A Matter of Democracy: Gender Equal Participation in Foreign Politics

Frieden & Sicherheit


The recent foraus-blog on the election of Ana Brnabić as first female, and lesbian, Prime Minister of Serbia, touches upon the broader issue of the underrepresentation of women and LGBTIQ people in public decision-making institutions. In Switzerland, only 29% of parliamentarians are female and only 17% of top leadership positions in the Swiss Foreign Ministry are held by a woman. But why is the participation of women in political decision-making relevant for the Swiss democracy?

Meaningful participation of women and marginalized groups, such as LGBTIQ people, in domestic and foreign politics is essential in a liberal democracy such as Switzerland. On the one hand, the structural underrepresentation of these groups shows a failure to ensure equality of opportunity among Swiss citizens and to represent all segments of society. On the other hand, by structurally marginalizing their voices – in the case of women, 50% of a country’s population – political institutions miss out on the specific experiences of these social groups.

A democracy is the rule («kratia») of the people («demos»), who are considered as equals, at least in liberal democracies. The structural underrepresentation of women in Swiss politics, brought about by patriarchal and sexist societal and institutional norms, shows that neither the equality of opportunity among Swiss citizens nor the representation of the Swiss demos is achieved. This not only casts doubt on the legitimacy of the Swiss democratic system but can also lead to disenchantment with politics by underrepresented groups such as women. Ensuring the participation of marginalized groups in public decision-making generally increases their level of trust in political institutions and empower them to actively participate in political discussions.

Does «meaningful participation» necessarily imply that 50% of the political decision-makers must be women? In other words: can only women represent «women’s interests» – no matter whether these actually exist? During the launch of the foraus Gender Programme, Professor Elisabeth Prügl argued that counting the heads of women in political organs should not be the focus of any gender mainstreaming effort. Rather, the aim should be to include feminist voices in decision-making, which can be expressed by women as well as men. For example, Canadian PM Justin Trudeau is a male political leader who is attentive to feminist concerns and has put in place, or supported, gender-sensitive policies such as the Canada’s Feminist International Assistance Policy. At the same time, Trudeau acknowledges the importance of guaranteeing women’s agency to represent themselves by ensuring complete gender parity in his cabinet, which he calls «a cabinet that looks like Canada».

The effective participation of women and LGBTIQ people is therefore a matter of ensuring democracy, justice and agency, but studies have also revealed that gender-sensitive representation provides added value in finding solutions for societal problems. For example, research shows that women’s effective participation in peace negotiations increases the chances that the peace agreement lasts for at least 15 years by 35%. Due to their particular societal status, women often make group-specific experiences, such as sexist assaults, which are likely to influence their awareness for certain political issues, priorities and point of views. While any person can be conscious about gender justice issues, people who have personally experienced gender discrimination are often more aware. Hence, including the voices of all people, including those that are usually marginalized, in public decision-making, increases the probability to advance social cohesion and solve real-life problems. Unfortunately, the argument that specific groups have particular perspectives due to their common experiences is often turned into an essentialist idea whereby groups are perceived as inherently different from others. As Johan Rochel argues in his blog post from the 19 September, characteristics often attributed to women or men, such as being empathic as opposed to aggressive, are nothing natural but acquired due to the persistence of societal rules on gender. Thus, recognizing the material and everyday effects of gender does not mean to deny the social construction of gender.

This article discusses some normative arguments why the participation of women, as well as of other marginalized groups such as LGBTIQ people, in political decision-making is necessary. One of the next steps of the foraus Gender Programme is to look at the reasons and the effects of their underrepresentation in (Swiss) foreign politics and to provide insights in how to remedy this democratic short-coming.