Women’s Representation and Economic Growth

03.15.2021 | Alexandra Long

The success of a democratic system relies on its central tenets of equality and representation. However, in many countries, women’s voices in areas of decision making are continually silenced.

As of January 2021, women account for only 25% of elected politicians globally. Though female representation has reached a 32.4% average in the Americas, the struggles for gender parity are most prevalent in the Middle East (17.8%) and West Africa (15.5%).

A Threat to Democracy

The underrepresentation of women in leadership positions threatens democracy because diverse perspectives ensure that historically marginalized groups are valued in policymaking and in the development of communities. The lack of female politicians is a result of systemic electoral disadvantages–male candidates are more likely to have an incumbency and fiscal edge–and patriarchal attitudes difficult to disentangle from society. Due to historical precedents, men have long been characterized as rational and resilient representatives, whereas traits typically associated with women, including docility and emotionality, contrast with what people think should be exhibited as leadership abilities.

In a 2020 public perception poll given to citizens of G7 countries, 27% of people said that women did not have the same ability to lead, though some of these countries previously had women occupying the highest governmental offices.

Women as Leaders

While gender stereotypes are harmful to a woman’s success in leadership positions, women who enter government office are more likely to advocate for policies that aid in societal development, such as protection against gender-based violence (GBV), better infrastructure and education, and more stringent climate change regulations. Past research has indicated that women politicians’ emphasis on development-oriented policy has bettered economic conditions in their relative constituencies. In a 20-year study researching 4,265 state assembly constituencies in India, female representation increased from 4 to 8%. During this time, GDP growth increased by 1.8%  per year in constituencies led by women compared to men, with no negative spillovers from other constituencies. Women were also more likely to finish infrastructure projects they started: There were 22% fewer incomplete roads in constituencies with female legislators, illustrating that women politicians in India were not only concerned with women-oriented legislation, but the overall development of their districts. Female politicians in India were also labeled as more risk-averse and patient and accumulated 10% less assets while in office.

True democracies should represent the people they serve. Especially in the Post-COVID-19 world, including women as equal and capable leaders in the public and private sectors will boost the economy and will pave the way toward gender equality.

In the private sector, diverse perspectives have proven to grow profits in corporations and have encouraged companies to increase the number of women in managerial positions, though women only occupy 23.3% of board positions globally. While the inclusion of women and other groups has demonstrated the increase of capital in individual companies, dismantling formal and informal barriers to increase women’s representation can also contribute to the global economy. In Africa alone, gender parity could increase the GDP by 10% by 2025 due to a larger female labor force participation. The European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) also notes that improving gender equality efforts could raise the EU GDP by 10% by 2050, as well as generate 10.5 million jobs.

Bouncing Back After COVID-19

Increasing diversity of perspective through women’s representation will ensure economic recovery and increased safety measures in the wake of COVID-19. In the United States alone, women accounted for 55% of net job loss since the start of the pandemic. Globally, women have been disproportionately affected because the hardest-hit sectors, education, hospitality, and retail, revolve around in-person interaction. Even without issues brought forth by the pandemic, these sectors are more likely to have inflexible working hours and little-to-no benefits, such as childcare and healthcare. The gendered division of labor has been exacerbated by the pandemic because women were forced to choose between their families and their jobs, an issue that would be nonexistent if every country had robust childcare policies to support women workers. Though women are only Heads of State in 21 countries, their unique leadership skills, relying on transparency, collective action and collaboration as opposed to competition and individuality, are effective against the strength of the pandemic. In OECD countries, female-led nations were shown to have lower death rates and higher rates of testing than their male counterparts, even with similar levels of restrictions.

While it is difficult to determine if representatives are unique as leaders because of their gender, the path to gender parity is arduous. As NDI notes in its “Faces of Democracy: Taiwan” video series, women in politics often face barriers to success, but must persevere for the future of gender equality. Many women currently in office began as social activists fighting for changes their legislators ignored. Miao Po Ya, a city councilor, once peacefully mediated disagreements at local protests and now continues to fight for disenfranchised groups. “Gender equality and democracy have a relationship,” she states. “In Taiwan [they] talk not only about gender equality, [but they] also talk about equality between different ethnic groups.” Pin Yu Lai, the youngest member of the Taiwan legislature and originally an activist during the Sunflower Movement, also understands that her intersecting identity as a woman and as a young person gives her a unique outlook on policy decisions.

Building A Better Future

True democracies should represent the people they serve. Especially in the Post-COVID-19 world, including women as equal and capable leaders in the public and private sectors will boost the economy and will pave the way toward gender equality. Although initiating systems reforms, including gender quotas, has proven to increase women’s representation, they alone are not enough to create an equitable future. Childhood education and empowerment tools for young women must be initiated globally to normalize the idea of women in positions of power. As gender parity involves an equal share of men and women at the table, male legislators must advocate for gender-focused policy changes as well.

Jerome Powell, head of the U.S. Federal Reserve, is one of many men using his voice to fight for better childcare policies to get women back into the workforce. While diversity of voices is important, so is collaboration. The only way to foster an equitable professional and social environment is to give women the resources necessary to succeed in higher-level environments, as well to encourage younger generations, men included, to change their perception of what a leader looks like.