Ailing Democracy and Declining Women’s Representation: How They Are Related and What to Do About It
from Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy, Women and Foreign Policy Program, Women Around the World, and Women’s Political Leadership

Ailing Democracy and Declining Women’s Representation: How They Are Related and What to Do About It

A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the sixth phase of the general election, in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2024.
A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the sixth phase of the general election, in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

May 28, 2024 9:49 am (EST)

A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the sixth phase of the general election, in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2024.
A woman leaves after casting her vote at a polling station during the sixth phase of the general election, in New Delhi, India, May 25, 2024. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi
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Current political and economic issues succinctly explained.

Annual reports on the health of democracy this year reaffirmed an ongoing trend of decline, which has occurred alongside a less heralded but related stalling of women’s political participation. Given that women make up half of the world’s population, a greater focus on promoting women’s political empowerment can help rescue the world’s ailing democracies. While the proportion of women in parliament has quadrupled over the past fifty years, women only represent 26.9 percent of the world’s parliamentarians, far below their proportion in the population and well below the critical mass deemed necessary to influence legislative outcomes. Even fewer women are in leadership positions in both legislatures and national executive office. Measures that make democratic systems more democratic can arrest regression and make the systems more inclusive of women and other underrepresented citizens. 

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For many, the linkage between democracy and women’s rights and representation appears obvious. A government “by the people, for the people” naturally should include women’s full representation, just as the concept of equal rights for all includes women’s rights. Ample research has documented the societal benefits, including peace, stability, and increased GDP, that come with increasing equality. However, these basic concepts have come under assault in today’s culture war environment where advocacy for gender equality is deemed “gender ideology.” A 2023 study [PDF] by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security added to the existing body of research by documenting that women’s representation is strongly correlated with the health of democracy [PDF], as measured by the indicators of free elections, free association, and checks on government power. The study’s authors argue that investments in women should therefore be viewed as investments in strong democratic systems. 

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Democracy promotion programs aimed at women have traditionally focused primarily on support for gender quotas in parliaments and legislatures, and training and supporting women candidates for office. Aiding Empowerment: Democracy Promotion and Gender Equality in Politics, a new book by Saskia Brechenmacher and Katherine Mann, examines the track record of gender equality programs and argues for a much broader approach to women’s empowerment, essentially by making democracies more democratic. These prescriptions dovetail with other democracy promotion proposals put forward by groups like the Partners in Democracy project led by Harvard’s Danielle Allen, the FairVote organization cofounded by Rob Ritchie and his wife, Cynthia Terrell, who is also CEO of RepresentWomen. The premise is that both democracy and women would benefit from reforms that make voting systems more representative, such as ranked choice voting, which has begun to be adopted in several U.S. states and localities. Proportional representation or mixed electoral systems consistently result in much higher levels of women’s representation compared to single-member winner-take-all voting schemes (28.7 percent versus 11.7 percent in the past year’s elections). 

Other reforms to make democracies more democratic include measures to make political parties more democratic. The male gatekeepers who dominate the world’s political parties are often a key obstacle to women achieving real influence in the critical decisions of what legislation is brought forward and its content, not to mention candidate selection, party support for candidacies, and positions on party lists. Also, the legislatures themselves are often run in undemocratic ways, and parliamentary reform is needed to permit more voices to be heard. Such measures could decrease the perception that politics is a rigged game. Disillusion with democracy has been on the rise, as reflected in polls that show younger generations’ lower appreciation for this form of government and greater willingness to embrace authoritarianism. 

Democratic reforms may be necessary but insufficient to level the playing field for women in politics. Brechenmacher and Mann recognize that additional measures are likely needed to address hurdles particular to women politicians, which include a disproportionate level of gendered violence, the burden of family care responsibilities that still fall heavily on women, the pay gap and lack of fundraising networks or personal funds, and sticky social norms that continue to regard certain jobs, behaviors, and roles as traditionally male. The good news is that, according to a Pew Research Center survey, a majority of Americans believe there should be more women in politics and in leadership roles. The bad news is the majority is smaller than the last time the question was asked in 2018. A majority think women must do more to prove themselves, while large pluralities say gender discrimination and other hurdles play a role. Many believe equality will be reached eventually without policy interventions, but the slow increase and the recent alarming data on stalling progress suggest otherwise. 

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Around the world, signs of the decline in both democracy and women’s rights abound. The Varieties of Democracy, or V-Dem project, the most in-depth analysis of global trends, reported that the decline in democracy continued in 2023 for the fifteenth year. Approximately 71 percent of the world’s population lives under autocratic rule (either closed autocracies or electoral autocracies). Simultaneously, the trajectory for women’s representation shows clear signs of stalling. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, the number of women winning seats in parliament fell or stayed the same in thirty-four countries that held elections in 2023. The rate of women’s gains in 2023 was flat compared to 2022 rate and lower than in 2020 and 2021. 

Given how pronounced these twin trends are, passivity could result in further democratic erosion and increased autocracy. Moreover, the outlook for 2024 is not promising. Of sixty national-level elections occurring this year, thirty-one are occurring in conditions of declining democracy and only three in conditions of improving democracy, by V-Dem’s count.  

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The trend of decline for both democracy and women’s representation and rights is a global one, with regional variations. Eastern Europe shows the greatest degradation in V-Dem’s assessment, with the consolidation of autocracy in Belarus and Russia and continued democratic regression projected in Croatia, Hungary, Romania, and Serbia. Similarly, South and Central Asia’s decline is likely to continue, heavily weighted by the expected victory of Indian prime minister Narendra Modi, who would consolidate his brand of Hindu nationalism in a government that V-Dem labels as increasingly autocratic. Women’s rights and representation score low in these countries, with outright regression in many. India’s parliament passed a bill last year that would reserve one-third of the seats in India’s lower house for women, but it not due to take effect until 2029. In Africa, coups and military takeovers marked a continued record of democratic decline, and South Africa’s elections may still be dominated by the discredited long-ruling African National Congress. 

In Latin America, fewer citizens are seeing democracy as the preferred form of government, according to Latinobarometro, down to 48 percent in 2023 compared to 60 percent the year before. Women, who remain underrepresented in most Latin American countries, are the most dissatisfied, at 70 percent. Latin America’s strong gains in women’s representation after years of activism are also under attack by populist authoritarians who seek to roll back women’s rights, as recently elected Argentinian president Javier Milei has pledged to do. The bright spot of the region was Brazil, which reversed its democratic decline when President Lula da Silva took over from Jair Bolsonaro, who had restricted rights and attempted to stay in office after he lost elections in 2022. 

In the Middle East, the region deemed the most autocratic in the world as well as the most unfavorable to women, the lone democratizing country continues to degrade. After the Arab Spring, Tunisia adopted a new constitution that enshrined gender equality, a “zebra” electoral system where lists alternate men and women candidates, and government-provided campaign financing. The result was a high-water mark of 31 percent women in the parliament in 2014. Democracy has declined precipitously since President Kais Saied conducted a “self-coup” [PDF] in 2021, followed by repression, jailing of opponents, and electoral changes to single-member majority voting that shrank women’s representation to 16.2 percent in 2023. The lone liberal democracy in the region, Israel, was downgraded to the category of electoral democracy for the first time. 

Election results in 2024 may not provide good news, judging from the outcomes to date. But if nothing else, they may serve as a wake-up call for democracy activists to rally around systemic reforms to rescue this form of government and ensure greater representation for half the world’s population. 

This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.

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