Political Leadership and Gender (In)Equality

  • Maria Ligia Ganacim Granado Rodrigues EliasEmail author
  • Daniela Haj Mussi
Living reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-3-319-31816-5_2819-1



  • Political Leadership: Holding of public office or serving as a political representative by means of election or direct appointment.

  • Gender: Formalized social identities and practices affecting interactions between men and women in modern/contemporary societies; a historical and cultural concept that opposes the idea that differences between men and women can be defined in strictly biological terms.

  • Gender inequality: Disparity between the legal rights and experiences of men and women (in their roles as human beings, producers, consumers, family members, subjects of law, etc.); a historical legacy of patriarchy, it is still prevalent in all modern societies.


Contemporary Western democracies have, to a large extent, consolidated the constitutional assumption of legal equality for all citizens. Nonetheless, the development of modern democracies has also been accompanied by a perception that the legal enshrinement of equality in law does not necessarily assure equal rights in fact. In other words, there is a general perception that despite the existence of constitutional and legal tools designed to ensure modern equality, a number of inequalities still persist; which points to a gap between how society is conceived in the law and how it is experienced by its citizens.

When men and women receive unequal treatment – in law and in daily life – it is referred to as gender inequality. This form of inequality has inspired a range of reflections in different contexts around the world about how to foster equal rights and opportunities for men and women alike. Yet despite these efforts, even in the twenty-first century, men and women still experience unequal rights and access to social goods, indicating that many challenges still need to be addressed to reduce the distance between equality under the law and the reality experienced by citizens. Such situations of gender inequality are often described as the gender gap.

The underrepresentation and limited participation of women in decision-making processes and institutions are two of the most important consequences of gender inequality, especially in democratic societies. As such, this entry explores the problem of gender inequality in politics, addressing the following questions (Glatte and de Vries 2015): If women account for almost half of the world’s population, why are they a minority in leadership positions, particularly in the political arena? What are the possible causes of the slow and limited progress towards the full participation of women in public democratic life? What measures have been taken around the world to confront these issues?

Women as Political Leaders

Leadership is a very broad notion that has different connotations depending on the field of knowledge. The concept of political leadership is more restricted, referring specifically to the sphere of institutionalized politics and government (e.g., Inglehart and Norris 2003). It has to do with people’s effective and ongoing participation in the institutional dynamics of representation and deliberation – voting, being voted, holding public office – in the full exercise of their political rights.

Until the late 1970s, analyses of political leadership in the political and institutional life of governments and political parties did not focus particularly on the presence of women in the rank and file of political parties, unions, or civil services or in positions of power. This began to change towards the end of the twentieth century with the upsurge of women’s rights movements in the United States and Europe (e.g., Jaquete 1997). Since then, “advances for women” have been discussed openly among scholars and politicians, especially “in the areas of access of education, health care, and reproductive services, as well as human rights,” basic preconditions for access to political life (Inglehart and Norris 2003, p. 129).

By contrast, however, studies of women’s participation in institutional politics and government only gained ground later (ibid., p. 129). It was only in the 2000s that discussions about women in political leadership led to the development of research agendas focused specifically on the study of the trajectory of women’s representation in different branches of government (e.g., Jones 2009; Piscopo 2010; Schwindt-Bayer 2010; Htun 2016). Such studies focus on women’s access to political representation from a historical perspective and its role in promoting gender empowerment.

Gender Political Inequality

Gender is a term that generally refers to formalized social identities and practices affecting interactions between men and women in modern and contemporary societies. It is a historical and cultural concept that opposes the idea that differences between men and women can be defined in strictly biological terms (Scott 1986, p.1067). Gender relations therefore permeate the entire social life of a community and connect with other factors to compose a structured fabric of human relations.

Each gender is not made up of a homogeneous group of people, as there are natural overlaps with other social groupings and identity markers, such as class, race, ethnicity, religion, sexuality, and age. Nonetheless, gender of itself often connotes certain social roles that generally place women at a social disadvantage and often expose them to violence.

Gender inequality is particularly marked in political leadership. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, in June 2017 23.6 percent of all national parliamentarians were women (World Development Indicators 2018). This number may look low, but from a historical perspective it actually represents huge progress. (Nine percent of all national parliamentarians in 1987 were women. By 1995, this number had risen to 11.3%, and reached 14.3% in 2002.) In the words of Jane Jaquete, the growing participation and representation of woman in politics is “one of the most remarkable developments of the twentieth century” (Jaquete 1997, p. 23). Likewise, in October 2017, 11 women were serving as heads of state and 12 were serving as heads of government around the world, as opposed to just nine heads of state or government in 2003 (Inglehart and Norris 2003, p. 129). In 2016, there were just 38 states around the world where fewer than 10% of the parliamentarians in their single or lower houses were women, including four that had no women representatives at all. In 2001, there were over twice as many states (82) with such a low participation of women in the lower house, and only 27 states had over 20.7% female parliamentary representation (with none exceeding 42.7%!).

These are just a few examples that demonstrate a recent narrowing of the gender gap in political leadership around the world. However, they also reveal that political leadership is still overwhelmingly male-dominated. According to the Report on Equality between Women and Men, produced by the European Commission in 2008, women are still a minority in positions of responsibility in politics at all levels of representation and government in the countries of the European Union (European Commission 2008, p. 8–9).

In 2001, it was estimated that if women’s participation in politics continued to grow at the same rate (0.36% per annum), parliamentary gender equality would only be achieved in the turn of the twenty-second century. Over 15 years later, the Global Gender Gap Report of 2017 (World Economic Forum 2017) estimated that time needed for gender parity, based on the pace of current advances, was even longer: 217 years. In other words, the gender gap would only be closed in the turn of the twenty-third century. When progress is made in combatting gender and political inequality, the danger of a backlash should never be underestimated (SDG Fund 2017).

