No one knocks men when they declare their ambition, says political journalist Martina Fitzgerald
A recent issue of Vanity Fair featured a cover photo of White House hopeful Beto ORourke and his words about the 2020 US presidential race: I want to be in it. Man, Im just born to be in it. One wonders what the reaction would be if ORourkes female rivals made such a statement. Ambitious women in politics are treated differently. Voters are less likely to back female politicians if they perceive them as power-seeking, research from the Harvard Kennedy School suggests. More frustratingly, female voters are as likely to hold these negative views. Male politicians escape this ambition backlash.
Over the next 18 months these attitudes will be visible for all to see.
The current race for the US presidency has a record number of women seeking the Democratic nomination. The fact that more women want to be president is already a major media talking point. That in itself says much about contemporary political life.
America is not the exception. Despite women accounting for half the worlds population, the parliamentary universe has remained stubbornly dominated by men. One in four of the worlds parliamentarians are women. The numbers are even lower for decision-making positions. Only one in five ministers internationally is a woman in 2019. Rwanda, Cuba and Bolivia are the only countries that have 50% female parliaments.
True, a handful of prominent countries have women in top roles (Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Jacinda Ardern who recently became only the second female PM to have a baby in office come to mind), but globally, only 5% of heads of government are women. You hardly need more than a photograph of a big international gathering of heads of government to see that imbalance in reality.
Clearly, male politicians have an incumbency advantage, which translates into electoral benefit. So to encourage more women into politics, affirmative action is needed. More than 130 countries have adopted gender quotas for their parliaments but some interventions are more effective than others.
Imposing financial sanctions on parties for failing to reach specific targets is the best way of improving female representation. New laws in Ireland before the 2016 general election meant parties faced financial penalties if women did not account for at least 30% of candidates. A record number of women were subsequently elected, although, depressingly, almost 80% of Irish national politicians are still male.
But such measures cant remedy the structural barriers, sexism and prejudice that discourage women from entering politics or rising to the top when they do. On the US presidential campaign trail, Elizabeth Warren has spoken about potty-training her toddler in five days so she could advance her career. But have things changed completely since Warren was a young mother in the 1970s?
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