Gender equality and politics: Why are women still underrepresented in EU institutions?

« The only thing a man can do better than a woman is grow a beard », was recently announced at the United Nations headquarters. However, men still heavily dominate the political field – even in the European Union.

The EU and gender equality

Out of the 751 Members of the European Parliament, only little more than a third of these positions are held by women. Good news is that the general trend looks promising, with constantly more and more women being elected every five years, bad news is these changes are happening at an incredibly low speed.

The European Union (EU) has played a leading role in the fight for gender equality, and specifically recognized the need for gender parity in representative politics in order to achieve this goal. Indeed, as a recent report from the European Parliament confirms, women’s representation in politics is not only crucial to achieve and uphold social justice, but it is a condition of democracy itself. Despite this being a key objective of the EU, women remain underrepresented within its institutions and bodies. Today, as students of Multilingual Communication for International Relations, we want to examine the reasons for this inequality.

Key factors affecting the gender (im)balance

First of all, the undeniable fact that the political field is male-dominated may serve as a deterrent to women. Even if, by law, women have an equal status to men, the continued prevalence of patriarchal norms, values, and attitudes within political culture shows female candidates that they are not on equal footing with men. As we have seen in several classes, research has shown that certain traits associated with leadership are perceived to be more masculine, while women in leadership positions who display these same characteristics are perceived rather negatively. This plays a big role with the upcoming elections right around the corner: a lot of voters, consciously or not, assume that women generally have less capacity and potential to be leaders than men. Hence, women continuously have to disprove this bias and demonstrate their abilities, justifying their presence in the political field.

Alongside these stereotypes comes media bias. Coverage of women politicians and candidates is disproportionately negative, which could discourage women from running for election, and influences voters even more by affirming their bias. But sexism is not only prevalent in the media: female European politicians often face threats and harrassment from the public and their colleagues, both directly and on social media. While these factors are often downplayed, the numbers speak for themselves: a 2018 study showed that 47 percent of female Members of the European Parliament had been threatened to be raped or killed, while 25 percent had suffered from sexual violence.

So, before gender equality in politics can be fully achieved, this political field needs to become an overall safer space for women to express themselves and their opinions. Until then, each and every person who can vote in the upcoming European elections on May 26 should think carefully about their choice, and try to see candidates through a genderless lense. Only when everyone works towards a less biased and more inclusive environment, can democracy fully flourish.

By Rachel Ledieu