Women are doing better in European politics, but still not well enough

Mette Frederiksen, Prime Minister of Denmark, addressed the media after the first day of the October European Council. [European Union]

Ursula von der Leyen will be the first woman to chair the European Commission and will do it with the most gender-balanced college ever, but even though the participation of women in politics has improved in the EU, it is still not enough.

The new Commission president has made the fight for equality one of her main priorities. Asking member states to provide two names – female and male – for her college of Commissioners was the first step.

Although von der Leyen failed to achieve the goal, as some EU countries did not heed her call, 12 out of the 27 members of the new college are women. On Wednesday (27 November), she took a further step, vowing before the Parliament that her Commissioners would have gender-balanced cabinets as well.

An – almost – parity Commission, however, does not reflect the reality for female political representatives in Europe. Although the situation has certainly improved in the past ten years, it is far from ideal.

The Council of European Municipalities and Regions (CEMR) has looked at how well women are doing in politics across the bloc. At the current rate, the report highlights, it will take 107 years to close the gender gap in politics.

The European Parliament has passed from 15% of female MEPs in 1979 to 40.3% after last May’s elections.

Looking at the different political groups, the Greens are the only family where there are actually more women than men (52,7%), while the leadership is gender-balanced as Ska Keller (Germany) and Philippe Lamberts (Belgium) co-chair the group.

Renew Europe (47,2%), GUE/NGL (43,9%) and the Socialists and Democrats (43,5%) are close to achieving parity. Lagging behind are the far-right group Identity and Democracy (39,7%) the EPP (34,1%) and ECR (32,3%).

However, in the last 40 years, only two women, both French nationals, chaired the EU chamber: Simone Veil (Liberal) back in 1979 and Nicole Fontaine (EPP) in 1999.

Von der Leyen leans on gender balance in quest for Commission presidency

In her first speech before the European Parliament on Tuesday (16 July), Ursula von der Leyen made gender equality a cornerstone of her case to be appointed as the first female European Commission president. And she received support for that from across the political spectrum.

Way behind at local and national level

CEMR’s report analyses the situation in 41 countries, including EU member states but also Albania, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Iceland, Israel, Moldova, Montenegro, North Macedonia, Norway, Serbia, Slovakia, Switzerland, Turkey, and Ukraine.

According to the available data gathered by the organisation, Iceland (46%), Sweden (44%) and France (40%) are the places with more women in politics. But none of them reaches parity.

The average in the EU remains much lower at 34.1%.

Looking at the figures at the local, regional and national level, the situation differs from country to country but Iceland remains the European champion of gender equality in politics.

In Europe, only 15% of mayors are women. There is a small improvement compared to ten years ago when 11% headed local administrations. Both Iceland and Sweden remain at the top, but Finland enters at the third place.

Nevertheless, important EU capitals are ruled by women: Anne Hidalgo in Paris, Femke Halsema in Amsterdam, Anna K. Jerlmyr in Stockholm, Virginia Raggi in Rome or Ada Colau in Barcelona.

The average of locally elected women has slowly but steadily improved from 23.4% in 2008 to 29% this year. This average roughly corresponds to the proportion of women in national parliaments, 26.9%.

Again, Iceland (47%) and Sweden (43%) lead the pack, joined by Ukraine with 42%.

A male-dominated European Council

The first thing someone might notice when looking at any European Council family photo is that it shows a group of white, middle-aged men in dark suits.

Only four women are heads of state or government in the EU at the moment. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel, the Danish Prime Minister Mette Frederiksen, the Austrian chancellor Brigitte Bierlein, and the Belgian Prime Minister Sophie Wilmès are the only female leaders.

And Bierlein and Wilmès are only acting chairwomen until new governments are formed in their countries. Now that von der Leyen has been confirmed as Commission president, there will be one more woman in the picture.

Gender equality is far from being achieved in national politics indeed. Women in parliaments have increased their presence up to 28.5% in 2019, compared to 21.9% in 2008. But this means that not even one-third of political representatives are women.

Finland (47.4%), Sweden (46.1%) and Belgium (42.7) lead the way in national parliaments. Spain top the EU list with 47.4% of female MPs but after the last election in November, it went down to 43.1%.

Gender balance becomes paramount in race for top EU jobs

Initial battle lines were drawn between member states over who will replace Jean-Claude Juncker as European Commission President on Tuesday (28 May) as EU leaders met to discuss “no names, just process”, in preparation for a decisive summit in June.

What’s holding women back

The impediments for women’s participation are often structural, sociological and cultural, CEMR report highlights. Gender stereotypes, structural inequalities – which result in a bigger family burden for women – or even lack of self-confidence as derived from education, can be important factors.

Once in politics, women struggle more to finance their campaigns and often get less media space or, even worse, are the object of stereotypical or even misogynistic treatment that can eventually harm their visibility.

The rise of far-right parties in Europe, who are often defenders of the ‘traditional family’, has resulted in a backslide on women’s rights in many countries. Equality issues are being pushed off the political agenda or their mere existence is being questioned.

This backlash comes at a time where women are raising their voices against the abuse they have suffered for years, particularly thanks to the #metoo movement.

In Germany, according to a survey conducted by the Huffington Post, one in three female lawmakers have experienced sexual harassment. But MPs in France or the UK have also spoken up.

Quotas not a universal solution

Dozen of countries in the world have introduced quotas, either through legislation or internally among political parties. “The countries with quota requirements have experienced greater progress since 2008,” the study reveals.

However, as the barriers for women to access politics are very complex, quotas are not a panacea for solving the issue. “Quotas alone are not enough to overcome the inequalities between women and men in acceding to decision-making positions,” the text highlights.

In her mission letter to Helena Dalli,  the Commissioner for Equality, von der Leyen tasked her with developing a new European Gender Strategy “to address areas in which women still face additional barriers.” Politics seem to be one of those areas.

[Edited by Zoran Radosavljevic]

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