Image via WikipediaAre only the wild-eyed, politically correct zealots of the “sisterhood” concerned that just four women have made it into Prime Minister David Cameron’s first Cabinet? I rather hope not.
Women form the majority of the British electorate but make up roughly 20% of the country’s elected representatives. This should be a call to action for all those who care about the health and durability of the democratic process.
Research from the Council of Europe shows female representation in the United Kingdom lagging behind that of Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, Norway and Switzerland.
Elected female representatives are also more numerous in Iceland, Liechtenstein, Monaco, Portugal, Spain and the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.
Where balanced representation is concerned, Sweden, Finland, Norway and the Netherlands are the established leaders among the Council of Europe’s 47 member states. Each country records impressive numbers of women contributing to the national decision-making process.
A 2008 Council of Europe study concluded that "obstacles to participation can be related to electoral systems, but also to the functioning of political life and to its rites and rhythms, that still follow a dominant male pattern of social organisation. The report added that "they can also be related to the unwritten, traditional rules of political parties which, still too often, tend to function as ’old boys networks.’
"Deeper rooted obstacles are linked to educational, social and cultural factors that still tend to privilege the public/political domain as being a mainly male domain."
Fair representation is not simply “a numbers game,” nor is it the outcome of a gender supremacist view that the greater involvement of women would improve politics and decision-making.
It is the honourable and urgent demand of those women and men who want a political process that reflects society and is open to all. Balanced representation is fundamental to our democratic system. That is why the Council of Europe is asking its member states to respect a 2003 pledge to ensure that the representation of either women or men in any decision-making body in political or public life would not fall below a 40% threshold.
The practical steps needed for achieving this goal remain to be worked out in each country but fairer representation in Britain and elsewhere in Europe could boost involvement and encourage a higher turn-out. It would definitely strengthen and enrich democracy.
For the time being, the global picture is still one of inequality as regards the participation and representation of women. Allowing this critical democratic deficit to continue should invite the outrage of us all.
The author, Johanna Nelles, is working on delivering Europe's first international convention combating violence against women and domestic violence.