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To achieve political equality, we should focus less on fairness

by Eva Barboni | Atalanta
Thursday, 8 March 2018 08:15 GMT

* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

We need to demonstrate that female candidates can win

The argument in favour of women’s equal representation in politics often focuses on fairness: we are half of the population, and it is only fair that our share of political power should reflect that. This argument may be hard to counter, but unfortunately it is not very effective in driving change. To understand why, you need to follow the money.

Political parties have limited resources, and every penny is spent with one goal in mind: winning elections. No matter how much a party’s leaders may agree with the fairness argument, they simply aren’t going to make spending decisions based on it. The same applies to political donors, the majority of whom are male and typically don’t support female candidates until their victories are almost certain.

So, if we want to start mobilising the funding needed to make real progress on gender equality, we need to start focusing less on why it is the right thing to do and more on how it can help win elections.

First, we need to demonstrate that female candidates can win.

The 2017 French parliamentary elections provide a compelling case study. France has a system that restricts parties’ funding if they don’t put forward at least 49 percent female candidates. Parties have typically gamed the system by putting women forward in constituencies that the party is unlikely to win. (A practice that is sadly common in electoral systems with gender quotas.) This has had a dual effect of maintaining men’s lopsided representation and creating an impression that women aren’t competitive.

President Emmanuel Macron’s party decided to take a different approach, fielding women in winnable seats. It was a gamble, but it paid off. The party won an overwhelming majority and had the largest proportion of women elected (47 percent). Overnight, France rose from 64th to 17th place in the world rankings of female parliamentary representation, showing that advancing equality and achieving electoral success can go hand-in-hand.

Second, we need to show that when women get elected, they have a positive impact on policy outcomes, which can help their party succeed in future elections.

In any election, voters have different sets of priorities that influence their voting decisions. Whether they are voting on healthcare, education, the economy, corruption, or infrastructure, there is a positive case to be made for why having women at the table improves outcomes.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence has to do with economic growth and corruption. Studies have shown that female leadership is linked to higher economic growth in ethnically diverse countries and to lower levels of corruption globally, illustrating that the impact of women’s leadership goes well beyond so-called “women’s issues”.

Finally, we need to demonstrate how investing in engaging and mobilising female voters can make the difference between loss and victory.

This can be a trickier argument to make, largely because the data simply doesn’t exist in many countries. Citing privacy concerns, electoral commissions often refuse to compile turnout data broken down by gender. Exit polls – where pollsters ask voters who they cast their ballot for after the fact – are often either unavailable or unreliable. And, many political parties don’t even have gender data for their own supporters.

That said, there is a compelling case to be made for female voters’ power to change election outcomes. A 2017 study looked at self-reported turnout data by gender in 58 countries. Of those countries, 35 had higher turnout amongst men than women, and 17 had a turnout gap of 5 percent or higher. This illustrates the untapped potential of female voters in many countries to swing election results, if they are effectively mobilised.

By focusing on these three arguments, we can make the case for significantly increasing parties’ expenditure on initiatives to mobilise female voters and field female candidates.

While it may seem cynical to frame women’s political participation as a means to achieve electoral success, it may well be the best way to achieve our ultimate goal of fairness.

Eva Barboni is Founder & CEO of Atalanta, a social enterprise dedicated to increasing the number of women holding senior government positions worldwide and tackling the root causes of gender inequality.