Women in the Executive Branch

A publication by the Coppieters and Josep Irla foundations

Publications / 19.4.21
Women in the Executive Branch

This study written by Sílvia Claveria and published by the Coppieters and Josep Irla foundations proposes a feminist and comparative perspective on women in cabinets. It analyses the presence of women in European governments and asks why the topic is an important one.

What is the state of play?

Even today, gender inequality in positions of political leadership persists, and less than 7% of presidents and prime ministers in the world are women. When it comes to advanced industrial democracies, at the time this study was drafted, only 13% of presidents and prime ministers were women.

In addition, even when women are ministers, they tend to be confined to portfolios that are usually perceived to be “women’s issues”. According to UN Women, on 1 January 2021, out of the 1432 portfolios held by women ministers in the world, 101 were focussed on social affairs, 94 on family/children/youth/elderly/disabled and 70 on women’s affairs/gender equality. In comparison, only 23 were finance/budget portfolios and 29 were defence/veteran affairs.

Why are men overrepresented?

Many factors can explain this imbalance. They can be socio-cultural, such as women’s levels of education, their incorporation into the labour market, or more broadly, how far society considers women to be equal. Overall, inequalities between genders in society are directly reflected in governmental institutions.

Some factors are institutional, like the number of available posts in a government. Small governments indeed tend to be less diverse and give less space to minorities/minoritised groups.

Party organisation factors also play a role. These factors can be formal, such as the ideologies of parties themselves, or the lack of gender quotas. Some others are more informal, like the creation of informal male networks over the years, mentorship of junior men by more senior ones, or more psychological considerations.

Finally, political representation factors come into play. Having more women in parliamentary positions bolsters their political experience and helps them reach important positions in the executive branch. The question of opportunities is also to take into account, as the author of this study stresses that women tend to come in power more in times of crises or when the institutions face uncertainty: what she calls the “glass cliff” effect.

Why should we care about this topic?

The executive is the main player in setting the political agenda and introducing new legislation. Cabinet ministers control substantial portions of the budget and are responsible not only for initiating but also for implementing policy. Yet women are more prone to introduce new gender equality policies, for instance by approving policies granting paid maternity leave, improvements in issues related to gender equality, or to counter violence against women.

The percentage of women in government is also an indicator of the degree to which they enjoy the same opportunities as men in reaching those positions of utmost power, given that political talent is distributed randomly between gender. Thus, the overwhelming and unjustified bias of the over-representation of men is a failure of meritocracy, which is the ideal that some argue is “government by the best”. Including women in executive offices would broaden overall talent and enhance the quality of governance, as shown by the study.

What’s more, and perhaps even more importantly, the exclusion of women from politics, especially from government, discourages women’s political participation as citizens, including through voting, political campaigning or attending meetings on party premises. This is because governing is assumed to be primarily a men’s affair. This ultimately erodes the legitimacy of modern democracies.

To accompany the publication of this book, we have created an animated video to help bring the topic to life. Share it widely to help us spread the word about gender equality in politics!

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This publication and video are financially supported by the European Parliament. The European Parliament is not liable for the content of the publication or the video.

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