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Women still under-represented in European politics

Published on 09/03/2009

Brussels — Women have certainly boosted their presence in European governments, thanks in part to electoral quotas but are still under-represented despite high profile exceptions like Angela Merkel and Margaret Thatcher.

"Still today in governments and parliaments, less than a quarter of members are women," complained Margot Wallstrom, the Swedish vice president of the European Commission ahead of International Women’s Day on Sunday."There is no lack of female candidates. The reality is men tend to choose men."

"One half of the population is seriously under-represented" and this being the case "the policy agenda will be set by men," Wallstrom said during an EU parliamentary debate this week.

According to a study by the commission, the EU’s executive arm, even if there are increasing numbers of women candidates their male counterparts still have a better chance of getting elected due to ingrained prejudices and customs.

The study extrapolated data from across Europe to show that "an election with 50 percent women candidates would result in a parliament with just 39 percent women members or, putting it another way, there would need to be 63 percent women candidates to achieve parity in the final assembly!"

"It’s wrong to blame women voters. The main problem is that male voters vote for male candidates," argues Drude Dahlerup, a professor in the department of political science at Stockholm University.

"We are changing from the idea that equality will come by itself — today we realise this is not the way things work," added Dahlerup, who has researched gender quota systems.

Even when people like Thatcher, Britain’s only female prime minister, do reach the top there is no guarantee that they will bring other women with them.

"Margaret Thatcher broke through the glass ceiling in politics," Patricia Hewitt, a minister under former Labour PM Tony Blair, said. "But it is a tragedy that, having become the UK’s first women prime minister, she did so much to undermine the position of women in society."

According to the European Commission study, none of the 27 EU member states’ lower chambers of parliament currently has half or more women deputies.

The closest is Sweden with 46 percent women, followed by the Netherlands and Finland with 41 percent.

Most chambers have less than a quarter of their seats occupied by women, with Hungary (10.9 percent), Romania (10.1 percent) and Malta (8.7 percent) bringing up the rear.

The EU parliament comes in above average in the female representation stakes with 31.2 percent.

EU Employment Commissioner Vladimir Spidla stressed that when women’s names are on electoral lists, they must be placed high up on those lists if the problem is to be addressed.

Brussels would also like to see big business become more feminine.

Today, European women occupy just 11 percent of company directors’ seats and only three percent of CEOs.

"Equal representation of women and men in positions of power is, I sincerely believe, a precondition for truly effective and accountable democracy and lasting economic prosperity," said Spidla.

Wallstrom pointed out that the female quotient within the European Commission was at a record high, though the numbere still stands at 10 out of 27 and no woman has held the top spot as commission president.

Thatcher, according to another female heavyweight of British politics Lady Williams, did understand that women were at a disadvantage in politics.

The former prime minister once told her: "We have to show them that we are better than them."

Catherine Marciano/AFP/Expatica