Tag Archives: saudi arabia

It’s a man’s world

If you can manage to cast your minds back to that long, long ago time of pre-Christmas and New Year, you might vaguely remember a big climate conference – COP21 – that happened in Paris (ok, technically, Le Bourget, near Paris).

You might remember it because on 30 November, the biggest ever gathering of world leaders turned up to inaugurate the conference – 150, all told.

Look, here they are:


Notice anything?

Ok, I know it’s sort of small and you have to screw up your eyes (what do you expect, with 150 of them; Paris is a popular place to come shopping-slash-planet-saving).

But actually, sorry, there isn’t much point in screwing up your eyes: you still won’t find many.

Many women, that is.

Where are the ladies, in this heart-warming photo of people who run our planet?

(out shopping?)

There are a few – eleven, apparently – but good luck spotting them. And in fact you get nul points for picking out Ségolène Royal, the French Energy and Ecology Minister, who (despite having stood for President herself, and being the mother of the incumbent’s children) does not run France.

But how come? With that hard-to-ignore reality of 50-50 boy-girl birthrates (oh, except in countries where having a baby girl is irritating, and we arrange an abortion after a scan or leave the newborn baby to die or systematically mistreat girls in families if they are allowed to grow up), basic maths suggests should be seeing at least 75 women vying for position in that photo, right?

Alas, no. According to UN Women and as of August 2015, there are only 13 female Heads of State (HoS: in some countries, a representative rather than decision-making role) and 12 women serving as Head of Government (HoG: often a Prime Minister).

So if you add the handful of independent/self-declared countries to the 193 UN member states, that’s about a 10% ratio.

Can you imagine it the other way round?

It’s bizarre: after all, 52% of the world’s population are women. Surely that implies more women voting than men. And, by the by, wouldn’t that also imply an electoral constituency more likely to vote for female candidates?

Well: no, on either count.


… and now for that driving licence

Firstly, without rehashing the suffragettes’ movement, a woman’s ability to vote is still not common currency. Granted, Saudi Arabia finally bit the bullet and allowed women to vote in December 2015, but we’re still not at universal voting rights (thanks to the Vatican city; only cardinals can vote for the Pope … and only men can be cardinals. Because, you know, God said so).

But there is a difference between de jure and de facto voting rights. Just because a constitution confers the possibility to vote doesn’t mean that women know about, or are able to actually post a ballot paper: and in countries where democracy is young or unstable, corruption or poorly organised elections can mean casting a vote doesn’t actually mean… well, casting a vote.

Secondly, research indicates that despite the popular concept of “women’s issues” (for example, a keen interest in which biscuits campaigning politicians eat, according to the BBC) women do not vote as one block – or especially for female candidates.  Voting patterns have moved on from days when housewives and stay-at-home mothers followed their parents’ or husbands’ political preferences.  Now women vote as men do: according to the issues that matter to them individually.

Women don’t necessarily vote for women, either, when a female candidate is actually on offer to them, as this survey found in Israel. Surprised? I’m not, actually. I for one would not automatically base an electoral choice solely on gender (even if that would be an influencing factor for me given a choice between two competent and credible candidates, one of whom was a woman).

(Interestingly, a startling exception to this seems to come in the form of Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right party le Front National.  Le Pen took over from her father in 2011, and since then, there are three times more French women voting for the FN.  Is that because the party has undergone a mainstream makeover, or because its leader is now Madame and not Monsieur Le Pen?)

But of course, it’s not often you get the choice anyway, at least not at national level. In the USA, the electoral gender gap is explained through incumbency (if a man holds the contested seat, it is harder for a woman to run against him); the cost (easier for men to secure the financial support a campaign requires) as well as less media coverage (men being quoted five more times than women in news reports).

It’s difficult for female politicians to get beyond traditional portfolios, too. Only 17% of ministers globally are women, with the majority are still confined to responsibilities for family, education or health, reinforcing perceptions that those ball-/brain-busting areas of economics, defence or diplomacy are best left to men.

Interestingly, even when women are elected, they aren’t necessarily champions of other women. Although research shows women in local government invest in families, health and standard of living, there is nothing automatic about a feminist female HoS/G (who wants to be pigeon-holed as the eternal woman’s advocate?).

Soit. But no taxation without representation, remember: so how do we fix the fact that 90% of world leaders represent only half (ahem, 48%…) of the global electorate?

Through quotas? Obligations for political parties to field female candidates, or for seats themselves to be reserved for women, have done much to increase women’s political participation (look at Rwanda).

But quotas are controversial, as we’ve already discussed; and I think we all agree it’d be tough to impose a global gender-parity leaders’ quota for the world’s 200-odd countries.

Instead, then, it’s about making quotas unnecessary in the first place. Starting with, of course, education (of both girls and boys), and the freedom to form and defend opinions.

Alright. All that opinion-defending has me left me quite tired. Yes, please, to women in politics; I’d like to think my daughter will grow up and not still have to search for female leaders in a UN family photo like a page from her Where’s Wally book.

After all, as new Canadian PM Justin Trudeau responded when journalists asked him why he had  appointed an equal number of male and female ministers in his government:  “Because it’s 2015.”

True dat.