Gender-sensitive parliaments: beyond the ‘add women and stir’ approach

9th February 2022

Gender-sensitive parliaments: beyond the ‘add women and stir’ approach

Every decision a parliamentarian makes is a chance to advance gender equality. From choosing a topic for an oversight inquiry to drafting legislative amendments, gender-sensitive scrutiny can help bring inequalities to the surface and find remedies.

The idea of a ‘gender-sensitive parliament’ has evolved over time. A new definition was recently coined:

“A gender-sensitive parliament values and prioritises gender equality as a social, economic and political objective, and reorients and transforms a parliament’s institutional culture, practices, and outputs towards these objectives.”

Childs, S. and Palmieri, S. “Gender sensitive parliaments: Feminizing Formal Political Institutions” in Sawer, M., Banaszak, L., True, J., and Kantola, J. (eds), Handbook of Feminist Governance [forthcoming]

This means that while equal political participation is critical to representative decision-making, “parliaments need to do more than add women” to become gender-sensitive. They need to strategically transform their internal culture, structures, and procedures to create an environment where gender equality can be advanced.

This includes reducing barriers to participation and addressing discriminatory rules and norms. But it also means embedding gender into all parliamentary work, whether representative, legislative, or oversight.

Gender-sensitive scrutiny is a way for parliamentarians to advance gender equality in society through law-making and oversight of government actions and spending.

Creating a parliamentary climate for gender-sensitive scrutiny

Parliaments embed gender and equality into scrutiny in different ways, through the transformation of internal culture and the creation of specific mechanisms.

International good practice emphasises the importance of dedicated specialised committees and caucuses. Around two-thirds of lower chambers in the world have a dedicated gender, women’s, or equality body.

But there are many other measures to help mainstream gender in scrutiny:

  • The Irish Oireachtas’s Forum on Family-Friendly and Inclusive Parliament set a goal to ensure the Houses of the Oireachtas are supported and resourced to take account of gender and equality issues when legislating. This includes conducting gender impact assessments of Bills, access to expertise, and increasing the diversity of groups involved in public consultations (including through remote evidence gathering);
  • In Sweden, the Speaker’s Gender Equality Group provides training, research, events, and support to MPs to promote gender equality;
  • The Fiji Parliament’s Standing Orders require all committees to consider gender equality and ensure that the impact on both men and women is explored in all matters;
  • The Costa Rican Legislative Assembly established a technical unit on gender equality to promote gender mainstreaming by providing training, expert advice, coordinating institutional action, and communicating with civil society;
  • The UK Parliament commissioned an independent gender audit in 2016, which resulted in a programme of work including gender targets for committee witnesses; and
  • The Italian Chamber of Deputies is trialling gender impact analyses on all Bills.

A systematic approach to gender-sensitive scrutiny

Taking an intersectional, gender-sensitive approach to scrutiny means that whoever the politician, whatever their party, whichever topic they are scrutinising, they do it through a gender lens.

The INTER PARES international parliamentary development project has developed a simple, flexible five step model for gender sensitive scrutiny [publication forthcoming]:

  1. Embed gender from the beginning (i.e., assume every topic will have different effects on people of different genders, and also different ages, ethnicities, disabilities, sexual orientations, among other factors)
  2. Understand the situation by gathering evidence (this means understanding current inequalities in a certain area, and the projected impact of the proposal)
  3. Ask the right (gender-sensitive) questions
  4. Inspire change (using the opportunity and power available to make change)
  5. Monitor the outcome (to understand whether the change resulted in greater inequality in practice, and any unintended consequences).

But alongside systematic tools like this, it is essential to drive a wider parliamentary culture that values and priorities equality.

The Senedd’s world-leading gender representation and its impact

The proportion of women Members of the Senedd elected has never dropped below 40%. And in 2003 our parliament made history as the first legislature in the world to achieve perfect gender parity.

Research on the impact of this parity found that the consideration of ‘women’s issues’ in parliament depended on who the women parliamentarians were. Individuals’ ‘personal history of feminist activism’ was found to underpin the notable influence of women ‘equality champions’.

It also found that the dedicated equalities committee was “a mechanism for restructuring the gender dimensions of power”, and “women [were] more likely than their male counterparts to use the institutional mechanisms […] to promote gender equality in policy and law.” The committee also allowed civil society actors working on gender issues access to elected representatives on an ongoing basis.

The Senedd did not have a dedicated equality committee between 2011 and 2021, although equality was included within the remit of other committees.

This changed in 2021, when the new Equality and Social Justice Committee was established. It has the power to “investigate any area of policy from the perspective of the cross-cutting issues within its remit, including[..]: equality and human rights, and the implementation of the Well-being of Future Generations Act.” This provides a new, unique opportunity for Members to use an ‘equality lens’ on any issue the Senedd considers.

The Senedd also recently introduced a diversity monitoring system for committee evidence, to better understand who gives evidence, who doesn’t, and what the barriers to participation might be. The knowledge exchange strategy aims to diversify the research evidence available to Members and committees, and the citizen engagement team collects evidence directly from people with diverse lived experiences.

And the in-house research service provides expert advice and research to Members and committees on equality, publishes articles on equality issues, and offers training on equality-sensitive scrutiny for staff and Members.

The journey still to travel

No parliament in the world can be described as fully gender-sensitive yet. But Wales can be proud of its parliament’s past achievements and look forward to further progress in the future.