International Women’s Day 2018: What is there to celebrate?

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DiA’s Nic Cheeseman and the University of Birmingham’s Jill Steans ask whether there is anything to celebrate on this International Women’s Day, and why so many democracies do a worse job of promoting female political representation than their authoritarian counterparts …


On International Women’s Day 2018 readers might ask whether there is much to celebrate. The day falls amidst scandals about the abuse of vulnerable women by some of the world’s leading charities – precisely the organizations that we expect to be fighting exploitation. The problem is not confined to aid, or charities-exploitation has been identified in government, multinational companies, and film industries.

In the aid context, inequalities in power and resources are magnified, but we are kidding ourselves if we think these problems are limited to disaster zones. For many women, they are part of everyday life.

As such, International Women’s Day 2018 is an occasion to remind ourselves of the need to redouble our efforts to confront gender inequality wherever we find it.

The challenge ahead

A formidable battle lies ahead. In most walks of life, women continue to be underrepresented at the highest level. The number of women elected to the world’s parliaments continues to be shockingly low. In Sweden, consistently highly ranked in the Global Gender Gap index, the percentage of seats held by women has declined in recent years. In the United States, women hold just 19.6% of the seats in Congress. In the United Kingdom the record 208 women elected in 2017  represents only 32% of parliament – a long way off parity. The United Kingdom has its second female Prime Minister, but women remain underrepresented in cabinet (26%).

This is also true of academia. The number of women entering higher education in the UK is at a record high. Female students outperform males in many subject areas. However, the number of female professors is far too low – including at the University of Birmingham, where efforts to redress this inequality have yet to be successful. Less than a quarter of professors in the UK are women and a recent study found that one in three universities are moving backwards.

The democratic paradox

It is tempting to think that the situation must be even worse in parts of the world where democracy is less consolidated. This intuition is wrong. In many sectors there is no clear correlation between democracy and female representation. Indeed, it is outside of the West that some of the most striking breakthroughs have been made in recent years.

The countries with the highest levels of female political representation in the world are Bolivia, Cuba and Rwanda– one problematic democracy and two authoritarian states. In the same league table, Zimbabwe sits above Germany, while Belarus outperforms Canada.

These findings suggest an uncomfortable truth: democracy is not necessarily a boon for gender equality. The disappointing performance of so many democracies on gender equality is not simply down to manipulative elites and clunky structures, but also the attitudes of ordinary voters. Recent research has found that even people publicly committed to gender equality have difficulty accepting women as leaders subconsciously.

Changing gender norms

Having more women in parliament does not necessarily translate into “pro-women” government policies. Parliaments with strong female contingents have failed to pass legislation on issues such as gender-based violence and inheritance rights, leading some to question whether we should care about the number of women in parliament. Can’t men sensitive to equality issues do just as good a job?

Growing evidence indicates that size does matter. Alice Evans has demonstrated that it is possible to change social norms when marginalised people “gain confidence in the possibility of social change.” Critical to this process are more role models from excluded communities and for citizens to believe that others in their community are leaving old prejudices behind.

Given this, gender parity has real value in key sectors of our economy and political system, even if this does not translate into immediate policy gains. All the more worrying then, that many advanced democracies have made little progress towards gender equality in key areas like politics and education.

Recent revelations demand efforts to end the exploitation of women in disaster zones and on movie sets. However, success here will be dependent on our ability and willingness to tackle the roots of gender inequality, which lie closer to home.


Nic Cheeseman is Professor of Democracy and Fellow of the Institute for Global Innovation, University of Birmingham

Jill Steans is Senior Lecturer in International Relations Theory and Fellow of the Institute for Global Innovation, University of Birmingham

Together, they lead an exciting new research programme on innovative ways to tackle gender inequality in health and wellbeing as part of the University’s new Institute for Global Innovation.

This post appeared on the University of Birmingham website – see the University’s International Women’s Day YouTube playlist to view just some of the amazing work being carried out by women across the University of Birmingham.

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