golda Meir, only 39 states have ever elected a woman president or prime minister. According to the UN report, women today comprise less than one-tenth of the world's cabinet ministers and one-fifth of all subministerial positions. The Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) estimates that worldwide there were about 5,400 women in parliaments in Spring 2001, representing 13.8 percent of all members, up from 9 percent in 1987. 1 If growth at this level is maintained (0.36 percent per year), a simple linear projection predicts that women parliamentarians will not achieve parity with men until the beginning of the twenty-second century.

Although worldwide progress has been slow, the proportion of women elected to the legislative branch is much greater in some regions than in others (see Table 1 on the following page). Women have not achieved equal representation with men in any country. The most gender-balanced parliaments are in the Nordic nations, where on average 38.8 percent of lower-house members are women. Sweden leads the world: Women comprise half of the ministers in Prime Minister Goran Persson's cabinet and 43 percent of the Riksdag, up from 10 percent in 1950. The proportion of women members of parliament is much lower in other regions, including the Americas (15.7 percent), Asia (14.3 percent), non-Nordic Europe (14.0 percent), sub-Saharan Africa (12.5 percent), and the Pacific (11.8 percent). The worst record for women's representation is the Arab countries, where women constitute less than 5 percent of elected representatives and continue to be barred by law from standing for parliament in Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates. Despite official declarations by many countries of the intent to establish conditions of gender equality in the public sphere, in practice major barriers continue to restrict women's advancement in public life.

Several explanations have been offered to account for the continuing dearth of women in political leadership: structural...


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