The short answer to that question is no, not by themselves. What about poll tested messages relayed through a creative advertising campaign in conjunction with a grassroots strategy to promote women as leaders? Why yes, that can work! A recent pilot project in Ukraine doing just than shows the efficacy of such an effort.
The Crisis in Leadership: Why We Need More Women
Across the globe women on average comprise 22.3% of parliaments even though they are half of the world’s population. A great deal of attention is paid to the problem of women’s political participation with far too little energy spent on innovative solutions to fix it.
We have a crisis in leadership around the world. We need our best and brightest to step up, which includes women. Why? Because it’s only fair. Need more? Okay, let’s tick off a few more reasons. We need more women in power, alongside men, checking their influence, and shaping and cultivating our society. Would the policy priorities and outcomes be better for women with respect to education, health, child care, and violence against women if more women were policymakers in parliament helping shape this agenda? Yes, undeniably.
Research shows women’s political participation results in tangible gains for democracy, including greater responsiveness to citizen needs, increased cooperation across party and ethnic lines and more sustainable peace. Simply stated, getting more women elected at the national and local is both the right thing to do and smart thing to do. It is the year 2015, women have broken through in other areas of public life and in different professions, why not politics?
Okay, so now that’s out of the way, how do we get there? What is the path to increase women’s participation, exactly? Well, turns out there are several things in that toolbox, like quotas. But let’s focus for a moment on the ingredient that may be most central, yet is paid attention to the least in international development projects to increase women’s political participation: we need more sophisticated communication campaigns to change attitudes toward women as leaders before, during and after elections.
Step 1: Focus on Creating an Enabling Environment
to Build Political Will
Establishing a proper setting where more women can lead — and thus more people are willing to vote for women candidates — requires a deeper set of strategies to create an enabling environment for women in advance of an election.
In every country I work in people tell me, “Voters are not willing to vote for women here, period. Our country is not like (fill in the blank, mostly likely it will include referencing a Nordic country, can you say Sweden or Finland?).” Keep in mind it is Rwanda that has the highest percentage of women in the world in parliament, at 63.8%, because of a quotas policy that opened the gate. In the process of rebuilding the country Rwandans made a conscious decision to put inclusiveness and equality at the heart of their reconstruction process. Now the prominent role played by women in parliament and throughout the government has helped transform attitudes throughout Rwandan society toward women. More work needs to be done, but it has created the opening to make that more possible.
Furthermore, a little known fact: in Scandinavian countries quotas were not introduced until the 1980s, when women’s parliamentary representation already exceeded 25%. Women’s representation increased even further as a result of their long history of mobilization of women into the labor market and into political life. The point being: the conditions in which women are a greater part of parliament comes down to political will and the acknowledgement of women’s contribution. There has to be a desire on the part of stakeholders to address the systemic barriers blocking women’s entry into the workforce and elected office.
Political will to change the system is one part of the solution.
So how does that desire begin, and more importantly how can we influence it? If it’s not there on its own we can influence it through organizing and communication to transform the idea of women as leaders. For each country the problems and the solutions for involving more women in politics differs slightly, but they all have in common the need to change the values behind leadership in order to create a greater desire for women leaders among the voting public.
So, how do we get there?
Step two: Test your Assumptions about
Public Willingness to Vote for Women
First, let’s examine the assumptions underlining the lack of women’s political participation. How do we know people are not willing to vote for women? Is this a gut feeling or a research-based position? Are we basing this conclusion on election results or actual data?
Research can show us the pathway to influencing rigid gender roles about women and their place in society. We cannot simply rely on the low number of women elected to justify the conclusion that people are not willing to vote for women. If women are less than 20% of all candidates, how can we expect they are going to comprise 50% of parliament anytime soon? Low representation of women is also the result of having so few women to vote for in the first place. Low representation is not evidence enough of voter attitudes toward women.
Unfortunately, political parties fail to recruit women as candidates also based on these assumptions, which turns into a self fulfilling prophecy. If women are blocked from leadership positions in the party or politics, or not given the opportunity to be candidates in equal proportion as men, how can we ever hope to vastly increase their numbers, or overcome stereotypes about women’s leadership qualities and qualifications in order to reach some type of parity?
While we can determine through other means that women candidates face barriers at the ballot box, we still need to have the specific evidence of why and how exactly. We need to understand what the attitudes, assumptions and stereotypes are in very specific and measurable ways. It is only through this evidence that we can hope to organize a targeted campaign to tackle what we assume to be insurmountable attitudinal barriers among voters that create an obstacle for increasing women’s participation.
Step 3: Do the Research! Seriously, you really can!
The tools of advocacy campaigns, including public opinion research, have become much more affordable and in the reach of NGOs. I do not accept the assumption that research is too expensive, this does not match the reality of how polling is used all over the world. Research-based evidence, through public opinion surveys and focus groups, to redefine the leadership qualities of women, is fundamental to challenging sexist perceptions about women candidates.
Do we have research that shows all things being equal, men and women are going to discriminate against a qualified candidate just because of her gender? And on what basis? What are the underlining assumptions behind such attitudes? And most importantly, have messages based on altering attitudes been tested, in order to be used in change oriented campaigns? Millions of dollars are spent on sophisticated ad campaigns to get people to stop smoking, use a condom or vaccinate their children. Where are the ad campaigns, and the research efforts, about voting for women? I can count the number of such campaigns on one hand.
