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Women Span Hurdles in World Politics

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The past decade has seen increasing numbers of women elected to top offices in countries like Switzerland, Germany, Mongolia, Liberia and Chile.  But most experts say women remain underrepresented in political office and will lag behind men in leadership positions in the near future.

Since 1998, Switzerland, Panama, Latvia, Chile, Bermuda, Germany and many other countries have elected women presidents or appointed women prime ministers.  And throughout the world, women are winning more seats in parliaments and local councils than ever before.

Rwanda boasts the world's highest percentage of women legislators, more than 48 percent of all representatives, followed by Sweden at 47 percent and Cuba at 43 percent.

Challenges Ahead

Still, women make up only 18 percent of the world's legislators, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the international organization of parliaments of sovereign states.   That is partly due to cultural traditions and gender bias, says Kristin Haffert of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs, a non-profit organization that advocates democracy worldwide.
 
"Wherever you go, you still see a gender bias.  Women are still held to a different standard and women are largely judged on their appearance, or at least that plays a factor.  People have different expectations of male politicians and women politicians with regard to their level of preparedness," says Haffert.  "So women are held to a higher degree of scrutiny."

Some experts say that kind of scrutiny sometimes deters women from running for office, while qualified women often lack the confidence to field themselves as political contenders. But Kristin Haffert says there are other hurdles that women candidates need to negotiate. 

"They are the same everywhere in the world -- lack of family support, lack of support from political parties, difficulty accessing financial resources.  Confidence does play a role and, in fact, I was just in Lesotho where several of the women [candidates] told me that they had chosen to run [in last year's parliamentary elections] because it was men who asked them to run.  Women do need to be asked to run.  But they do have the same political drive [as men]," says Haffert. "They have multiple responsibilities and oftentimes they are pulled between their families and politics.  But the ones that have been successful can tell you how they've been able to balance everything." 

The U.S. Example

Studies done around the world show that women, in general, are less inclined to run for public office than men.  Political scientist Jennifer Lawless of Brown University recently co-authored a similar study in the United States.  She surveyed four-thousand professional men and women in 2001 and repeated the poll this year.

"In 2001, we found that men were about 20 percentage points more likely than women to have considered running [for office].  And they were about twice as likely as women to have done any of the things that precede a political candidacy, like place their names on the ballot or discuss fund raising," says Lawless.  "So then in 2008, it turns out that the gender gap in political ambition is just as big now as it was then.  When we asked these men and women if they were interested in politics, if they made campaign contributions, attended political meetings, there were no gender differences.  Women are just as interested in politics as men. But for some reason, their interest stops short of running for office."

The implications of these findings worry many experts.  Among them is Sarah Brewer, Associate Director of American University's Women & Politics Institute in Washington, who fears a potential shortage of women leaders throughout the world.

"One of the more startling findings is that women of this more recent generation, raised in the language of gender equality, are even less interested in running for office than women over 40 [years of age]. They are less interested in serving in public office than their mothers are," says Brewer.  "So when we have this sort of imagination that it's all going to get better as we have generational replacement [of women leaders], that's a wake-up call that that's probably not necessarily some of the dynamics at work." 

Inspiring New Leaders

Most experts agree that women's organizations around the world should foster political participation in younger women to build a pool of future leaders. American University's Sarah Brewer suggests that current women leaders could inspire adolescent girls and help forge a new generation of female politicians.

"Women's representation and their make-up as public decision makers still is far beneath what it should be, based on our expectations of representative forms of democracy," says Brewer.  "And I think that there is a hypothesis to be tested that with the increase of women in these visible political positions of power. [President Ellen] Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia and [Chancellor Angela] Merkel in Germany, and even [House of Representatives] Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi here in the U.S. will this change younger women's understanding of themselves politically in their imaginations about what's possible for their own careers?"

Many women's organizations are tapping the potential of younger generations of women, particularly in the United States.  But Brown University's Jennifer Lawless says there is a more challenging task -- changing the way society defines gender roles.

"Because we still have a very traditional division of labor -- both in this country and worldwide -- when we see greater equity on the work front, we are not necessarily seeing that same sense of parity or equity on the home front.  And if you are going to be taking on a political career, for men that means taking on a political career," says Lawless.  "For women, that means reconciling their professional lives with their home lives with their political careers. And it's a much more complicated and complex balancing of responsibilities."

Most analysts agree that much needs to be done to level the political playing field between the genders and shine a spotlight on the difficulties women candidates face, even as they increase their share of top political positions across the globe.

This story was first broadcast on the English news program, VOA News Now. For other Focus reports click here.

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