Gender Inequality and the Decline of Democracy

Many have hailed 2018 as the “Year of the Woman.” Women are running for office in record numbers, and continue to be at the forefront of social movements from Parkland to the teacher’s strikes. But this progress does not extend to the federal government. President Trump has appointed twice as many men as women for positions in the federal government. Roughly one in three Trump appointees is female, as in the George W. Bush administration, whereas Obama and Bill Clinton granted roughly two in five positions to women. We are not making progress. And we are seeing record-breaking lows in women nominated to serve as federal judges. Given the recent allegations against Trump’s latest nominee to the Supreme Court, Judge Brett Kavanaugh, it is easy for this broader trend to get lost. However, gender inequality in our government, the decline of democracy around the world, and the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh are not unrelated.

At Protect Democracy, we have identified six commonly used tactics “strongmen” use to denigrate democracy and consolidate their power. One of these is delegitimizing marginalized communities. These communities can include racial or ethnic minorities, people with disabilities, or religious groups. Almost always, it also includes women — some who live at the intersection of other types of discrimination and others who don’t. When we look around the world, it’s clear that leaders who are hostile to constraints on their power, and therefore democracy, are often also hostile to equality for women and girls.

The reasons are not complicated — a leader can more easily create political and legal hierarchies if there are other social hierarchies. As Hala Al-Dosari, a Saudi Arabian scholar and activist explained, “If everyone has equal rights, if men and women can do exactly the same things, it will be difficult to justify one having extra privileges”. But, of course, leaders who undermine democracies around the world absolutely believe they have extra privileges. Often, as in the case of President Trump, they believe that they are above the law.

While women make up half of the population, in most countries around the world women are still marginalized or shut out entirely of power structures. This is true in regards to politics, where 19% of women in the United States’ federal legislature is below the worldwide average of 23%. It’s also true in regards to women’s ability to access financial power free from harassment in their workplaces, as we’ve seen with many of the stories shared through the #MeToo movement. It’s also about women’s ability to have power in their homes. In Sex & World Peace, the authors demonstrate that the physical security of women is more closely related to inequality in family law (which dictates process around things like divorce and custody) than it is to other control variables including democracy, wealth and the prevalence of Islam.

Many people have wondered whether the increase of women in political life is in response to Donald Trump. However, I find myself often wondering if it was the lack of women in positions of power that allowed Donald Trump to become President. As many of the most powerful men in media have been confronted by allegations of sexual harassment, abuse, it suddenly seems less surprising that a man accused by 22 women won the presidency. As Australian comedian Hannah Gadsby recently said, speaking about the many men in media who have been accused of sexual misconduct, “We only care about a man’s reputation. What about his humanity? These men control our stories!”

Of course, when these men also control our politics, they control our ability to make policy including through nominations to the Supreme Court. Leta Hong Fincher has said that the Communist Party in China, has relied not only on authoritarianism to stay in power but on patriarchal authoritarianism. By framing the President as a father figure and perpetuating gender norms through policy, she believes China has limited women’s access to power because, “China’s all-male rulers seem to think that China’s entire security state would collapse were it not for the subjugation of women.” However, gender equality is not only good for girls and women but for the prosperity and security of the world.

One study showed that advancing women’s equality could add $12 trillion to global growth. We see this benefit in individual companies as well, with companies with more women board directors experiencing higher financial performance. Educated women are less likely to raise sons who become terrorists. No country can reach its full potential if half of its people do not have full access to its opportunities and resources. For strongmen around the world, who care more about preserving their power than improving their countries, that seems to be part of the point. If democracy in the United States is going to survive the current attacks against it, we must rise not only to protect democratic values, but everyone’s ability to fully participate in the democratic process.