CASE STUDY: Research into action
Over a two year period I was an adviser to the National Democratic Institute’s effort to increase women’s political participation. Among other activities we chose to focus change the role of women as leaders in the minds of Ukrainian voters through a public opinion-based ad campaign using tools of grassroots organizing. This campaign was made possible by the generous support of the Swedish International Development Cooperation and several others.
Through a series of surveys and focus groups conducted by Lake Research, the following picture emerged:
- In 2012 nearly half of Ukrainians believed there were too few women in elected office. The research showed us that demonstrating how women are different, and priming the areas where they are perceived as better managers than men, could help convert this sentiment into greater support for women candidates.
- There was only a 2% difference between men and women in terms of strong likelihood of getting involved in political life.
- By 2014, 49% of all Ukrainians thought there were not enough women in elected office. And nearly half of women, irrespective of age, believed that increasing the number of women in power in Ukraine would have a significant impact.
- Research also showed that women enjoyed strong advantages on a host of substantive issues, including child care, health care, education, and ending discrimination against women. Respondents also saw women as much more likely to help children, families, and seniors, and better equipped to address concerns over pensions and retirement security—though this last issue exposes a gender gap in the data. While many of these associations stem from traditional stereotypes of women as “caretakers”, they also provide a strong foundation on which to build a profile for women leaders on issues more central to the ongoing public debate in Ukraine.
Step 4: Put the Research Into Action,
Start a Campaign
With a team of local and international ad campaign experts that included GMMB and the Ukraine-based firm Me Too, we made a strategic choice to target women in this campaign given that women were more receptive to the call to action and to our messages. The evidence showed that creating a narrative through a visual story — showing women as leaders in their everyday lives, while working with men collaboratively — should be the basis of the campaign. Further research showed that despite upheaval in the country there was still an opportunity to link the desire for change with the role of women in political life and to capitalize on women’s strengths in terms of both issues and values.
The campaign had three prongs:
- Media component: Identifying effective ways of changing the portrayal of women leaders through targeted advertising campaign on TV, outdoor, Internet, social media
- Civic action component: Maximizing positive perceptions of women in politics through local pilot public relations campaigns and warming up media environment in advance of the advertising campaign
- Public education component: Identifying ways to minimize negative gender biases in media through innovative web-based anti-sexism campaign and training of journalists on gender sensitive coverage Anti-sexism web campaign: www.povaha.org.ua
(“Povaha” means “Respect” in English)
Watch the ad
Web hub with the ad campaign, http://50vidsotkiv.org.ua
Using social media to stir the environment and generate conversation on gender
Facebook campaign, https://www.facebook.com/povaha.org.ua?fref=ts
A pool of journalists from across Ukraine were also trained on gender-sensitive news and editorial coverage. A network of trainees is active and keeps applying standards of unbiased coverage, and women leaders are starting to pushback themselves, like when a deputy minister told Ukrainians to stop “beauty shaming” women politicians.
The Results: More Women Were Elected and
the Conversation about Women as Leaders has exploded
The Revolution of Dignity and the armed conflict in Eastern Ukraine have been explosive events through which successful positioning of women candidates was made possible, by message research that enabled advocates to help women seize ground on dimensions of strength, leadership, and an ability to bring order, while simultaneously elevating the salience of the qualities that women are perceived as dominate in — such as ethics, justice, and empathy. This message environment made possible through research and deep examinations of women was illustrative in the 2014 local elections in Kyiv and special parliamentary election.
The 2014 parliamentary election was a small improvement overall in the position of women in the parliament (nearly two points compared to the 2012 Parliament), which amounts to 11.3%, but given the circumstances of a snap election and a country in war time, any increase of women elected to higher office is significant because it demonstrates the perceived contribution and potential of women leaders even in times of conflict when “strength” and “toughness” (qualities often associated more with men) are of greater importance to voters.
In 2014 a much bigger leap forward was made by the women standing on party lists, largely as a result of the introduction of a gender quota in 2013 and decisions made by some parties to place more women in winnable positions. The trends are positive for future women candidates and the commitment of new parties to ensuring more gender parity.
The end result: Progress for women in 2014 is an indication of Ukraine’s ability to systematically address barriers to women’s political participation election by election.
In addition to parties nominating more women in the winnable positions on the party lists in the last election, new parties have worked on gender mainstreaming and adopted strategies of women’s empowerment since. For the first time in many years a woman was nominated as vice-speaker of the Ukraine Parliament. Political parties have also adopted internal quotas for women, established women’s departments, and are acting more strategically about the role of women in advance of the 2015 local elections.
A quotas reform legislative package has been developed in the context of election reform and will continue as these legislative debates on election law continue. The need for corrective affirmative action is now obvious for both the civic activists working on gender and for the parliamentarians themselves.
Success: Raising measures that remove barriers for women in Ukrainian politics into the public dialogue have been made possible by spurring the conversation about women and politics in a more public way with an organized advocacy and communications campaign about women as leaders.
The great news is that research shows voters are looking for a new type of politics, which Ukraine deserves and aspires to. Women are strongly associated with the new way of doing politics as those who are in touch with people and well equipped to make reforms. Those standing at the forefronts of gender equality campaigns need to take the next step to build on what was achieved and push out more public communication efforts to alter public sentiment. The opportunity for women is greater than it has ever been in Ukraine’s history, which is significant because realizing the ambitious goals set forth by the Revolution for Dignity requires that women get the political respect they too fought side by side men to achieve.