In 1916, the American essayist Agnes Repplier wrote that “democracy forever teases us with the contrast between its ideals and its realities, between its heroic possibilities and its sorry achievements.” For advocates of gender equality, this tension feels familiar.

Women around the world have made major political strides amid the past half century’s wave of democratization. They are running for office and winning elections at unprecedented rates. More than seventy countries have adopted some form of gender quota. Social norms appear to be changing as well: in the United States, for example, Americans of both political stripes prefer gender-balanced decisionmaking bodies.

Women’s increased presence in political institutions has not necessarily led to meaningful change in women’s everyday lives.

At the same time, the overall pace of change toward political parity has been slow, even in many established democracies. In some places, quotas have established a de facto ceiling on women’s representation that has proven difficult to break through. Men still dominate the most powerful leadership positions, and women’s increased presence in political institutions has not necessarily led to meaningful change in women’s everyday lives. The recent rise of illiberal populism in Turkey, Brazil, and elsewhere has gone hand in hand with a reassertion of traditional gender norms. The coronavirus pandemic creates further risks of backsliding, as economic crises generally reinforce gender inequities while allowing political elites to bury demands for inclusion amid “more urgent priorities.”

These challenges point to a fundamental problem: reformers have too often assumed it is possible to change power relations by bolstering women’s representation in existing systems and institutions. Women’s continued underrepresentation in politics is often implicitly or explicitly framed as a shortcoming on the part of women, as in suggestions that female candidates lack confidence, skills, or networks.

Building truly gender-equal democracies requires more than just adding women to the mix.

While efforts to train women for public office can be helpful, building truly gender-equal democracies requires more than just adding women to the mix. It requires transforming institutions that have been built on exclusion. It requires tackling the entrenched barriers that discourage women from engaging in electoral politics and make it harder for them to succeed—from financial hurdles and unequal caregiving burdens to gender stereotypes and violence. It requires viewing the political participation of marginalized groups not as a desirable add-on but as a central benchmark of democratic health.

What would such a shift look like in practice?

First, it would redirect attention from women’s underrepresentation to the processes and networks that perpetuate elite men’s political overrepresentation. How have men responded to efforts to level the political playing field? And what accountability mechanisms are needed to prevent resistance and pushback?

Second, policymakers would pay greater attention to the links between political and socioeconomic power. Initiatives promoting women’s economic empowerment that sidestep women’s rights and political mobilization are unlikely to bring about much-needed systemic change. Similarly, political empowerment efforts that are divorced from women’s broader economic and social status risk only benefiting elite women.

Third, women’s movements would receive much more significant and sustained support. Over the past two years, women have been at the forefront of political change around the world—from protesting discriminatory citizenship laws in India to rallying against gender-based violence in Mexico and Chile. This new wave of feminist activism paves the way for powerful new reform coalitions by recognizing that women’s political empowerment is firmly tied to broader struggles for economic, political, and social justice.

  • Saskia Brechenmacher