We need more women in politics

For Israeli and British initiatives encouraging women's representation in office to be effective, the roadblocks they face must be examined.

Tzipi Livni 311 Ariel J (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tzipi Livni 311 Ariel J
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Increasing the representation of women in politics has always been a difficult issue. In the 21st century, despite having successfully secured some of the most senior positions in society, women are invariably underrepresented in the vast majority of parliamentary institutions. Coincidentally, Israel’s and the UK’s figures are almost identical – just over 19 percent of members of the Knesset in Israel and members of Parliament in the UK are female, a figure even lower than countries in the developing world such as Rwanda, Mozambique and Chile.
These figures won’t necessarily come as a surprise. Women face an uphill struggle in balancing their responsibilities at home and at work. With so many demands on candidates’ time when running for selection at both local and national levels, there are inevitably fewer women than men attempting to reach the higher ranks of government. Nonetheless, this path to power is contemplated by many capable, intelligent women and governments and interest groups are keen to identify ways of assisting their progression.
IN RECENT weeks, a controversial proposal to improve the number of women elected to the UK Parliament was submitted during a diversity conference commissioned by the prime minister. The proposal suggested obligatory quotas for the number of women put forward for selection as a parliamentary candidate by each political party. The UK government wants all of the parties to either improve the representation of women at the 2010 general election or to face mandatory quotas for the next one.
This suggestion has understandably provoked great debate. Quotas are certainly one way of increasing representation but will they work in the long term? In 20 years, if the quota system were removed, would the representation of women in positions of political influence really continue to increase?
For those who desire an increased presence for women in politics, the overriding objective is for women to be treated as equals and receive the same opportunities as men, and the key must be to identify ways in which women can reach the most senior positions on their own merit and under the same rules as their male colleagues.
With such similar representational figures in Israel’s government, it is interesting to note the many initiatives being implemented in Israel to expand female political representation, from all sectors, at both municipal and national levels. Prior to the last Knesset elections, WIZO introduced a program directed at women who were active within their political parties and who were interested in becoming candidates on their party’s lists. The program included campaign strategies, the legal and administrative aspects of competing, the assessment of strengths and weaknesses, developing connections with other candidates, presentation skills and gender issues. As a result, three of the program’s participants are now serving as members of the Knesset.
This program is just one of many initiatives been implemented by a variety of organizations in Israel intended to advance women in decision- and power-making positions, in the national, social and economic arenas in Israeli society. They recognize that investing in women at an earlier stage in their careers will help facilitate their success in the future.
With one of the key issues at stake being the shortfall in the number of women entering the political race, particularly in light of the additional pressures they face, it is programs such as these that could work far more successfully in the long term than any quota system. Family responsibilities, combined with the competitive nature of politics at the highest level and the male-dominated environment, mean that some women lack the enthusiasm or confidence to stand for election.
The real challenge is to invest the necessary resources, time and expertise in encouraging women to feel politically empowered. By creating a movement of politically minded and motivated young women keen to enter the political field, the likelihood of securing long term change is far greatly increased.
These initiatives would reap even greater rewards if they were combined with parliamentary family-friendly environments. We have seen attempts in the UK, with the removal of late-night sittings and the soon-to-be introduced “short-term, short-notice” child minding service. However far greater strides are necessary if we are to send a positive message to would-be female parliamentarians wishing to try to balance politics with family life.
SADLY, THERE is inequality in all aspects of society and many groups suffer as a result. To counter this disparity in the UK, we are currently watching the progression of the equalities bill which is seeking to outlaw any form of discrimination against disadvantaged groups in the office or the market place. There is no doubt that this issue must be addressed, but the implementation of quotas for women in politics does not go far enough – it is a quick-fix solution that will scarcely paper over the cracks.
The root of the problem lies in identifying why women areunderrepresented and then examining exactly what stands in their way.These roadblocks then need to be permanently removed and replaced withan effective network of support, reasonable incentives and appropriateencouragement. Only in this way will we secure a balanced group ofpolitical representatives able to better reflect the concerns of voters.
The writer is chairwoman of WIZO UK.