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Women in power: recent research perspectives

History and politics are mostly tales of men on the battlefield or men in dark suits, white shirts and a tie. And as Ewa Widlak showed in “2015, Women and Political Leadership“, only 7.3% of heads of state and 6.5% of heads of government are women right now, so the present doesn’t look much different.

But Ewa, who is researching first ladies, is not the only academic trying to understand whether the time has come for women. In May, the University of London is organising a workshop on “Women, Gender and Political Leadership” (call for papers until 31 March), and its just one of several signs that women in power, or, more broadly, gender aspects of power are receiving increasing attention.

Farida Jalalzai recently asked “Gender, presidencies, and prime ministerships in Europe: Are women gaining ground?” and found that most female top leaders in Europe have been in countries where the are dual executives, i.e. presidents and prime ministers. Silvia Claveria asked “Still a ‘Male Business’?” looking into women in cabinet positions in 23 “advanced industrial democracies” where the share of women in cabinets has risen from 9.3% in 1980-1989 to 28.3% in 2000-2010.

Moving up from national leadership positions to the international level, Kirsten Haack sheds some light on those women who are “Gaining Access to the ‘World’s Largest Men’s Club‘“, that is top positions in United Nations agencies. According to her, 21 women have held Deputy or Under-Secretary-General positions since the first women gained access to the UN’s circle of power in 1987. Counting only Deputy Secretary General and leadship of UN Agencies, there have been only 20 women so far.

Other research by Fabrizio Gilardi shows with statistical data from Swiss municipal elections “that more women ran for office if more women were elected in nearby municipalities in the previous election” (article), although the effect fades over time. A recent study of female representation in the European Parliament that I’ve already discussed finds that it doesn’t seem to be national electoral systems per se that define female representation but rather other mechanisms that still have to be studied.

And Diana Z. O’Brien studied female leaders of political parties in western democracies, finding “that women are more likely to initially come to power in minor opposition parties and those that are losing seat share” (conference article, ). If subsequently their parties win, they are more likely to remain in power, but if their parties lose, they are more likely kicked out again than their male counterparts are, showing that standards and expectations are different for men and women.

All the articles cited above are from 2014 and 2015, demonstrating that there is (growing?) interest in women in power in our discipline, and that articles thereon actually get published. Interestingly, four of the six articles quoted (that I’ve stumbled across in recent weeks) have been written by female academics, one has been co-authored by a woman and a man, and one has been written by a man.

Though anecdotally, this may indicate that the subject of women empowerment  still might be considered a ‘female’ topic.

And there’s more to that: I recently showed that there is no gender balance in political science publishing. What I did not cover was substance.

However, not few of the articles that were  authored by (a majority of) women were actually written on gender-related topics. Most visibly, in the two journal on gender/women and politics in the list of journals I covered, 19 of 23 articles were written by (a majority) of women. The agenda of a recent workshop “Femme: de l’objet au sujet” also shows a majority of female presenters.

In other words, recent increase in interest in women in power appears to be driven by women themselves. In 2015, when still less than 10% of world leaders are female, that doesn’t seem to be enough for a discipline like political science that by its nature should be a driver for political change, uncovering systematic inequality.

Research into women empowerment should be high on the agenda, and political scientists independent of gender should be interested in advancing our knowledge on why inequality persists and why some glass ceilings are breaking. So, contribute and send in your paper proposal for the ”Women, Gender and Political Leadership” or contribute in other ways to this research agenda!


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