The first point is perhaps the easiest to deal with. Women should of course have equal representation in parliaments because it is fundamentally unfair otherwise. Equal representation would mean that both men and women had equal access to politics and political parties, to election lists and, if the electoral law is correctly and fairly applied, it would be statistically likely that a balanced representation would be achieved.
The second point is also easy to grasp. Parliaments should mirror society, and better decisions are made, and policies determined, by capturing the needs of both male and female citizens. Take the important issue of gender budgeting.
Today many disparities and inequalities between the genders appear to have become embedded, to a greater or lesser extent, in the baseline of public policies and the allocation of public resources. The negative impacts of this legacy are evident across many policy domains, including the labour market, education and health, as well as gender disparities in management and leadership.
In recent decades, much work has been done to promote ‘gender mainstreaming’, i.e., designing all public policies with gender equality in mind. The 2015 OECD Recommendation on Gender Equality in Public Life set out a multi-dimensional approach for advancing gender equality as a core principle of modern public governance, including the promotion of gender-responsive policies, gender budgeting, and closing the gender gap in public leadership and public employment.
Gender budgeting is used to identify the impact of public policies on both women and men. If, for example, a government was seeking to reduce the cost of public transport, it might look at cutting a particular route or reducing service at particular times of the day. But it would also assess how any proposed changes might in fact create a bigger problem, say, for working women, who might have a greater need of public transport to get to work outside of ‘rush-hour’ timetables or to different parts of a town or city. By adopting this approach, and mirroring the needs of the society they represent, they achieve the dual satisfaction of delivering gender equality within a required budget. Extending this concept into other areas of policy making, and future laws and regulations on health, child-care, parental leave etc would enormously benefit from a balanced contribution of men and women to the decision-making process.
The third good reason why a more balanced representation of women in parliaments is needed is in relation to role models. Role models provide inspiration to others. They demonstrate what is possible, not just in a political career but also in other public service or professional endeavours. This is why it is important to not only monitor and talk about representation in parliaments but also to apply the proper social pressure to ensure a growing number of women are represented.
Some countries have opted to introduce quotas to address the imbalance of female representation. Others, like Italy, have created electoral mechanisms that on the surface should guarantee a 50:50 split, but in practice are easily by-passed. This is especially disappointing, since on the one hand it suggests an authentic commitment to improving equality, while in reality it delivers nothing of the sort, and neither do they appear ashamed by it.
Ensuring women are equally represented in democratic parliaments worldwide should not be something a country can play around with. Supporting women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life is, after all, essential to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals by 2030 that those countries have committed to. But true equality will only be achieved if it is made a priority, and because the benefits of doing so are clearly communicated and understood. Only that way can we accelerate the process and produce visible results.