Feminist Institutionalism in action: links between theory and change

By Sarah Easy

Feminist Institutionalism provides scholars and activists with an approach to analyse political developments, as well as important tools to devise new strategies to challenge entrenched political, legal, economic and social gender inequalities.

One key area where feminist institutionalism has yielded rich insights has been in relation to explaining gender imbalances in political office – both in terms of election to parliament and leadership within political systems. 

The adoption of gender quotas 

Feminist institutionalist theory informs strategies for change by elucidating how gender shapes political actors and outcomes within institutional settings. A central focus of the feminist political science has been on the growing trend of adopting and implementing gender quotas as a means to address the underrepresentation of women in politics.  In 2009, Professor Mona Lena Krook (Rutgers University) published the first study to address gender quotas as a global phenomenon: ‘Quotas for Women in Politics: Gender and Candidate Selection Reform Worldwide’. This seminal work explains the diffusion and impact of gender quotas in diverse contexts. Throughout most of the twentieth century, gender quotas remained controversial and were rarely adopted. Today, according to the Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, over half of the world’s nations have implemented some form of gender quota. Furthermore, the proportion of women-occupied seats in parliaments worldwide has doubled in the last 40 years, increasing from 10.0% to 23.4%, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU). Diverse factors invoke political change, including the influence of regional and international norms, the active participation of civil society and the standards set by international instruments. Feminist institutionalism has, however, normalised the adoption of gender quotas while highlighting their impact on women. 

Further research into gender quotas has also refined our understanding of substantive representation (in short, the representation of diverse groups of women’s needs, interests and concerns). We now accept that simply increasing women’s presence within political institutions is insufficient to guarantee equitable policy outcomes (Franceschet, Krook, and Piscopo, 2012). Feminist institutionalism has turned our attention to the informal cultural practices or rules which permit male elites to control candidate selection and political recruitment (Bjarngard and Kenny 2015) as well as to maintain dominance in parliaments and legislative assemblies (Franceschet  2011; Verge and de la Fuente, 2014). Dr Sonia Palmieri (ANU) highlights the important practical implications of this body of research, stressing ‘the need to refocus parliamentary development assistance around a ‘theory of change’ that aims to transform parliaments, as institutions, rather than relying on capacity building initiatives for women alone’. As of 2012, all IPU member parliaments unanimously adopted a Plan of Action for Gender-Sensitive Parliaments, addressing the same patriarchal, cultural infrastructures analysed by feminist institutionalist theory. 

Navigating a path to leadership

Not only has women’s entry into politics improved substantially over the past few decades but so has their ascension to the highest-ranking political positions. Feminist institutionalism has contributed to this phenomenon through the study of the specific techniques female politicians require in order to navigate highly masculinised environments, including: collaboration and a clear, interpersonal and decisive communication style (Annesley, Beckwith and Franceschet, 2019). The graph below from Statista illustrates the number of countries where the highest position of executive power was held by a woman, in each year from 1960 to 2021: 

Number of countries to have had a female leader in the calendar year

Although the percentage of women leaders worldwide still represents less than 10%, the growth of women in power is encouraging, continuing to increase steadily, with the fastest growth experienced in the last 12 years. 

Collective action through women’s caucuses

Women have also advanced politically through the implementation of women’s legislative caucuses; another focal point of feminist institutionalist theory. According to the IPU, as of 2015, 85 countries boasted women’s legislative caucuses. Such caucuses are crucial mechanisms for strengthening cross-party cooperation amongst female politicians and defending women’s legislative priorities. For instance, the Mongolian Parliamentary Women’s Caucus, enacted in 2012, represents five different political parties and has successfully negotiated stronger protections for the care of children, maternal health and survivors of gender-based violence. Institutional feminism has played an important role in revealing the optimal conditions for women’s collective action within caucuses. According to research, the likelihood of parliament adopting a women’s legislative caucus is increased when ‘sub regional peers have created WLCs, when women’s international non-government organizations are active in the country and when the country has implemented a gender quota’ (Adams, Scherpereel and Wylie, 2019). Additionally, institutional factors, such as democratic control of the legislature, play an important role in the creation of women’s legislative caucuses (Childs and Krook, 2009; Mahoney and Clark, 2019). Understanding these factors is crucial to the strategic development of women’s legislative caucuses and consequently, better outcomes for their constituents. 

Change may be slow but it has not stagnated. Even in the midst of a global pandemic, in 2020 according to UN Women 262 legal reforms were passed to advance equality in 69 countries, 101,000 rural women gained access to life-changing assets, technologies and tools and 11,500 justice personnel were trained on women’s rights . Our understanding of the dynamics of change and strategic reform has been greatly improved by the insights generated by feminist institutionalism. 

Sarah Easy is a human rights lawyer based in Mexico City and research assistant for the Australian Human Rights Institute.

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