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Gender-balance in Parliaments: An indispensable condition for more democratic and sustainable societies

8 March 2017
by Guest author

Kate Brooks and Eleonore Komai, OECD Directorate for Public Governance and Territorial Development (GOV)

The 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life is unique and innovative as it covers executives but also parliaments and judiciaries with clear, timely and actionable guidelines. It represents an important commitment of member and partner countries that wish to join the OECD community towards the realisation of a whole-of-government approach for more gender-sensitive and inclusive public institutions. Notably, it calls on its Adherents to “consider measures to achieve gender balanced representation in decision making positions in public life by encouraging greater participation of women in government at all levels, as well as in parliaments, judiciaries and other public institutions”.

Women’s representation in parliaments remains a global issue. On average in 2016, women constituted 23% of parliamentarians over both upper and lower houses combined, with the Pacific, Arab States and Asia having the lowest representation (16.4%, 18.2%, and 19.2% respectively)[1]. However, it must be noted that many countries in these regions have made substantial progress over the past ten years.

Numbers do matter. Parliaments are powerful political institutions where most policies are voted on. They shape important aspects of people’s social, political and economic present and future lives. Parliaments should thus reflect the perspectives and interests of society in all its diversity. A truly inclusive society would have a truly inclusive legislature.

Amongst OECD countries, women’s representation in lower houses and unicameral legislatures is heterogeneous both in terms of percentage and progress. While Iceland reached 47.6% of female parliamentarians in 2016 (39.7% in 2013), some countries such as Chile lag behind with women’s parliamentarians accounting for 15.8% in 2016. In addition, Sweden, Finland, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, New-Zealand, Italy, Austria, Luxembourg, France and Greece have experienced a drop in women’s representation from 2013 to 2016.

For young women, adolescents and little girls to aspire to leadership roles in public life, they need to see women leaders. Specific measures, such as quotas, have been implemented to tackle the issue of gender balance in parliaments. Quotas aim to ensure that women represent at least a critical minority. They can take the form of reserved seats, legal candidate quotas or political party quotas and can be legislated or voluntary[2]. 10 of the 35 OECD countries reported having implemented legislated quotas in 2016. Effectiveness largely depends on context.

Share of female parliamentarians in OECD countries, 2013 and 2016
Percentage of women holding seats in lower houses and unicameral legislatures

Data is for 1st December 2016 and 1st December 2013. Bars in light blue represent countries with legislated quotas in 2016
Source: Inter-parliamentary Union (IPU) PARLINE database, Quota Project

It is important to point out that gender balance in parliaments, as an important step towards gender equality, is not sufficient in itself. Gender balance does not ensure equal participation or equal access to leadership and decision-making roles among others.

Barriers to women’s equal representation and access to political life – be they structural, functional or cultural – find commonalities among countries but are also specific to local settings. Strategies and efforts to tackle gender inequality within parliaments can start with global strategies and international commitments, but need to be supported by concrete measures and continuously adapted to specific realities and experiences. The OECD continues to work to support countries in addressing the remaining barriers to gender equality in public life. A toolkit to guide both members and non-members is currently in development.

Useful links

International Women’s Day at the OECD:

Friday, 14-17h, Seminar on gender equality before the law

OECD work on Gender equality

Women in government

OECD (2016), 2015 OECD Recommendation of the Council on Gender Equality in Public Life, OECD Publishing, Paris.

OECD (2014), Women, Government and Policy Making in OECD Countries: Fostering Diversity for Inclusive Growth, OECD Publishing, Paris.

[1] http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm

[2] http://www.quotaproject.org/aboutQuotas.cfm

One Response leave one →
  1. Nadia Khairy permalink
    March 12, 2017

    What about women in countries of the MENA region?

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