‘For the Elections We Want Women!’ – Why? What Explains Growing Support for Women Leaders?

By Alice Evans, University of Cambridge

Across the world, there is rising support for women’s political participation and leadership. What explains this egalitarian social change? And how can it be amplified?

Existing research has explored the relative significance of political, socio-economic and ideological factors. Maybe democratisation and reduced state repression have lessened women’s fear of speaking out, thereby lessening gender gaps? Or perhaps growing egalitarianism reflects global cultural diffusion? Donor-financed gender sensitisation might be undermining sexist assumptions that men are naturally better leaders? Another possible cause is women’s rising labour force participation. Economic resources might enable more women to contest on an equal footing?

I disagree with all of these explanations.

Hmm. Maybe that’s a trifle strong… Let me rephrase. In a new paper I make two *mildly* controversial claims. They draw on a year’s ethnographic research in Zambia, where there has been massive disruption of the British colonial model of male breadwinner and female housewife. Unlike the first few decades of independence (when women only accounted for 3–8 per cent of elected parliamentarians) there is now see growing support for women leaders – in market associations, trade unions, local government and parliament.

Okay, mildly controversial claim number one: there’s no such thing as social norms.

‘Saaaay what?’

Well, what the dickens is a social norm? Is it just the average person’s view? What most people think? Is it the same as internalised ideologies? Or is it a property of a given society? In what form would this exist, metaphysically? Somehow independently of individuals? How then would it influence behaviour? No. I suggest that we focus on individuals’ beliefs about cultural expectations. That is, how people think they will be perceived and treated by others. If women are confident that their leadership bids will be supported by others then they are more likely to step forward. So, instead of raising awareness about pervasive inequalities, or the sexist assumptions that underpin them, it may be more effective to show that societies are increasingly supporting gender equality. (HMRC does a similar thing with tax returns).

So here comes my second controversial claim: neoliberal economic restructuring has advanced gender equality, at least in some respects.

‘WHAT?’, I hear you say. ‘Surely it’s well established that trade liberalisation, privatisation, public sector contraction, resultant job losses and user fees have pushed women into precarious work and compounded their burdens’. Absolutely. ‘And what about the vast swathes of evidence finding NO ASSOCATION between women’s share of employment and political representation in developing countries?’. Sure. That’s also true.

The problem with such cross-national quantitative research is that it only looks at one point in time, evidently assuming that employment does not advance women’s status because it does not do so immediately. It does not look at lagged effects. This ignores the possibility that gender ideologies change slowly and incrementally, over decades.

This is exactly what seems to have occurred in Zambia. With worsening economic security, families increasingly regard women’s employment as advantageous. At first, women’s rising share of employment did not enhance their status. However, gender ideologies are – slowly and incrementally – weakening, with growing exposure to women demonstrating their equal competence in socially valued, masculine domains. Further, seeing women employed in historically male-dominated domains is interpreted as showing that others disavow gender difference. Likewise, when people speak out, affirming women’s equal competence and endorsing of their political participation, onlookers revise their beliefs about cultural expectations. This has allayed concerns about anticipated social condemnation, which previously discouraged women’s incursions into the masculine terrain of politics. So while neoliberal economic restructuring has undoubtedly amplified women’s stresses and strains, it has also enabled greater flexibility in gender divisions of labour, which has undermined widespread beliefs about cultural expectations.

Alice EvansSo, two controversial claims: social norms don’t exist (at least not independently of us), and neoliberal economic restructuring has advanced gender equality (in some respects).

Alice explores these ideas in greater depth and nuance in a new paper, published in Development and Change.

1 thought on “‘For the Elections We Want Women!’ – Why? What Explains Growing Support for Women Leaders?”

  1. Very controversial indeed. How can we show support for women is happening when this is not actually happens? This is happening in Zambia, according to you, but this is not happening in other places. And agree with your 2nd controversial claim.


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