The 2017 Elections To Watch For Progress On Gender Equality

01/01/2017 02:00 pm ET Updated Jan 10, 2017
Angela Merkel and Marine Le Pen will loom large in German and French elections, respectively, but that is not why these elect
Photos: L'Express; Wolfgang Pehlemann Steinberg; QuotationOf.com; Jean Pierre Muller/AFP
Angela Merkel and Marine Le Pen will loom large in German and French elections, respectively, but that is not why these elections are important for women in politics globally.

Some say 2016 was a bad year for women in politics. I say it was a bad year for politicians in politics.

True: Hillary Clinton lost her bid to become the first female President of the United States. And the first female presidents of South Korea and Brazil were impeached. But one woman does not embody the strengths and weaknesses of all her female compatriots. Indeed, no more so than one male politician is representative of all male politicians.

Has anyone asked David Cameron whether he thought 2016 was a good year for men in politics? Or François Hollande? Or Bernie Sanders or Jeb Bush? Each of these men experienced high profile failures this past year. Yet their defeats were considered to be personal. Virtually no one is saying, "Wow, look at all the male politicians who failed."

But because there remain so few examples of woman in positions of high political power, when one fails, her deficiencies are widely ascribed to women in politics generally. That is exactly the kind of thinking we need to get past. Several individual women's setbacks -- no matter how visible -- do not make it a bad year for women in politics. Instead, to assess the state of gender equality, we need to look not at individual performance but at collective progress.

By that measure, in fact, 2016 continued a long-running positive trend for women in national elected office. At 23%, the percentage of Parliamentarians globally who are women was higher than prior year, just as it has been every December since the Inter-Parliamentary Union started keeping records at the end of the 20th century, when it stood at 13%. The past year's progress was nearly universal, as modest increases of 0.2% to 0.8% were achieved in every region of the world, save Arab countries, which remained unchanged at 19.1%. Progress was achieved at both ends of the spectrum. Iceland elected 30 women to its chamber of 63 and now boasts of the "most gender-balanced parliament in the world". At the bottom of the rankings, Tonga elected one woman to Parliament, leaving only Haiti, Micronesia, Qatar and Vanuatu without female legislators.

Add to this collective progress a raft of individual achievements and a strong argument can be made that 2016 was, in fact, another year of historic breakthroughs for women in politics. Hillary Clinton became the first woman nominated for president by a major American party and the first woman to win the popular vote. Seven women were nominated to become the first female Secretary General of the United Nations. Theresa May became the United Kingdom's second female prime minister. Estonia, Taiwan and the Marshall Islands elected their first female presidents. Tokyo, Rome and Bucharest elected their first female mayors.

This all begs the question: How will 2017 shape up?

There is reason to believe the long-term trend of rising percentages of women in parliaments will continue in the year ahead. The Netherlands and Norway, countries leading on women's empowerment, may push the percentage of women in their chambers above 40% when they have parliamentary elections on March 15 and September 11, respectively.

Laggard nations will also have opportunities to start catching up. Iran, ranked 175th for female political representation, will be one to watch when it has local council elections (and its presidential election) on May 19.

Among high-profile female leaders, two second-term presidents face term limits at the end of the year. Voters in Liberia and Chile -- countries where men overwhelmingly dominate politics -- will choose successors to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Michelle Bachelet on October 10 and November 19, respectively.

But nowhere will women political leaders attract more attention this year than in France and Germany. In France's presidential election on April 23, Marine Le Pen will attempt to topple the two major party candidates to become the country's first female president. About five months later, Germans will vote in a general election where not only is the country's most powerful leader a woman, but so too are leaders of small parties on the extreme right (Alternative für Deutschland) and left (Die Linke).

For advocates of women in politics, France and Germany will be the stories of the year. But not merely because Angela Merkel is the most powerful woman in the world, and Le Pen aspires to challenge the German Chancellor's vision of a unified Europe. The fact that these two individuals will loom large over their national elections, is not, as described above, why these elections are so important for the collective progress of women in politics.

These two general elections will be pivotal because Germany and France already have among the most female Parliamentarians of any countries in the world, each with well over 200. Together, their female legislators represent nearly five percent of the women in Parliaments globally. Whether these numbers continue to climb following the elections of 2017 will largely influence whether the global march towards gender parity in Parliaments continues for another year.

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