Why are Women Underrepresented in Parliaments and Senates?


By Miguel Suarez


It is no surprise for anybody to say that women are usually underrepresented in the majority of the national legislative assemblies, such as parliaments, all around the world. At the moment, from the data recorded women represent a 26.7% (IPU, 2023) of the seats of the world legislative chambers this should indeed be surprising, given that, according to the World Bank Database, they constitute a 49,7% of the world population (2020). 


This difference between the gender composition of the legislative chambers of the States and international organisms and the one of the societies is another example of the difficulties women have to face when accessing responsibility positions in comparison to men, thus constituting another example of how the “glass ceiling” theory works, not only in the private business sector, but also in the public institutions. Along this article, we will try to explore what are the causes of this discrepancy, since according to the principle of descriptive representation, a democratically chosen parliament or senate, should be a representation of the composition of the society that elects it. 


Those who oppose to the feminist movement or who deny that gender is not the root cause of these inequalities, often shield themselves in the fact that, historical development of gender roles which, even though they have been overcome -which they have not, by the way-, still have an impact on the current position of men and women in society. They propose that, in general, women are less prepared than men  for carrying out the tasks inherent to top executive positions, usually resorting to the cliché of how women are usually less educated or have less working experience due to their role as the pregnant part in the reproductive process. Other kinds of profoundly mistaken arguments used are, for instance, that women have less emotional stability or less capacity to be objective in the face of a decision. It is our intention to prove that these arguments are not only based on false premises, but also that they do not explain at all why women find themselves in this position of underrepresentation. 


To do so, we will analyze several aspects that could affect the election or non-election of a woman for a seat in a chamber, starting with party support and their path towards politics and also considering psychological conditioning of vote, and level of studies, in order to determine how does the patriarchal superstructure of thinking diminish the opportunities for woman to get these positions. Finally a brief overview of some of the solutions proposed to eradicate this problem will be provided, in order to get a hint about which should be the following steps if we want to reach parity in our legislative chambers.


According to Nadezhda Shvedova, in her publication "Women in Parliament: Beyond Numbers" (2005), the obstacles women face when accessing the seats could be divided between ideological-psychological, political and socio-economic obstacles, being the two latter categories the most prominent. On the one hand, socio-economic obstacles refer to those conditions like the absence of economic resources or "the dual burden of domestic tasks and professional obligations" (Shvedova, 2005) which proves a drawback on the starting point for the political career of women. On the other hand, political barriers for women could be found in matters such as the lack of party support -fewer than 11% of party leaders in the world were women in 2005, nowadays the number has increased, but not drastically-, "the lack of access to well-developed education and training systems for women's leadership" (Shvedova, 2005) or the nature of the electoral system.


In order to get first-hand knowledge about these theoretical barriers, a survey implemented by the Inter Parliamentary Union (IPU) has shed some light on the issue. By way of illustration, a Greek parliamentarian highlights: "Women are obliged to start their activities from a different point than men. Women arrive exhausted at the starting point due to the other activities such as their family responsibilities" (IPU, 2008). As Shvedova (2005) affirmed, usually domestic tasks cause women to face additional obstacles than those politics inherently hold, which provokes a physical and psychological fatigue that reduces the chances of female political success. Another significant piece of information which could be extracted from this survey is that the motivation of women to involve themselves in politics is mainly to "improve the lives of women". Most congresswomen that completed their difficult political path, did it with the purpose of facilitating the task to other women who wish to follow their steps. Finally, a difference in the types of entrance between men and women parliamentarians could be noticed: while men tend to access through political party activism, women use other channels such as social work or NGOs. These responses reinforce the previous idea of "lack of party support" (Shvedova, 2005).


Having stated that women’s path entails a big amount of difficulties men don’t have to face, when they arrive to the position of being elected the situation does not improve at all. Since the mid XXth century, extensive research has been carried out on the psychological determinants of vote, among which many have a negative effect on women’s candidates. In general, most of the findings suggest there is an important role of stereotypes when concerning unconscious processing of political information, concretely on which candidate do we prefer. These stereotypes depend on the ideology, both of the voter and the candidate. 


In summary, we could say that conservative candidates are usually more successful when they show dominant features, both in their physical appearance (Lausten and Bang, 2015) or in their acts. This works the opposite way with progressist candidates. Lausten and Bang find out that, when considering gender on this issue, the effects of this relation between dominance and ideology exacerbates in the case of men, but when studying women, independently of their ideology, when they show physical dominant features in their faces they tend to lose support by the voters (2015). Some other interesting points on the role of stereotypes in the way voters perceive candidates are those attributes assigned to “masculinity” and “femininity” and also their attractiveness. Evidence suggests that “counterstereotypic gender strategies, including women emphasizing masculine trait competencies, improve evaluations of female candidates along both masculine and feminine leadership dimensions (...). However, counterstereotypic female candidates can face a “likability” backlash from out-partisan voters. These findings suggest counter stereotypes may be more beneficial for female candidates in a primary election context when voters are co partisans rather than general elections where candidates often need cross-partisan support” (Bauer, 2016). Also, female candidates face bigger penalties in their candidate evaluations and voting intentions when showing their own opinion and disagreeing with their own party incertain issues (Vraga, 2017), which goes against the stereotype of docile femininity. So as a conclusion, women are more affected than men from stereotypes and are more likely to lose votes and be rejected when they are exposed. 


