[OPINION] Women in legislature: Do they really matter?

According to the latest Pulse Asia survey, 3 women senatorial bets are now leading the pack. This is welcome news considering that in terms of numbers, women still have a long way to go to catch up with men when it comes to political representation. 

Politics has been a male-dominated field. New Zealand, the first country where women gained the right to vote, celebrated "Suffrage 125" in 2018. In the Philippines, women gained this right in 1937, which means that not even a century ago, only men could choose who would serve in the government. It took another 4 years after obtaining suffrage before a woman was able to join the legislature. In 1941, Elisa Rosales Ochoa became the country's first congresswoman, while the first woman senator, Geronima Tomelden Pecson, was elected in 1947. 

We do need to ask ourselves these questions: Do women make a difference? Does electing more women result in better policies for women? This is especially true for the legislature because of its lawmaking power. The laws enacted by Congress affect every citizen regardless of gender, age, economic status, beliefs, and values. Winning candidates will have a direct hand in shaping our policies whether we voted for them or not. As we choose new legislators this coming May, let us take time to reflect on the issue of women's representation. After all, based on latest government figures, women comprise almost half of the population yet occupy only 22% of elective positions.

Lessons from other countries

Critical mass refers to the number of actual bodies which are considered significant to effect change in institutions such as legislatures. The 1995 Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, which was dubbed the "the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women's rights," reiterated the Economic and Social Council's recommendation to have 30% women in crucial decision-making positions. Thirty percent has been considered the critical mass where women are no longer seen as tokens, but are expected to become active participants in governance and policy-making.

However, gender scholars question the validity of the critical mass argument. Studies show that critical acts should also be given consideration – that while some legislatures have yet to reach critical mass in terms of women's representation, these countries have seen considerable improvements in policies favorable for women primarily because of the efforts of the few elected women. There are also studies which show that the mere presence of women and LGBTQ lawmakers has substantial impact on positive policy outcomes for these marginalized groups. Research likewise shows that women legislators have distinct priorities from their male counterparts. 

The Philippine Senate

Zooming in to the Philippine Senate, so far, only 22 women have made it as senators – a miniscule 10% compared to 220 men. Not surprisingly, we have yet to have a female Senate president. The House of Representatives made history when former president Gloria Macapagal Arroyo became Speaker, albeit in a controversial manner. It had to take a former president to break the glass ceiling in the House.

In terms of profession, most of our women senators were educators or part of the education sector. Four of them were lawyers, four were media personalities or journalists, and a number of them were in business or were helping with family business while involved in other vocations such as teaching and social work. Notably, most of them held either elective or non-elective positions in government before making it to the Senate. 

Most of the women senators are from well-known political families. Research shows that political family ties benefit more women entrants in politics compared to men. Elin Bjarnegård in her research on Thai politics claims that women need to capitalize on their male networks to facilitate entry into politics.

Amrita Basu, who studied female politicians in India, gave 3 reasons for the small number of women in public office and why this small number has been dominated by those from political families: the violence associated with running for public office which may serve as a limitation for women to run; the inclination of political parties to select male candidates over female aspirants; and other institutional systems and practices that serve male interests.

Women from political dynasties can profit from their family's network and political machinery to overcome these limitations. Non-dynastic women do not have similar resources at their disposal. 

Updated research on the actual contribution of female lawmakers to women-friendly legislation in the Philippines has yet to be conducted, but female legislators played important roles in the passage of major laws such as the Magna Carta of Women and the reproductive health law. Of course, the support of male legislators was also necessary considering that they still form the majority. Hence, while we examine if women are making a difference, we should also ask how women and men work together for positive change.

Gender scholars Sarah Childs and Mona Lena Krook claim that for outcomes that are beneficial to women, critical actors need not be female but they are likely to be female. This does not mean however that we should neglect the role of men, especially those who sponsor and lobby for the passage of legislation in cooperation with women legislators. To quote former senator Jamby Madrigal in her interview with the media after the Magna Carta of Women was ratified: "I congratulate my fellow women, and those enlightened men, who tirelessly fought for this cause and urge them to never stop breaking barriers."

Do women in the legislature really matter? Evidence from all over the world show that they do. Women comprise half of the electorate, yet men still comprise the majority of elected officials. Women, particularly in the Philippines, are more educated than men as evidenced by the latest World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report. There seems to be no reason why female lawmakers are still lagging behind in terms of numbers.

Let us be mindful however that not just "any woman" would do. We should be examining those running for public office to determine if they have the relevant background and experience and if their policy agenda will help in equitable social and economic development. We should not be swept away by charm, physical attractiveness, or singing and dancing abilities, as these are not important qualities for future lawmakers.

Finally, let's do away with the stereotype that women will never be as good as men in the political arena. What we need are legislators who will serve our interests regardless of gender. In the words of Kofi Annan: "Gender equality is more than a goal in itself. It is a precondition for meeting the challenge of reducing poverty, promoting sustainable development, and building good governance." – Rappler.com

Gay Marie Manalo Francisco is a doctoral scholar at the University of Auckland, New Zealand (Politics and International Relations).