Theme: Government & Parliament | Content Type: Blog

Democracies Have Not Done Enough to Flush out Sexism

Joni Lovenduski


Christopher Burns

| 5 mins read

We should expect democratic systems to meet some relatively modest claims: they should be able to provide for the equal treatment of men and women as individuals; they should guarantee the equal presence of men and women in public life; and they should reflect and respond to the policy concerns and interests of both women and men. Even though women are closer to equality in the established democracies than they are in other political systems, democracies have not achieved these minimum conditions of equality.

On equal treatment, democracies have not done anything like enough to ensure this concept becomes a reality. The sexual abuse and harassment of women, for example, is widespread but continues to be accepted. The UK is late to the table on this; even in the House of Commons, it is only very recently that steps have been taken to deal with sexual harassment, and very limited they are too.

Similarly, women are not equally represented in public life in any democratic country. Of the top five countries in terms of female legislative representation, only one is a well-functioning representative democracy. The key mechanism is exclusion: seen in underrepresentation, male norms in elected assemblies, vertical and horizontal sexual segregation, and a political framing that underpins the perceptions of our representatives in such a way that the ideal politician is thought of as male.

In terms of the policy process, women are still mainly treated as outsiders and a political minority, despite actually being demographically in the majority. The policy agenda and its discourses treat women in terms of ascribed political roles whilst also remaining silent for decades on issues such as domestic violence, reproductive rights, rape and equality at work.

Talking about the book itself and how gender might figure in some of the analyses it contains, four things stood out for me. The first is the insulation of institutions. Representative democracies continue and proceed because of institutions that slow change, whilst insulating and protecting elites. These processes are gendered, and the excruciatingly slow progress of change – which is always resisted – is hardwired into our democratic institutions.

The second theme that I found was the problem of voluntary political parties. They are the almost universal institutions that organise politics, but are patently incapable of representing women as they are currently constructed. At root, the cause is probably the voluntary nature of political parties, which requires an investment of time. As women are working more hours than ever before, whilst still carrying out the bulk of domestic and caring labour, this creates a huge barrier to involvement in politics. Time is not only money, time is power.

And it is power – specifically power relations – which is the third theme I want to highlight. Representative democratic institutions have been uninterested in adapting to changes and controlling and managing increasing levels of inequality, which is known – and has been shown – to disproportionately affect women.

Fourth, power does not map onto constitutional arrangements, not least because our institutions no longer reflect and accommodate contemporary social divisions. Social and political identities no longer reflect each other; the class, religious, regional and gender settlements that form the basis of current political practices have overtaken other divisions, including different identities and ideologies. Even as democracies are excluding women, they are being undermined by social developments and new forms of political expression that push women’s priorities down the agenda.

As for how we got here, the short answer is through institutional sexism. Our current arrangements were designed on the basis of an unacknowledged sexual contract that excluded women by failing to acknowledge how private life makes public life possible, whilst also failing to make arrangements for the participation of all citizens.

What can we do about this? We need fundamental change that almost seems to be beyond the reach of political action. We must continue to promote the inclusion of women, and to understand that institutional reform is essential. It is not enough to offer equal treatment but exclude women from deciding what that means. Not only can women not play the game if they are not in it, institutional sexism means that the rules of the game prevent women from playing effectively, even when they do get involved.

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    Joni Lovenduski

    Joni Lovenduski is Chair of the Political Quarterly Editorial Board. She is also Professor Emerita at Birkbeck College, University of London and Visiting Professor at Kings College London.

    Articles by Joni Lovenduski