A Cornerstone for Equality: Focusing on Women’s Global Political Empowerment

By Amy Alexander, Catherine Bolzendahl, & Farida Jalalzai

Since the mid-1990s, nations’ adoption of some form of quotas for women’s representation in national parliaments has swept the globe; more than 100 countries have a constitutional, legislative or party policy commitment to this. This is a powerful sign of the dramatic change in global formal commitments to gains in women’s political empowerment. Yet, simultaneously, nowhere do women hold equal power to men in influencing and exercising political authority worldwide. This story of recent gains and resilient barriers plays out daily in our news, and for good reason. These are all threads of a compelling story of women’s global political empowerment, a story that nearly universally begins with profound discrimination against women. Thus the recent world transformation, at least in formal commitments to women’s global political empowerment, can no longer be ignored and at the same time demands deeper inquiry into its promise and limits.

The UN has declared women’s empowerment as the third of its Millennium Development Goals. Within this broad charter, political empowerment is one of a variety of areas, often less fully articulated and studied in comparison to economic indicators. Yet, gains in women’s political empowerment directly decrease the role of gender inequality as an obstacle to incorporation as social and economic equals, and open, rather than close, the political domain to all members of society.

What is women’s global political empowerment? How much confidence should the global quota wave instill for those of us who hope to see widespread, real gains in women’s political empowerment? In 2015, we began a cross-national and inter-disciplinary discussion of the concept.[1] As we have continued to develop these ideas, we define women’s global political empowerment as the enhancement of assets, capabilities, and achievements of women to gain equality to men in influencing and exercising political authority worldwide.

This definition builds from important previous work on gender, empowerment, and development. First, empowerment denotes a process of transformation from a position of no or limited agency to one of greater opportunity and effectiveness. It moves beyond questions of individual agency, and deals with the systematic marginalization of women as a group from equal levels of political influence, representation, and integration. Second, it is important to recognize that women’s political empowerment is achieved as part of an ongoing political process not just one static goal or outcome. Further, there is less focus on the power held by certain notable individuals, and larger attention to power configurations positioning groups of men and women along multiple axes of inequality. Third, women’s political empowerment distributes power more evenly between men and women and undermines entrenched patterns of gender inequality across a broad range of economic, familial, and social institutions.

While the challenges are steep, there is a great deal of positive momentum toward expanding measures of women’s political empowerment worldwide. Data from sources such as the World Bank, the Inter-Parlimentary Union (ipu.org); and the UNWomen program (www.unwomen.org) are slowly prioritizing measures related to gender, women’s empowerment, and politics.

Mirroring the construction of gender as a social structure with individual, interactional, and institutional levels, measures of women’s empowerment must consider women’s individual capacities and opportunities (e.g., political knowledge, access, rights), community-based factors (e.g., political mobilization, campaigning, local representation), and broader arenas (e.g., women’s election nationally, women’s lobbies and political organizations, women’s power and leadership in office). Moving forward on these measurement issues requires collaboration across disciplines and a commitment by organizations and their resources to prioritize the collection of such data and share it widely.

[1] We thank the Thyssen Foundation for support of our conference on Women’s Global Political Empowerment in Cologne, Germany, June 2016.

Recommended Readings
Alexander, Amy C. and Christian Welzel. 2011. “Explaining Women’s Empowerment: The Role of Emancipative Beliefs.” European Sociological Review 27(3): 364-384.
Alexander, Amy, Catherine Bolzendahl, Farida Jalalzai. 2016. “Defining Women’s Global
Political Empowerment: Theories and Evidence.” Sociology Compass.
Hughes, Melanie M. 2011. “Intersectionality, Quotas, and Minority Women’s Political
Representation Worldwide.” American Political Science Review 105:604-620.
Jalalzai, Farida . 2013. Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass
Ceiling Worldwide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Kabeer, Naila. 2005. “Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment: A Critical Analysis of the
Third Millennium Development Goal.” Gender & Development 13:13-24.

Amy C. Alexander is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of Gothenburg and a Research Fellow with the Quality of Government Institute. She received her doctorate in 2011 at the University of California, Irvine where she was a Jack and SuAmy Alexanderzanne Peltason Fellow of the Center for the Study of Democracy. Her research focuses on the sources of women’s political empowerment and its effects on political representation, social values, democratization and governance across the globe. She has published on these and related topics in several peer-reviewed journals including Comparative Politics, the European Sociological Review, Politics and Gender,  the International Sociological Review, and Social Indicators Research. 

Catherine Bolzendahl is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of California, Irvine. Her research stands at the intersection of political sociology and the sociology of gender, and frames gender as a fundamental basis of inequality and source of societal change. Specifically she has examines: 1) The importance of gender equality for Catherine Bolzendahlwelfare state spending and development (e.g., Social Forces, Social Politics, European Sociological Review); 2) Survey based evidence for changing notions of citizenship, political participation and gender inequality (e.g., British Journal of Sociology; Social Science Quarterly; Social Forces); 3) Family as a site of inequality according to gender, political rights and sexual orientation (e.g., ASA Rose Series book Counted Out: Same Sex Relations and Americans’ Definitions of Family). She is also an editorial board member for Gender & Society

Farida Jalalzai is the Hannah Atkins Endowed Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science at Oklahoma State University. Dr. Jalalzai’s research analyzes the representation and behavior of women and minorities in politics and the role of gender in the political arena. Headers, women in Congress, and media representation of women candidates.  Her first book ShatteFarida Jalalzaired, Cracked aner work focuses on women national ld Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Her second book, Women Presidents of Latin America: Beyond Family Ties?  (Routledge New York 2016) examines several case studies of the behavior of women national leaders. Her current projects include analyses of the symbolic representation women executives offer, gender and representation of President Park of South Korea, and women executives during political transition.

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