What do Global Trends Portray for Ethiopia’s Upcoming Elections?

There have been notable recent strides in Ethiopia with regards to the political participation of women. A gender balanced cabinet as well as the appointment of the first woman president has shifted the narrative on political participation and presented a ‘new normal’ where young girls can now view high-level political positions as achievable. These are all noteworthy progresses that have resulted from the current administration and deserve applause. However, given that inequality in political spaces is systemically entrenched, the progressive strides require structural enablers for sustainable equality to take root in an institutionalized manner. The systemic inequality that prevails in the political sphere has resulted in women being less likely to run for elections than men due to a mix of supply-side as well as demand-side factors. Although there are several important issues under the supply-side, of critical mention are self-confidence and access to resources. While confidence directly impacts drive and ambition, access to resources can limit women’s ability to realise their ambition to run for political office. Other vital issues under the supply side, such as aversion to elections, will not be elaborated upon in great length but will be referred upon with regards to confidence in self-promotion and proactive competition.

Demand-side factors that will be explored are social norms, which arise from culturally-based traditions, and the role political parties play as gatekeepers to women’s political representation. Both demand and supply factors are heavily influenced by a dominant culture and this has had an overarching influence on women’s decision to run for office and will, therefore, serve as the analytical lens while exploring both areas.

Although demand- and supply-side factors have affected women’s political participation, some positive measures have been implemented to overcome these barriers, including the implementation of the quota system. This serves to combat demand-side barriers at the political party level and hold parties accountable in recruiting women politicians. Additionally, the role of women’s organisations in addressing resource barriers and advocating for women’s political participation has been valuable in breaking barriers and strengthening women’s ability to run for elections.

Supply-side factors
Women’s decision to run for elections is affected by their ability to perceive themselves as viable contenders. Even when women are well- or over-qualified in comparison to their male counterparts, their self-perception is that they are not qualified. This inhibits women from deciding to run and compete in political spaces.

The political sphere is seen to be combative and aggressive, while women are expected to be soft and nurturing, making the political space not an ideal fit for women. The positioning of political spaces as ‘naturally’ out of reach and inaccessible also helps sustain the status quo and curb women’s confidence by keeping the space insulated by male candidates. Therefore, even in cases where women do decide to run for office, their ambition may be conservative and measured due to self-doubt.

Additionally, the competitive nature of political spaces serves as a deterrent to women’s interest to run. This avoidance behaviour is part of the aversion theory, which conveys that women are innately non-competitive. The ability to proactively compete and self-profile is a direct output of confidence and is required to run for office. While cultural attitudes broadly influence and shape women’s confidence and their ambition to run, it can be less impactful in cases where women emerge from politicised upbringings and where they have role models. However, confidence around readiness and perceived qualification are culturally affected by demographics and socialisation. It is also further reinforced by the limited number of women in leadership roles to challenge current inequalities and advance the supply of women, and aspire them to run for elections.

Women’s decision to run for office is also dependent on access to time and money. The processes linked to running for elections are time intensive and likely to result in the rearrangement of personal priorities. The time factor in relation to balancing family responsibilities with the demands of political engagement is a significant hurdle for women. However, difficulties in balancing demands are reducing in impact, especially in developed nations which is evidenced by the increasing number of women leaders in Scandinavian countries. While women are breaking through culture barriers by acting on their political ambitions, the gender roles remain intact alongside the addition of more tasks to their already full plates.

The second resource issue affecting women’s ability to run is access to finance required to fund their candidacy. The election process is expensive and requires access to disposable income. Women usually earn less than men; for example, in Ethiopia, women make around 63 cents for every Birr earned by men, according to a study conducted by the Central Statistical Agency in 2016. The gender pay gap provides women with fewer resources to cover expenses related to campaigns, media, and other outreach processes to gain voter confidence. The other contributing factor linked to financial resources includes access to support from informal networks that can provide financial backing to women candidates.

Women’s lack of financing is affected by the fact that they do not have access to informal and affluent networks to mobilise external financial backing. Access to banking and investment circles is insulated and can primarily be limited to men who traditionally occupy financial professions. And civic skills are a useful resource and an essential precursor to public engagement which is part and parcel of political spaces. Women are less comfortable profiling themselves to the public to gain office, while men are usually overconfident in their self-presentation as the cultural narrative is favourable to them. This conservatism is because women have not had the opportunity to nurture these skills due to culturally set barriers.

