Parliaments as gendered workplaces

Sonia Palmieri, Institute for Governance and Political Analysis, University of Canberra


The issue

Women’s gradual, but ever-increasing entry into politics was one of the most significant changes to parliamentary democracy in the 20th century, uncovering challenges not only faced by women parliamentarians themselves, but also inherent in the concept of representative democracy. Evidence of historic, institutionalised discriminatory practices against women – ranging from physical and psychological violence, and deliberate exclusion from positions of leadership, to more subtle slights and stereotyping – has come to light. Importantly, this evidence is clearly uncovered when parliaments are understood as gendered workplaces, a lens not previously used in parliamentary studies. Mainstream perspectives on parliament assumed a particular institutional design, predicated on the availability and ability of men to travel long distances to their workplace, for weeks at a time, until late hours. When parliamentary studies assume that Members of Parliament can rely on a wife, shouldering both family responsibilities and a significant amount of constituency work, they fail to recognise the gendered nature of the institution, and the full range of policy reforms required to become truly inclusive and representative.

In theory at least, women’s political presence may have come to be seen as a pre-condition of representative democracy, yet women remain under-represented in most parliaments around the world. As of June 2018, the Inter-Parliamentary Union reports that women constitute less than a quarter of all parliamentarians (at 23.8%). While this figure represents an improvement in a longitudinal sense (with an increase of over 11 percentage points since 1998), the rate of increase has reduced significantly over the past few years (at only 0.1% in 2016 and 2017, compared with 0.6% in preceding years).

While women’s under-representation can be explained by the significant social, economic and political disadvantages women face in running for politics, research suggests that their experience of parliament once they are elected also has an impact. By focusing on the contribution of feminist scholarship to the understanding of parliament as a gendered workplace, this case study explores the debates and policy reforms that can make parliament a more ‘attractive’ career option for women.


Feminist interventions


Initial explorations of difference

Since the 1970s, significant research agendas have been dedicated to the question of how – and/or to what extent – elected women have been able to fulfil their own understanding of descriptive and substantive representation. Whereas descriptive representation sees women legitimising democracy by contributing to a more ‘representationally diverse’ parliament, ideas of substantive democracy require women to ‘act on behalf of other women’.

Not surprisingly, feminist theorising on women’s impact in parliament has evolved over time. Following the initial waves of women’s entry into the political arena, research, predominantly from the United States (US), was keen to assert the impact of the presence, rather than the oft-noted absence, of women in the political sphere. So-called ‘difference feminists’ assumed that because of women’s ‘difference’ from men, they would engage in the legislative role differently to their male colleagues and have different concerns and policy priorities. They asked, in the words of American public policy scholar Michelle Saint-Germain, ‘does their difference make a difference?’

These researchers found that women primarily differed from men in terms of their policy priorities. They also expected that the more women there were in parliament, the more opportunity women would have to exhibit a distinctive style of ‘doing’ politics, and thereby ‘civilise’ the parliament. These expectations were propelled by a broader discourse of ‘democratic renewal’ and, for some, provided a strong argument for women’s greater entry into politics. If women were better represented in parliament, politics would be less adversarial, less corrupt. Politics would become a nobler profession.

Women’s ability to civilise and reform the parliament by being ‘more collaborative’, ‘more representative’ and ‘less adversarial’ was seen as coming from women’s different life experiences. Women’s propensity for establishing caucuses of their own, for example, was seen as women taking their ‘cues from an alternative politics of everyday life’ and women’s long-standing tradition of non-partisan voluntary activity. The women interviewed by US political scientist Janet Flammang, for example, entered politics with the experience of belonging to feminist organisations, which they saw as training grounds for aspiring women candidates. More importantly, they saw this experience as having prepared them ‘in a different, but equally legitimate way’, and certainly contributed to their belief that ‘male organisations were not the only ones to provide bona fide political skills’.


Uncovering the role of institutions

More recent thinking has aimed to understand the conditions under which women might be able to pursue reforms – of any kind – in political institutions. Accepting women’s differential experience of parliamentary or legislative politics, this research emphasises the role of the particular institution in which women are expected to make an impact. Specifically, the parliament became acknowledged as an institution saturated in gendered expectations, norms, rules and practices that have traditionally conferred institutionalised power upon men. Those who adopt masculinist modes of behaviour – usually, although not exclusively, men – have institutional power and legitimacy conferred on them.

These feminist institutionalists argued that institutional norms are integral in shaping the behaviour of male and female legislators. An institution is comprised of an aggregation of (masculine) ritualised practices and rules. As such, institutions breed particular cultures that are perpetuated by the cycle of normalisation, conferring power and legitimacy upon those constructed as ‘normal’. Institutions can never be gender neutral, but are rather immersed in gender.

Women parliamentarians are required to operate within the boundaries of legislative norms in order to succeed and indeed survive. Routine taken-for-granted practices and ways of being have been entrenched as a result of politically negotiated orders and decisions of particular actors and interest groups within the organisation. When a parliament advantages characteristics associated with men over feminine characteristics, women’s ‘different’ leadership styles are delegitimised. Consensual, collaborative styles are rendered obsolete – particularly if they have been developed through different pathways such as ‘prior community experience’. Importantly, theorists noted that the responsibility to adapt to masculinised institutional behaviour is imposed on women and other outsiders.



In 2011, the Inter-Parliamentary Union published a global report on gender-sensitive parliaments, reflecting data compiled from hundreds of questionnaires and interviews with parliamentary authorities and Members of Parliament, as well as 17 national case studies from each corner of the globe. The report coined one of the first definitions of the term, noting that a gender-sensitive parliament is:

a parliament that responds to the needs and interests of both men and women in its composition, structures, processes, and outputs. Gender-sensitive parliaments remove the barriers to women’s full participation and offer a positive role model to society at large.