All this academic research clearly suggests that even in a subconscious way, patriarchal ideological superstructure still is having an effect on the way citizens perceive female candidates, and thus explains how it is more difficult for women to reach seats in the chambers, not because of their validity but because of their gender. 


The level of theoretical preparation of women compared to men is another proof of it. Some say that women don’t get to those jobs because the difficulties mentioned earlier make them less educated or less prepared than men. Raw data shows exactly the opposite, worldwide even though men are more successful in primary education, 41% of women are attained to tertiary education, more than men which present a 36% (Dyvik, 2023). Just in the European Union between the youth the percentage of women with tertiary education is 48% while for men it is 37% (Eurostat, 2022). So in general terms it doesn’t seem like men are at all more prepared than women, at least from an education perspective. It would be very interesting to explore this topic deeply in the future. 


Finally, since we have clarified that the underrepresentation of women in the parliaments and senates has a lot to do with the bigger amount of difficulties they find to be candidates and the tendency of voters to punish them more for their actions and attitudes when they are candidates, and we have also seen that nothing indicates that they are less prepared than men. The last step is to find a solution to this issue. The most common that has been put in practice worldwide has been the establishment of quotas 


The adoption of gender quotas, defined as rules mandating a specified percentage of women in candidate lists or legislative bodies, stands out as a crucial strategy in diverse countries like Rwanda, Sweden, Argentina, and Nepal. This strategy is dissected into reserved seats, internal party quotas, and legislative quotas, revealing nuanced impacts on descriptive, substantive, and symbolic representation. Gender quotas, while effective in the short term, leave a lasting imprint by transforming female candidates' attributes, shaping policy-making on women's issues, and inspiring female voters.

An intriguing facet emerges in the examination of percentage thresholds for quotas. France's experience challenges the assumption that higher quotas inherently translate to elevated women's representation, prompting a closer look at the effectiveness of different quota types. There is a difference between the concrete impact of reserved seats and the interpretative leeway allowed by internal and legislative quotas. The vagueness of certain quotas enables parties to include women in ways that may not place them in electable positions. As noted by Paxton and Hughes, in Argentina quota provisions were initially vague about where women should be placed on party lists. It behooved the existing party elite to add women only at the bottom of their party lists, in (almost) unelectable positions. (2015)


In conclusion, the global underrepresentation of women in legislative bodies, at 26.7% (IPU, 2023), starkly contrasts with their nearly 50% population share, underscoring persistent gender disparities. This imbalance reflects the existence of a glass ceiling, challenging women's access to leadership roles in both public and private sectors. Contrary to assertions of historical gender roles and educational differences, data reveals women outperform men in tertiary education globally, dispelling claims of their lesser preparedness. Psychological determinants of voting behavior expose biases against women candidates, influenced by stereotypes affecting perceptions of competence and likability. Women also face penalties for expressing opinions, highlighting the impact of patriarchal norms on electoral dynamics.

Addressing these challenges necessitates comprehensive strategies. Gender quotas emerge as a viable approach, but their effectiveness hinges on nuanced design. Simultaneously, dismantling socio-economic barriers, such as the dual burden of domestic tasks, and fostering well-developed education and training systems for women's leadership, are crucial steps. Achieving gender parity requires not just statistical change but also societal transformation, challenging stereotypes and cultivating an inclusive political culture that empowers women to excel in leadership roles. As societies grapple with these complexities, a nuanced approach is essential to dismantle barriers and pave the way for women to assume their rightful positions in the corridors of power.





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Dyvik, E., (2023). Educational attainment worldwide by gender and level. Statista [online]. Available at: https://www.statista.com/statistics/1212278/education-gender-gap-worldwide-by-level/


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Paxton, P., & Hughes, M. M. (2015). The increasing effectiveness of national gender quotas, 1990–2010. Legislative Studies Quarterly, 40(3), 331-362.


Shvedova, N. (2005). Obstacles to women’s participation in parliament. Women in parliament: Beyond numbers, 33, 22-45.


Vraga, E.K. (2017), Which Candidates Can Be Mavericks? The Effects of Issue Disagreement and Gender on Candidate Evaluations. Politics and Policy, 45: 4-30.


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