7th Jun 2023

Targeting of women politicians dilutes democracy

  • Announcing her resignation, Scotland's first minister Nicola Sturgeon said that modern political discourse means much greater intensity and "brutality" than before (Photo: Arctic Circle)
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Gender equality in the EU has been largely stagnating.

A snail-paced improvement for gender parity can be seen in the annual index put together by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), an EU agency supporting the goal of gender equality with research and data.

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"The picture is not rosy, but thanks to the domain of power, we have more women in political, but more specifically in economic decision-making," Carlien Scheele, EIGE's director, told EUobserver recently.

Scheele was referring to one of the domains where gender equality is measured — power, which has been consistently one of the lowest scoring domains, among for example health, work, knowledge, money. As their website states, "The domain of power measures gender equality in decision-making positions across the political, economic and social spheres."

The share of female ministers is 33.4 percent to 66.6 percent of male ministers across the EU, with the share of members of parliament similarly divided. In regional assemblies across the EU, the share of female representatives is only 29.4 percent, according to the 2022 annual index.

The share of female members of boards, supervisory boards, or boards of directors in the EU's largest companies is 31.6 percent compared to 68.4 percent of men. The share of board members of central banks is 26.4 percent compared to 73.6 percent men, EIGE found.

"I think policies can have a strong impact," she said, pointing to the adoption of the EU legislation of gender balance on company boards, and the pay transparency rules as examples.

"We already saw last year that there was a slight improvement for women in decision-making. This is thanks to those member states that have binding legislation," Scheele said, adding that the EU Commission's gender strategy also helps put the issue into focus.

Nevertheless, the recent sudden resignations of Scotland's longest-serving, first female first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and New Zealand's prime minister Jacinda Ardern, who both partly cited personal reasons, put concerns into spotlight over what women leaders have to endure.

Asked about the two resignations, Scheele said that while she wasn't following the announcements closely, the research shows that many women in political positions are confronted with "online hatred and sexist language".

A Council of Europe report from 2019 said that "women politicians were particularly at risk of abuse", and scrutinising Denmark more thoroughly, the report said some female "public figures even decided to leave political life so as not to have to put up with this situation".

"We're not made of stone," the EIGE director said, adding: "If there are personal attacks, or sexist attacks, we know from research that it's a reason for many women not to take on political jobs."

Studieshave suggested that women in traditionally male positions face resistance, and abuse as a form of "gender role enforcement".

And researchers have argued that the "disproportionate and often strategic targeting of women politicians and activists has direct implications for the democratic process", pushing women out of politics.

More support

The value of gender equality has been part of the EU founding treaties for almost 70 years now, Scheele said, adding that more institutional investments are needed, for example in departments, and staff that deal with gender equality.

"We need basically the integration of gender equality in each and every policy department," she said, adding that EIGE has been receiving more and more requests by EU member states to help support their policies and itself would need increased resources to deal with the uptake in interest.

Asked on where it leaves the EU that some of its member states, including Hungary and Poland, are regularly blocking or diluting language on gender equality in EU documents, Scheele did not want to be drawn into a political discussion.

"What we can do is by showing data and information, we show the state of play. The political discussion should take place in Brussels," Scheele said, adding that "all the 27 member states are part of the European Union, they agreed on policies on gender equality".

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