Sarah Palin inspires EU gender campaigners

‘Females in Front’, a campaign that seeks to boost women’s representation in the European Parliament and other EU top jobs available next year, has embraced Sarah Palin, John McCain’s running mate for the US presidency, despite her long-standing opposition to abortion.

The 50/50 campaign was launched yesterday (16 September) in Brussels in the presence of Margot Wallström, the Commission vice president in charge of institutional relations and communication strategy. 

Although women attending the event tended to support the Democratic Party, they welcomed Sarah Palin’s nomination as the Republican candidate for US Vice President. 

Emma Bonino, a former European commissioner who is now vice president of the Italian Senate, said she “doesn’t like” Sarah Palin but was nevertheless pleased that a woman had now joined the US presidential race. 

“I regret that the Democratic side did not choose any woman,” Bonino added. 

Wallström said the European elections in June 2009 provide a unique opportunity that should not be missed, particularly as they will take place at more or less the same time throughout the EU, providing an opportunity to mobilise people with a common objective. But to generate support, the campaign would also have to rely on national political parties, she admitted. 

Wallström also pointed out that women, who represent half of the electorate, are under-represented in the EU institutions. Only a third of MEPs are female and Wallström herself is one of just nine women in the 27-member Commission. 

But she said in many EU countries the balance was often worse, with the exception of Spain, where for the first time, the Socialist government of Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero appointed more women than men (nine to eight). It was also noted that the Spanish government was far ahead of others, pushing for legislation which targets not only equal numbers of women in elected office but also the corporate sector. 

Spanish Minister for Equality Bibiana Aido said women traditionally represent values which are recognised today as necessary for leadership. She cited teamwork, flexibility, readiness to learn and sensitivity to situations among these. 

But speakers did not all agree that women are more apt than men at becoming leaders. “Possibly we are not better [than men],” she said. “The difference is [men] do think they are better,” Bonino said. 

Positions

Emma Boninovice president of the Italian Senate, said she was "almost the only one left in Europe who stands against quotas" intended to increase the political representation of women. "I don't want a society of quotas, I want a society of individuals." 

"I do accept quotas as a temporary measure when you are in a catastrophic situation," she added, referring to her experience as an observer to the elections in Afghanistan. But "imposing legislative quotas is not the right way to go, it should rather be in the level of political parties," she said. 

Bonino also argued that if the political parties indeed want gender parity among their candidates, they should feature women higher on their lists. "We don't need parity in disaster, we need parity in success," she said. 

MEP Diana Wallis (UK, ALDE), said, with some irony, that men in the European Parliament are tempted by "boys' toys", while women are more practical and often more successful at achieving results. But the fact that women keep a low profile is to their disadvantage, she added. "When we choose our parliamentary committees, there tends to be a stampede of men to join the Foreign Affairs Committee. And I always find this extraordinarily strange because actually the Parliament has very little power in the matter of foreign affairs. Women go to the legislative committees where you can make a difference, but unfortunately we're always making a difference in the shadows," she deplored. 

MEP Zita Gurmai (Hungary, PES) argued that the initiative to have women in 50% of EU's top jobs was a cross-party one and has no political colour. Nevertheless, she strongly commended PSOE – the Spanish Socialist Party - for taking the lead in promoting parity in the government. She also appealed for support for the "send2women" campaign to elect women to two of the four top EU jobs following the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty. 

Background

Gender quotas to increase the political representation of women have been introduced by law or by political parties in many countries across the world, with Europe at the forefront of the trend. 

But the introduction of quotas did not significantly raise the number of women in national parliaments across the EU, according to a recent study by the European Parliament. In 1998, 15.2% of the parliamentary seats in the EU countries were occupied by women, while today the figure has increased only to 21.1%. 

In fact, quotas do not seem to be the panacea. In Finland, where no gender quotas exist, 42% of women were represented at the last elections (second only to Sweden, with 47.3%, where party quotas exist). Slovenia, with a legislative quota, has a mere 12.2% women's representation, and Romania and Hungary, with party quotas, respectively 11.5 and 10.4%. 

Further Reading

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