HomeLearning CenterAiling Democracy and Declining Women’s Representation: How They Are Related and What to Do about It

Ailing Democracy and Declining Women’s Representation: How They Are Related and What to Do about It

Originally published by Linda Robinson for Council on Foreign Relations

Annual reports on the health of democracy this year reaffirmed an ongoing trend of decline, which has occurred alongside a less heralded but related stalling of women’s political participation. Given that women make up half of the world’s population, a greater focus on promoting women’s political empowerment can help rescue the world’s ailing democracies. While the proportion of women in parliament has quadrupled over the past fifty years, women only represent 26.9 percent of the world’s parliamentarians, far below their proportion in the population and well below the critical mass deemed necessary to influence legislative outcomes. Even fewer women are in leadership positions in both legislatures and national executive office. Measures that make democratic systems more democratic can arrest regression and make the systems more inclusive of women and other underrepresented citizens. 

For many, the linkage between democracy and women’s rights and representation appears obvious. A government “by the people, for the people” naturally should include women’s full representation, just as the concept of equal rights for all includes women’s rights. Ample research has documented the societal benefits, including peace, stability, and increased GDP, that come with increasing equality. However, these basic concepts have come under assault in today’s culture war environment where advocacy for gender equality is deemed “gender ideology.” A 2023 study [PDF] by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security added to the existing body of research by documenting that women’s representation is strongly correlated with the health of democracy [PDF], as measured by the indicators of free elections, free association, and checks on government power. The study’s authors argue that investments in women should therefore be viewed as investments in strong democratic systems. 

Democracy promotion programs aimed at women have traditionally focused primarily on support for gender quotas in parliaments and legislatures, and training and supporting women candidates for office. Aiding Empowerment: Democracy Promotion and Gender Equality in Politics, a new book by Saskia Brechenmacher and Katherine Mann, examines the track record of gender equality programs and argues for a much broader approach to women’s empowerment, essentially by making democracies more democratic. These prescriptions dovetail with other democracy promotion proposals put forward by groups like the Partners in Democracy project led by Harvard’s Danielle Allen, the FairVote organization cofounded by Rob Ritchie and his wife, Cynthia Terrell, who is also CEO of RepresentWomen. The premise is that both democracy and women would benefit from reforms that make voting systems more representative, such as ranked choice voting, which has begun to be adopted in several U.S. states and localities. Proportional representation or mixed electoral systems consistently result in much higher levels of women’s representation compared to single-member winner-take-all voting schemes (28.7 percent versus 11.7 percent in the past year’s elections). 

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