Demand-side factors
Similar to the supply-side, culture remains a pervasive force in shaping demand-side factors. The concept and power of cultural hegemony remains a useful framework for understanding the rationalisation of perceptions and assumptions about women politicians. Even after women decide to run, they grapple with two challenging factors: societal attitudes that scrutinise their role as a leader and the reception from political parties who act as gatekeepers. The cultural bias remains in the backdrop and frames the belief that men are a better fit for political leadership than women.

The cultural argument that women are not fit for political leadership is directly linked to the low demand for women politicians and sustaining the status quo whereby men continue to occupy political parties and leadership spaces. The demand for women candidates is systemically countered by structural aspects that can also result in political spaces being hostile or not conducive for women candidates.

A key measure that has been implemented to counter demand-side barriers is the quota system. The quota system is useful in opening party spaces to women which would have otherwise been inaccessible. Culture remains prominent in its broad influence and is conveyed through societal attitudes towards women as politicians and the role political party structures play to affect the demand for women politicians.

While culture is an influential factor shaping and informing women’s decision to run, it also remains relevant after women win elections. Societal attitudes about a woman’s place and assumptions about her calibre result from culturally ingrained stereotypes. According to a study conducted by Paxton et al., in 2017, the political environment is positioned by culture and as merely out of a woman’s comfort zone and will therefore be a mismatch doomed to fail. The underlying premise for such arguments is that men are more rational than woman and as such, should be trusted to decision making roles. The aspect that serves as ammunition for this premise is that women’s biological nature directly affects their rationality and intelligence.

While there are positive changes, it is still the case that gender bias continues to influence women’s access to political spaces and informs attitudes towards their role as political leaders. The need to secure public validation and legitimacy has an indirect impact on maintaining self-confidence. The fact that political leadership is synonymous with stereotypical masculine behaviours results in the discrimination of potential women leaders. The challenge of balancing public perception not to be seen as aggressive or too soft is difficult. However, women leaders have utilised traditionally-perceived feminine traits to their advantage.

The role of political parties is vital to women’s decision to run for elections. They have a decisive role in recruiting and nominating women candidates and therefore play the role of gatekeeper. The female ascendance to power in Germany serves as an example whereby the current prime minister came to power after the status quo had been disrupted through Germany’s reunification as well as a party crisis. Political crisis and instability can be conducive to the opening up of political party spaces to women candidates since parties are looking to bring about stability and regain legitimacy. The catalytic role women’s movements have played, at the global and national level, in seizing political opportunities to advance women’s political participation cannot be understated.

Quotas have made political parties accountable to recruiting women politicians. Amongst the countries who have excelled in quotas are Rwanda and Ethiopia. Rwanda is amongst the ‘big jump’ countries where women’s historical representations dramatically increased within just one election cycle going from 25.7 to 48.8Pct in 2003, and now reaching as high as 50Pct.

Similarly, Ethiopia exceeded its previous party-based quota of 30Pct by the recent appointment of female cabinet ministers who were 50Pct female, the first woman president, and the first female chief justice. While quotas are generally received positively, they are also critiqued by disruptors who express the opinion that they are merely part of ruling party strategies to consolidate power and gain external legitimacy.

Although several challenges inhibit women’s participation in elections, there are ways to mitigate and address these challenges. Regarding supply-side factors such as confidence, useful approaches include investing in developing women’s civic skills and providing feedback that can enable women to improve their readiness and sharpen their skill sets.

The time-related resource challenge can also be addressed by lobbying for investment in enabling supportive services for women candidates such as childcare and flexible working conditions. It will also be useful to scale the practice of women political organisations such as EMILY’s List, which provides financial support to emerging women politicians faced with financial challenges.

The mitigation of the demand side barriers such as societal attitudes and the role of political parties can be affected by the efforts of women collectives and organisations. Amongst useful approaches include awareness-raising on the value addition of women in leadership and pushing for quotas and beyond to advance women’s access to political leadership.

Early intervention can be most impactful where young girls in schools experience leadership roles in student councils or school clubs. It is evidenced that encouragement during upbringing can serve as a means of empowerment and also an equaliser for ambitions. It is indicative that democratic societies serve as enablers to the breaking of traditional limitations and facilitate inclusive representation. It will also be interesting to further research the causation between women’s political legitimacy and progressive democratisation.

9th Year • Feb.16 – Mar.15 2020 • No. 83

Bethlehem Mengistu

is a development expert with 15 years’ experience.. She can be reached at bettymengistu22@yahoo.com.

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