Barriers for Gender Equality

Throughout the world, research demonstrates that women continue to be underrepresented in positions of political leadership, although in these same surveys their effective participation in the rank and file of political organizations is evident. This begs a fundamental question: What is preventing the empowerment of women leaders in democratic institutions?

Inglehart and Norris (2003) point to a combination of three key “barriers” to the rise of women in politics: structural, institutional, and cultural. Structural barriers are related to situations where certain conditions in the social system (occupational, educational, socioeconomic status) are decisive in hindering or impeding women’s access to political office. They are very common in developing countries, where poverty and limited access to education and health care affect entire generations of children, particularly girls. Yet this kind of barrier alone cannot explain situations where societies at the same level of development have clear disparities in the inclusion (exclusion) of women in (from) positions of political leadership (e.g., Canada versus the United States or South Africa vis-à-vis Nigeria).

In these cases, it might be worth exploring, for example, the role of institutional barriers in preventing more women from holding positions of political leadership, especially the tendency for path dependence to reinforce male power in political parties, the selection of male candidates, etc. Many studies in this area have prompted calls for proportional representation and the introduction of quotas for women in political parties’ internal recruitment processes. These measures, which are more accepted nowadays, would help correct the flaws in the “rules of the game” and promote gender equity within democratic competition. Another factor affecting women’s access to political leadership positions is the level of democratization of the institutions in their countries, since inequality can only be fully redressed by expanding civil liberties and rights, strengthening political parties, and opening and institutionalizing political recruitment procedures (ibid., p. 132).

However, like structural barriers, institutional barriers do not of themselves explain why countries that adopt similar measures to boost the institutional inclusion of women in politics often obtain divergent results or why women with a similar socioeconomic status in the same institution will have widely diverging opinions on the need for the greater inclusion of women in politics (e.g., Cole et al. 1998).

To attempt to complement the study of the causes of gender inequality in political leadership, Inglehart and Norris (2003) then propose the existence of cultural barriers, which are linked to the diffusion (or not) of certain traditional values concerning the place of women in society and in the political community. In particular, societies where family values and domestic life are particularly important tend to impose barriers on the entry of women into public political arenas. Cultural barriers explain, moreover, why in certain societies women are able to rise to a certain level of political leadership but are prevented from advancing further (ibid., p. 134). The achievement of gender equity in political leadership could be hampered just as much by traditional attitudes towards women as by socioeconomic status or the political rules of the game.

A Permanent Challenge

The persistence of gender inequality in political leadership is a quandary that has attracted the repeated attention of scholars (Glatte and de Vries 2015). As we have seen, although each region and country has its own particularities, historical data show that gender inequality of access to and permanence in positions of political representation and government is still a major issue in democracies across the globe. It is a cross-cutting issue involving multiple hurdles of an economic, institutional, and cultural nature that make it harder and more costly for women to rise to and hold political leadership positions than men. Addressing this problem means working simultaneously on different fronts.

One possible front for action is the recognition that gender inequality is a problem of social justice, encompassing society as a whole, and that this is a fundamental agenda for the development of societies engaged in democratic values. At first sight, this recognition may seem simple, even consensual; however, a real commitment to this issue calls for the scrutiny of complex social relations beyond the abolition of the formal barriers that have prevented (and in some cases still prevent) the access of women to public office, while also facing up to economic, cultural, and subjective issues linked to gendered socialization, sexual division of labor, and the social construction of politics as a male sphere. Once this issue is recognized as a problem, action must be taken.

Since the 6th United Nations Conference on Women, held in Beijing in 1995, the adoption of affirmative action policies has been recommended in order to increase the number of women in representative positions. The question of quotas for women in the composition of representative houses is not simple, especially when it comes to deciding what models to adopt. When the problem of access to political leadership is extended beyond gender to encompass other important identity markers, such as sexual orientation, race, class, and education, its complexity is only compounded.

In addition, researches have shown that expanding the presence of women in positions of political leadership does not necessarily mean strengthening the agenda of gender equality (e.g., Htun and Power 2006, p. 83–84). Party structures must also be changed if gender inequality is to be effectively addressed, since women often feel less qualified to seek office than their male counterparts (Fox and Lawless 2011, p. 59). Research findings indicate that women’s self-perception and perceptions of gender inequality are anything but homogeneous, and that providing them with formal access to certain positions of political leadership will not necessarily lead to greater political autonomy or deliberative power across the board. (e.g., Fox and Lawless 2011).

The limited presence of women in positions of political and state leadership does not, however, mean that women are not politically engaged. On the contrary, as we have seen in this entry, it is the result of an imbalance of influence caused by gender in conjunction with other important factors such as class and race. There is no consensus and no single answer to the question of how to bridge the gender gap, but the data presented here indicate that there is still a long way to go in terms of understanding the issues and designing and implementing practical and symbolic measures to bring about greater gender equality. It is not something that affects just a small group of society, but is intimately linked to the success of our democratic institutions and societies into the future.



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Copyright information

© Springer Nature Switzerland AG 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Maria Ligia Ganacim Granado Rodrigues Elias
    • 1
    Email author
  • Daniela Haj Mussi
    • 2
  1. 1.Department of Political ScienceBrasilia University (UnB)BrasiliaBrazil
  2. 2.Department of Political ScienceSao Paulo UniversitySao PauloBrazil