Levelling the playing field: gendered electoral financing of women candidates

images.000.jpgRainbow.Murray.2015.jpgdownload.001.jpgWomen are under-represented in almost every legislature worldwide and politics is easier to get into if you have a wealthy background. Ragnhild Muriaas, Rainbow Murray and Vibeke Wang discuss their new book, which examines the effectiveness of financial incentive mechanisms to increase women’s representation in politics. They conclude that money, both as a barrier to women’s inclusion and as a potential lever for boosting their presence, is an area that requires greater consideration both from scholars and political actors.

It is a well-known fact that women are under-represented in nearly every legislature around the world. It is also well known, although perhaps less commented upon, that politics is dominated by those from wealthy backgrounds. It is, in effect, a rich man’s game. When these two concepts are linked, it is often in a way that unfairly criticises women – for example, by highlighting that gender quotas often favour the introduction of wealthy women into politics without addressing wider issues of diversity and inclusion.

In our book, Gendered Electoral Financing: Money Power and Representation in Comparative Perspectivewe take a different approach. We acknowledge the ways in which money drives politics, and in particular, the ways in which lack of money can act as a gendered barrier to women’s access to politics. As money is part of the problem, we focus on ways in which it could also be part of the solution. Specifically, we examine what we term ‘gendered electoral finance’ (GEF): using money as a means to facilitate women’s entry to politics, either by supporting their campaigns directly or by incentivising parties to do so.

Our work examines a range of case studies, both in developed and developing democracies, to consider the different ways in which money presents both barriers and possible solutions for increasing women’s presence in politics. We focus primarily on candidate-centred systems, ie countries where candidates are elected individually rather than through a party list, and where the bulk of the pressure therefore lies with the candidate. We find that barriers and solutions can vary quite significantly depending on the political system in place. What remains a common theme, however, is that money plays a very important part in understanding why politics remains stubbornly gendered in favour of men.

In both developed and developing democracies, the costs incurred in running for office can be very high. The gendered consequences may be particularly acute in developing democracies, due both to the higher levels of gender inequality and due to the reduced role of parties in supporting candidates. Instead, elections are often clientelistic in nature, favouring male networks and the exchange of goods and favours for the promise of electoral support. Hence, only those with the right connections and deep pockets can be credible candidates to run – criteria that favour (wealthy) men.

In developed democracies, such as the USA, the costs of campaigning are different but can still require significant investment of personal resource by the candidate. Rather than offering direct handouts to voters, candidates invest their money in expensive campaigns, buying airtime and advertising space and using large teams to reach out to as many voters as possible. Reliance on big donors raises all kinds of questions about the influence of money within politics; one issue is that more of these big donors are men, and women find it harder to access the money required to bankroll a large campaign.

Aside the direct costs of campaigning, women face additional gendered costs. For example, while male politicians are likely to rely upon their wives to care for their children and manage their domestic lives, women are less likely to be able to call upon a male partner to do the same for them. The long hours demanded by a political career mean that domestic and caring responsibilities need to be outsourced, often at significant cost. Women may also need to spend more on looking the part, given the widespread tendency to judge women by their appearance. To complicate matters further, women around the world have lower incomes than men, and are less likely to have the large independent wealth necessary to contest elections in many countries.

Gendered electoral finance can work to mitigate this problem in one of two key ways. The first is a party-centred approach, whereby parties are given financial incentives to select more women. The second is a candidate-centred approach, whereby women candidates are given financial resources to support their campaigns. Within each of these approaches, additional distinctions must be made.

For a party-centred approach, GEF can serve as a punishment or a reward. Punishment takes the form of a withdrawal of state funding for parties who do not meet the specified requirements for boosting women’s entry into politics. The degree to which such a mechanism can be effective depends on whether a country has an established system of state funding of political parties (which is not always the case), and also on whether parties are dependent on this state funding or can do without it. Only when parties lose a major source of income will this incentive be meaningful to them. Alternatively, a ‘reward’ can take the form of a pot of additional money given only to parties who (s)elect more women. Ideally, this money should do more than merely compensate for the additional cost that a party might incur for selecting women if those women bring less of their own money to the campaign – otherwise, this kind of GEF would neutralise the cost of selecting women but not provide an additional incentive to do so.

Within the candidate-centred approach, GEF can consist of giving women additional sources of money to support their campaigns, or waiving certain costs incurred in standing for office. The former might come from civil society organisations such as EMILY’s List (which may come with certain political conditions, such as being pro-choice), while the latter might come from parties or even the state, such as the waiving of filing fees. Whereas party-centred approaches aim at boosting parties’ demand for women candidates, candidate-centred approaches aim at boosting the supply of women able to run for office. To be effective, this type of GEF needs both to be generous enough to make a meaningful difference, and offered in a way that is politically acceptable without damaging the reputation of its intended recipients.

Our study looks at examples of the different types of GEF in six case studies drawn from three different continents. For party-centred approaches, we look at France and Ireland (examples of the ‘punishment’ form of GEF) and Cabo Verde (an example of the ‘reward’ incentive). For candidate-centred approaches, we look at financial support for women candidates in the USA and Malawi, and an example of waiving costs (in the form of filing fees) for women in Ghana.

Our findings are that money is always a barrier for entering politics, and especially so for women, but GEF is not a panacea. As with gender quotas, there are numerous variations in the types of GEF, based both on political will and the particularity of individual countries. We therefore propose a model that identifies the conditions required for GEF to be successful, in order to evaluate other instances of GEF and propose a blueprint for countries or parties seeking to explore this option as a means of boosting women’s representation. We identify that GEF needs to be enforced with authority – it needs to be a concrete policy and not just a symbolic reform that can be ignored by the key actors responsible for its implementation. We also distinguish between the sources of funding GEF, with public funding from the state being potentially more reliable and widespread in its scope than private funding from civil society movements. We also hypothesise that party-centred GEF has greater impact than candidate-centred GEF, consistent with previous research demonstrating that the shortage of women in politics is driven more by a lack of demand for women from political parties than a lack of supply of qualified female candidates.

Overall, it is clear that GEF cannot stand alone as a solution to the problem of women’s under-representation in politics. However, there are circumstances in which GEF can be effective, especially when coupled with other measures such as gender quotas. We conclude by arguing that money, both as a barrier to women’s inclusion and as a potential lever for boosting women’s presence, is an area that requires greater consideration both from scholars and political actors.

Gendered Electoral Financing: Money Power and Representation in Comparative Perspective was published earlier this year. and is available to buy in physical and electronic form here.

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About the authors

Ragnhild Louise Muriaas is Professor of Comparative Politics at University of Bergen and co-editor of Gendered Electoral Financing: Money Power and Representation in Comparative Perspective. 

Rainbow Murray is Professor of Politics at Queen Mary, University of London and co-editor of Gendered Electoral Financing: Money Power and Representation in Comparative Perspective

Vibeke Wang is Senior Researcher and Coordinator: Gender Politics at the Chr. Michelsen Institute and co-editor of Gendered Electoral Financing: Money Power and Representation in Comparative Perspective.