On International Women’s Day 2022, Bianca Silva shares a wrap-up of an in-depth debate on how to bring about a gender equal Europe, starting in our regions.
As part of the 2021 European Week of Regions & Cities, the Assembly of European Regions (AER) organised a debate on achieving gender equality in politics, bringing together politicians and civil society to share ideas on how regions can help bring about a truly equal Europe.
The debate included high-level speakers from the European and regional level. With a video address from Helena Dalli, European Commissioner for Equality and the participation of: Cllr Andrew Gibson, AER Vice President for Inclusion, Diversity & Equal Opportunities; Christian Spahr, AER Secretary General; Cllr Alison Gilliland, Lord Mayor of Dublin; Robert Biedroń, Member of the European Parliament and Vice-Chair of the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality.
The moderation was carried by Dr Angela-Unufe Kennedy, CEO of the Migrant & Minority Disability Network Europe.
Union of Equality?
“The underrepresentation of women in positions of power is a democratic deficit”, asserted the European Commissioner for Equality, Helena Dalli, in her keynote address. A truly democratic Europe demands an accurate representation of our communities, yet, “the share of women in regional assemblies in the European Union is 32%”.
Following the address, AER Secretary General Christian Spahr presented the results of an opinion poll AER conducted in six countries representing more than 60% of the EU population: Germany, France, Italy, Poland, Sweden and Romania. Responses to several questions related to issues of gender equality were presented to kick-off the discussion.
So how do women feel the situation is in European regions? Taken as a whole, women believe the situation in their region is slightly worse in terms of equal opportunities to participate in society and politics than men do. 22% of men think the situation is “Very bad” or “Quite bad”, against 26% for women, while a higher percentage of men (35%) think the situation is “Very Good” or “Good” compared to 24% for women.
When it comes to the individual countries, Mr Spahr shared that the most optimistic country is Sweden followed by Poland, while the less optimistic are Italy and Romania. 35% of Swedes believe the situation is “Quite good” or “Very good”, followed by Poland and Germany at 33%.
Less optimistic are Italy and Romania. Just 8% of Italians think the situation is “Very good” or “Quite good” compared with 11% of Romanians. 32% of Italians think the situation for women is “Very bad” or “Quite bad”. For Romanians, the percentage is 27%.
What are the barriers to women’s participation and progression in politics?
Next up, our panel discussed what they viewed as the key constraints preventing women taking an active role in politics. What were the main problem areas they picked out?
The Gender pay gap
The gender pay gap contributes to an unequal access to cash, which is exacerbated in the lower paid workforce. “Low paid jobs are overwhelmingly held by women” stated Cllr Andrew Gibson, who believes there is an “unconscious discrimination” and “belief system” which leads to a “male dominated society”.
This makes it harder for women to get a start in politics or run for office. “You need cash to run a political campaign, and our experience shows that when you are starting out you have to fund it from your own capital”, shared the Lord Mayor of Dublin, Councillor Alison Gilliand.
Childcare and elder care
Furthermore, traditionally and culturally, women have taken the roles of caregivers at home, taking responsibility for childcare and eldercare. These imbalances converge into constraints that foreclose women’s participation and progression in politics.
The Lord Mayor explained that current child and elderly care culture “doesn’t serve women” and further supports male dominance of politics by keeping women in the private arena of their homes. This was also picked up by our next speaker, Robert Biedroń, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality, who underlined that access to childcare “is one of the main barriers [women face] to enter politics”.
Having more women politicians would in turn improve child care and elder care policies, in accordance with the Lord Mayor. Mr Biedroń added that there should be improvements to the EU laws in regards to maternity and paternity leave.
Confidence and male-dominated political culture
Another key barrier is political culture and the lack of women role models. “If you can’t see it you can’t be it” as the Lord Mayor put it. Confidence also plays a major key role, and can be improved by increasing the representation of women in politics. At the outset of her political career faced these challenges, noting that she “couldn’t identify with the usual politician” or replicate their “dominant aggressive approach”.
Hate speech and cyberbullying
Recently, confidence has been replaced with reluctance with the increase of hate speech and bullying online, motivated by ideological and party driven polarisation. This phenomenon has affected women in politics, as Mr Biedroń disclosed, nearly half of women politicians (45%) receive serious threats on their personhood.
“We need legislation and legal tools to define gender based crime and cyberbullying”, urged Mr Biedroń. This is absolutely crucial. Left unchecked, hate speech online can lead to real hate crimes and violence against women politicians.
Nevertheless, the panellists expressed confidence and hope in the local and regional politics, who can either be, quoting the Lord Mayor, “gatekeepers or gate openers” for women.
How can we make a difference at a regional and local level?
So what can be done to create a real Union of Equality? From the political to the economic and social dimensions, our panel shared several practical examples from their regions that can serve as a blueprint for change across Europe.
Representation and candidate selection
In the opinion of the Lord Mayor, tools such as quotas, better eldercare and maternity leave and gender awareness training for political party officials are enablers of women participation in politics: “political parties need to encourage women to join and ask women supportive of them to join, to take leadership roles”.
AER Vice President Gibson suggested the candidate selection processes must be looked at, noting that in England “regional groups dictate the candidates” and therefore for a more diverse selection process there must be a “positive encouragement for women to participate in local politics”.
Allies for equality
Women cannot go it alone. Men need to take an active role in breaking male-dominated political cultures. especially when it comes to bringing women into positions of power locally where they are not being represented. Mr Biedroń shared his positive experience with introducing quotas during his mandate as Mayor of Słupsk, Poland from 2014 to 2018, which led to the election of the first female deputy mayor of the city in over 800 years. He stated: “we need regulations, women need an elevator”.
Women’s underrepresentation in politics is a consequence of the gender stereotypes and gender roles reproduced by our societies. This is compounded by the gender wage gap and disproportioned caregiving responsibilities at home (among other issues).
Local and regional politicians must tackle these imbalances by adopting policies that give women the same tools and opportunities as men to launch and/or maintain a political career; whether it be a long-term approach (gender equality awareness campaigns and educational programmes, universal access to child and elder care, improvement of maternity and paternity leave, equal pay regulation), a short-term approach (quotas) or a mix of both.
Unless there are safe and balanced conditions for women to enter politics at a local and regional level, we won’t see women thrive as politicians nationally or at the European level. We need to think globally but act locally.
Clearly, there is a lot to do, but as we learned from our panel, there are plenty of good practices that we can take from regions across Europe. As our panels’ moderator Dr Angela-Unufe Kennedy put it in her wrap-up: “If we want to unlock the potential, passion and drive of our women, we can, should and must do better.”
Ms Bianca Silva is a former Communications & Events intern at the Assembly of European Regions.