For the last decade or so, more and more governments have moved in the direction of gender parity cabinets – the appointment of an equal number of women and men ministers to cabinet. In early 2021, according to the InterParliamentary Union, about a dozen countries had 50 percent women or more in ‘ministerial positions,’ including two African countries – Rwanda and Guinea Bissau – with South Africa, Mozambique, Ethiopia, and Namibia following closely behind with 40 percent women or more.
Some scholars have identified an emerging gendered-balanced decision-making (GBDM) norm as an explanation for this turn to more women in cabinets or, maybe it is just time, as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau observed when asked why he first appointed a gender parity (and more diverse) cabinet – ‘because it is 2015.’ In the USA, President Joe Biden, who pledged to appoint a cabinet that ‘looked like America’ in 2021, has come the closest yet to a gender parity cabinet (46 percent women).
While across the world efforts to bring more women into politics have largely focused on national legislatures with the widespread adoption of electoral gender quotas, gaining access to executive rather than legislative office is a very different matter given that ministerial posts are appointed rather than elected. Just as understanding electoral and voting systems is imperative to apprehending women’s access to legislatures, so too is it necessary to understand appointment processes to cabinet to appreciate women’s access to the executive.
Are cabinet appointment processes in some ways gendered, such that women are – or are not – just as likely to be appointed ministers as men?
In their 2019 book, Cabinets, Ministers, and Gender, Claire Annesley, Karen Beckwith and Susan Franceschet seek to answer this question (and a few others), focusing on seven countries – but no African cases. We decided to use the model developed by Annesley, Beckwith and Franceschet to interrogate the cabinet appointment process in one African country, Ghana, where women have never been more than 32 percent of cabinet ministers (during the 2013-17 administration of President John Mahama).
Currently, during President Nana Addo Dankwa Akufo-Addo’s second term, women are about 20 percent of cabinet ministers (which is still well above their presence in parliament). In brief, we found that while Ghana has a fully ‘empowered’ president who could appoint a gender parity cabinet, the formal and informal rules governing the selection of cabinet ministers – for example, those related to regional balance and ‘minister MPs’ – work against more women in cabinet. Still, we are convinced that ‘empowered selectors’ such as Ghana’s president (and most African executives) could appoint gender parity cabinets across the continent.
While this work focuses on the formal and informal rules of the cabinet appointment process, previous scholarship on women’s access to cabinets has focused on generalist versus specialist recruitment methods – that is, whether ministers are recruited for their political skills and experience or for their specific policy expertise (with the latter tending to favor the appointment of women as ministers) or whether a country has a presidential or parliamentary political system (with the former favoring the appointment of women ministers because ministers must not be drawn from the legislature).
Other work argues that women’s access to cabinets can be even more beneficial (than access to parliaments) for women’s substantive representation given ministers’ roles in leading government agencies, proposing policy agendas, and setting policy priorities.
Conducting research on cabinets and cabinet ministers is more challenging than on parliaments and members of parliament, with the result that cabinets have been less well studied and less well understood. There is no Interparliamentary Union website for cabinets.
Cabinet ministers are ‘shuffled’ with some regularity, especially across Africa. It is not always clear exactly which ministers or ministries are in cabinet; indeed, this can change from one administration to the next. Cabinet meetings are more likely to be held behind closed doors with no notes or recordings available. Our article adds to a relatively small literature on women in cabinets in Africa, even more so women in cabinets in Ghana.
We build upon a small existing literature that suggests that global patterns finding that women fare better with specialist than generalist recruitment methods and presidential than parliamentary political systems obtain in Africa as well, that there is no clear relationship between numbers of women in parliament and women in cabinet, that women’s share of cabinet appointments is lower when leaders must accommodate large numbers of politicized ethnic groups and higher with more democracy and more women in parliament, but that women cabinet ministers may substantively represent women’s interests, though perhaps in ‘nonlegislative ways.’
In seeking to understand the cabinet appointment process in Ghana we scoured the Constitution as well as newspaper reports during the ‘speculation phase’ – from the time of an election until the first cabinet ministers are named – and the ‘reaction phase’ – for about two weeks after the final announcement of cabinet appointments are made – for five administrations, from President Kufuor in 2001 until President Akufo Addo’s first administration in 2017. We also conducted interviews with scholars, journalists, former ministers, and party officials and consulted published accounts of political insiders.
In brief, we found, first, that it is the President’s ‘prerogative’ (as stated repeatedly in news reports but also in the Constitution) to appoint cabinet ministers of his choosing. Second, that while the Constitution suggests attention to gender and regional balance, regional balance (essentially, one minister from each region) is essential, while gender balance is much less so. And third, as also stated in the Constitution, at least half of 19 cabinet ministers must come from parliament (the ‘minister MPs’); this too has always been respected.
In Ghana, cabinet minister nominees are typically highly qualified for office and since the early years of the political transition have always survived the vetting by parliament. We also found that which ministry belongs in cabinet may change from one administration to another. So, for example, under both of President Akufo-Addo’s administrations, the Minister of Gender, Children and Social Protection has not been part of cabinet – unlike the administrations of all of his predecessors going back to President Kufuor (when the ministry was first created).
We also identified some unanticipated findings that may be more common in African cases, and other contexts in which young democracies predominate, and are deserving of future research – for example, that there is a very large number of ministers beyond those who are appointed to cabinet, with many of these constituting “friends and family appointments”, according to media reports. [Large and unstable cabinets have been identified previously as a characteristic of African cabinets, though in Ghana the large numbers are outside of cabinet.]
In Ghana, non-cabinet ministers, ministers of state, regional ministers and deputy ministers have numbered in the dozens more than those appointed to cabinet, with those numbers growing steadily over the last two decades. In our view, a very large number of ministers together with some ambiguity around who is a cabinet minister (and changes to which ministries are in cabinet) allow for some obfuscation around women’s presence in cabinet as well as for sites of potential political power outside of cabinet.
If we think back on some of the early arguments in favor of gender parity in governments, more representative and inclusive bodies and institutions will presumably make for more democratic polities.
Gretchen Bauer (@gretchenmbauer) is professor of political science and international relations at the University of Delaware.
Akosua K. Darkwah is associate professor of sociology and Acting Dean, School of Information and Communication Studies, at the University of Ghana.