While a gender-sensitive parliament is a comprehensive concept that involves the gendered assessment of all parliamentary functions and outputs – including the legislative process – the report was premised on the understanding that parliaments are workplaces. That is, the workplace of parliament, understood through its defined hours of operation, attendance records, employee allowances in many cases, office space and other resources, reinforces a masculinised institutional culture. If parliaments genuinely wanted to improve their representativeness, their efficiency and effectiveness, the report argued that parliaments – as institutions – would also need to adapt their workplace culture and infrastructure.

Importantly, the report concluded that parliaments themselves must take a lead if gender equality were ever to be achieved. It was not the responsibility of women alone to ensure that parliamentary outputs did not discriminate against women or men, girls or boys. Parliaments would need to ensure that their operations and resources were used effectively to promote gender equality.

This agenda would be more comprehensively pursued if:

  • women were more systematically included in all parliamentary positions of authority and across all policy areas including the ‘hard’ portfolios of foreign affairs, the economy and finance;
  • the parliament had a mandate to promote gender equality, including gender equality laws, monitoring and evaluation frameworks, and gender policies to sanction discriminatory practices;
  • specific mechanisms were established to promote and monitor the rest of the parliament’s contribution to gender equality, such as parliamentary committees, caucuses, focal groups or technical gender units;
  • male politicians and political parties assumed their own responsibility for the advancement of gender equality; and
  • the parliamentary culture was one that prioritised respect for women as both parliamentary staff and Members of Parliament.

Since 2011, various international organisations have produced guidelines for parliaments to assess their own levels of gender sensitivity, including the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), and European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). Academic research has also begun encouraging and documenting the work of specialised parliamentary bodies for promoting gender equality (see GenParlNet). Parliaments, in response, have instituted a series of policy changes including:

Rule changes to guarantee women’s leadership

  • Internal rules of parliament changed to ensure women hold 40 per cent of all leadership positions (Uganda).
  • Procedural rules changed to ensure a female candidate is always considered for leadership of committees (Indonesia).
  • Changes to guarantee speakership positions are alternated between men and women (Tunisia).
  • Changes to guarantee an equitable participation of men and women in the leadership of the Board and commission presidencies (Mexico).

Mandating parliamentary bodies to monitor gender equality outcomes

  • Reference Groups established to develop and regularly monitor action plans, including the implementation of planned activities (Sweden, the United Kingdom).

Policy changes to outlaw harassment and violence against women

  • Sexual harassment and violence against women prohibited under the Code of Conduct for parliamentarians (New Zealand).
  • Parliamentary staff and MPs reminded of legislation on harassment and violence against women in regular bulletins (Belgium).

Procedural changes to mainstream gender equality in legislation and the budget

  • Legislation passed to establish legal and procedural gender mainstreaming mandates for parliament (Spain, Georgia, Viet Nam).
  • Databases created through which the public can monitor the passage of gender-sensitive legislation and other gender equality events held in parliament (Ukraine, Republic of Korea).
  • Mandating specific committees to address gender issues in the national budget, including through public hearings (Netherlands).
  • Providing gender-analysis training to committee members (Canada).
  • Changing the standing orders to ensure all committees consider the gender equality implications in their work (Fiji).

Procedural changes to establish gender mainstreaming bodies

  • Attributing responsibility to a specific committee to ensure the work of the entire parliament is gender mainstreamed (Sweden).

Changes to institute gender-responsive language

  • Codifying the use of gender-neutral terminology in all documents (Germany).
  • Requesting Members refer to positions in more gender-neutral terms – e.g. ‘Speaker’ rather than ‘Madam Speaker’ (Australia); or conversely, feminising positions of leadership – e.g. ‘Presidenta’ rather than ‘Presidente’ (Brazil).

Changes to workplace practices

  • Sittings adjourned after 6 or 7pm (Luxembourg, Peru).
  • Votes not held on Mondays or Fridays to allow members longer periods of time in their constituencies (Sweden).
  • Discontinuation of quorum calls to allow members a more flexible work schedule (Israel).
  • Members allowed a leave of absence for parenting (in Denmark and Estonia substitute members take the place of a titular member on parental leave), or a proxy vote (in the Australian House of Representatives, for breastfeeding mothers).
  • Childcare centres or family rooms established (Australia, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Indonesia, Ireland, Japan, New Zealand, Portugal, Scotland and Sweden).

The recent focus of both academic and practitioner gender research on parliament as a workplace continues to redefine understanding and practice of this institution. Political institutions that attract, and retain, a more inclusive and diverse range of members are important, not only because they are more representative of their community, but because they can serve as role models for all workplaces.  


Key readings

Childs, S. (2015). The Good Parliament. Report to House of Commons. Bristol: University of Bristol.

Erikson, J. & Josefsson, C. (2018). The legislature as a gendered workplace: Exploring members of parliament’s experience of working in the Swedish parliament, International Political Science Review, (early online) 1-18.

Inter-Parliamentary Union. (2011). Gender-Sensitive Parliaments: A Global Review of Good Practice, Geneva: Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Palmieri, S. (2010). Gender Mainstreaming in the Australian Parliament: Achievement with room for improvement. Canberra: Parliamentary Studies Centre, Australian National University.

Wängnerud, L. (2015). The Principles of Gender-sensitive Parliaments. New York: Routledge. 


Image credit:

Updated:  7 November 2012/Responsible Officer:  Convenor, Gender Institute/Page Contact:  Web manager, Gender Institute