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Women in Power – discussion panel at the Office of European Parliament in Washington, DC

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at American chapter.

On Oct. 12, 2022, a discussion panel was held at the Office of European Parliament in Washington, D.C. Moderated by Federiga Bindi, Senior Fellow at the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, the female leaders at this panel tried to answer the ultimate question “Why is it still so hard to see women in politics?”

The first speaker, tuning in from Zoom, was Pippa Norris, a comparative political scientist who has been teaching at Harvard for the past 30 years. She addressed the new challenges to gender equality in 2022 and the solutions that should be implemented. 

Most governments are committed to gender equality and human rights. These efforts mainly focus on increasing numerical representation of women in politics, which have indeed brought positive results. The Inter-Parliamentary Union reported all-time highs for women in leadership positions in the political world as of 2021. Although important, Norris warns that numerical representation is not an accurate measurement of women’s advancement in the political realm. 

She emphasized the need to consider cultural factors as well as policy and power. Measuring the number of women in parliament is not enough. 

Norris explains that efforts to advance women must include addressing the threats to gender equality, like anti-gender social movements around the world and recent gains for authoritarian populists, which turn back achievements for women’s rights. There also needs to be awareness of the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic on women’s participation in politics.

Ultimately, in order to achieve any positive change for women, Norris claims we need cultural empowerment, which includes promoting the underpinning values and norms that generate support for gender equality. We need to change attitudes towards women through civic empowerment and civic engagement, especially voter turnout. 

World surveys have been conducted to gauge attitudes towards women, asking people questions such as if they think women are more or less valuable than men in government, and whether they think education is more important for a woman or a man. The findings show that there is a persistent gap in cultural empowerment. 

The problem is that in the last decade trends in women’s advancement are showing a slight rollback. In multiple countries, including Turkey, Russia, Azerbaijan and Sweden, attitudes on gender equality have worsened. In the United States national laws are increasingly restricting women’s reproductive rights. Around the world, gains for authoritarian parties threaten to roll back women’s rights and their autonomy to make important decisions about their lives. 

The only way to reverse this trend and increase support for gender equality is to change the attitudes towards the culture. 

Norris suggests measuring a culture’s attitudes towards women through their civic empowerment, the ability of women to influence the parliament indirectly, through religious groups and civic groups. Civic empowerment (measured by the proportion of women in civic society) has progressed in the Middle East and North Africa but declined in Asia. What has increased most is the proportion of women participating in discussions on women’s equality. But, the percentage of women in the lower chamber of the national legislature has also gone up in most regions of the world.  

Second, Norris recommends policy empowerment, the implementation of policy through which we can help advance the power women have in politics. She explains policy empowerment is key because it brings a fundamental autonomy for women, the ability to make their own life choices. This includes abortion rights, rights to property and access to justice for all women.  

In sum, Norris supports the need for cultural empowerment, as well as policy empowerment in order to advance women in politics. But, it is also necessary to address the threats and challenges to women’s advancement and not forget that numerical representation still matters, especially in judiciary institutions. 

Another speaker, Kate Onyejekwe, Director of JSI International Division, based in Washington, D.C., focused on the successes we have had as women in the political field. She takes from her personal experience as a woman in politics. She believes that non-governmental organizations (NGOs) play a fundamental role in women’s success in politics. 

Born in Nigeria and having worked in the nonprofit sector for over 26 years,  Onyejekwe first began her career working in the Nigerian government. She joined a nonprofit, discovering that because NGOs work with passion, they get things done faster, especially since they aren’t slowed down by the bureaucracy and policy that governments have to deal with. 

Having been part of an international NGO which focused on the intersections of women and how these affect women’s rights, she explained that NGOs were wonderful because they mixed young motivated voices with older, more experienced ones. However, she warned that the problem of the representation gap persists because there were often not enough women in nonprofits, even in those who promoted women. 

The more women in the chairs of organizations, the more women will be employed. The Credit Suisse Gender 3000 report “reveals boardroom diversity continues to improve globally with an approximate average of 24% of women sitting in corporate boardrooms.” However, this means that there remains a ceiling for women. 

As Onyejekwe explains, even as women rise in the politics of their countries, reaching high ranking positions remains difficult, especially at the regional or international level. Further, she discusses the need for diversity within women leaders, expressing the need for a multiplicity of women leaders who represent women from all different countries, ethnicities, nationalities, races, etc.

Virtually present at the conference was also Monica Frassoni, an Italian politician and a former member of EU parliament. In her experience, the rule of law is quite important to gender equality. She explained that in her personal experience, her professional success was largely favored by the fact that she was a member of a party where leadership is equal by rule. However, she was still the only woman in a political leadership position in the European Union, serving as co-President of the European Green Party. 

An interesting part of her discussion was that in some cases women lack solidarity towards each other, speaking especially about her native country, Italy. The recently elected first woman prime minister in Italy, right wing candidate Georgia Meloni, has made remarks that the presence of women in politics doesn’t depend on quotas, but on merit. Frassoni, on the other hand, argues that we need good leadership to help women get into politics and a good culture to promote women in politics. 

Notably, she added that we shouldn’t speak about women as better than men because what we need is equality. To that end, she was happy to report that in her area of expertise she has seen an exponential increase of women dealing with issues which have traditionally been dealt with by men, such as decarbonizing, green transition and getting rid of fossil fuels. In her opinion, “this is a result of more women in STEM.” She observed that she is finally seeing a lot of younger women in this sector, especially in energy and STEM studies, compared to when she started.

At the heart of the discussion panel was understanding what women’s equality really means and what it would look like. If we had a more clear and universal idea it might become easier to understand how to reach the goal. Quotas and policy play a fundamental role in advancing women, so does numerical representation in terms of uplifting women’s voices and addressing women’s issues. 

Foreign policy doesn’t usually concern women’s empowerment because other questions, for instance trade regulations, relationships between state leaders and wars, tend to take precedence. Nonetheless, if we truly want to address the gender gap, all areas of politics must acknowledge it and work to address it.

Flavia Marroni

American '24

Flavia is a junior at American University majoring in International Relations with a minor in French. She is from Rome, Italy, but is now living in DC, and is fluent in Italian, English, French and Spanish. Flavia is currently a contributing writer for HCAU, focusing on gender equality and women's rights.