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Gender norms and women in politics: evaluating progress and identifying challenges on the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Platform

Briefing/policy papers

Written by Rachel George, Emma Samman

Hero image description: Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and Former President of Liberia, at PeaceCon 2019 Image credit:US Institute of Peace Image license:CC BY 2.0

While women are increasingly exercising their right to political participation, many who aspire to political office still find their way barred by the gender norms that see politics as a masculine space. This ALIGN guide focuses on the influence of gender norms in three key areas:

  • women’s parliamentary representation
  • women’s experiences running for and standing in leadership positions, and
  • women’s engagement in civic action and social movements.

The guide raises fundamental questions about the ways that gender norms interact with social and economic conditions to work for or against women’s representation and the persistent influence of gender norms on their political aspirations.

Women have become an undeniable force in positions of political power in the 21st century.

Female leaders such as Dilma Rouseff in Brazil, Angela Merkel in Germany and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in Liberia, among many others, have made their mark on the world’s political stage in recent years. And while women have become a growing presence in politics, increasingly diverse types of women hold power. Finland elected its youngest Prime Minister, Juha Sipilä, a woman aged 34. Young women activists have been at the heart of political movements – from Alaa Salah in Sudan to Greta Thunberg in the global climate debates – taking centre stage across local governments, in protests, and as influential activists and thought leaders.

While the formal rules that impede women’s equal participation in politics were eliminated in most countries during the 20th century (with women’s disenfranchisement persisting in the Arab Gulf region in some cases into the early 21st century, easing with Saudi Arabia’s 2008 reforms for women in politics), informal rules and norms still mean that women’s routes to participation in politics and their experiences can differ from those of men. Identifying and addressing the informal, often implicit, rules that serve as barriers to women’s full participation is vital.

Rachel George, with Emma Samman, Katie Washington and Alina Ojha