More Women in Politics, Please
August 26, 2020
Among uncountable other tragedies that loomed up with it, one of the most obvious features about the coronavirus crisis is how disproportionately it has impacted women (particularly low income, non-white ones, or from the Global South), and at the same time, how little voice we’ve had in the magnitude of political decisions that have affected us in the months since the pandemic broke.
This situation has led to a peculiar contrast: as we watch how entire economic sectors with a mostly female workforce are being put under levels of stress rarely seen before (think cashiers, nurses, cleaners), we are bombarded on a daily basis by stories telling us how much better countries led by women are at managing the social and economic challenges posed by Covid19 in comparison to their male counterparts. Women in powerful seats appear as a healthy novelty in front of a political class that is increasingly perceived as inefficient, stubborn, and with little control over the spread of the virus. So whereas traditional leadership fails, a handful of places where feminine leadership has been recognised not only as a more “empathic” (a feature often attributed to them for sexist reasons), but also a much more efficient one.
However, women leaders are still a rarity in global politics. Inspiring as they might be, they are the exception, not the rule.
This disproportion isn’t a mere product of chance, but a reflection of the power balance when it comes to who’s who in the decision room, a feature that exists at all levels of political representation, from small and medium-size organisations to governments. While there seems to be consensus about the need for more diverse leadership, it shouldn’t come as a surprise the fact that there is structural discrimination towards women in mainstream representational politics, and the current crisis has shown us the effects of that disparity in the crudest way.
The disenfranchisement cycle of traditional politics
Because political representation is intrinsically related to perceptions of constant participation and visibility, the outcomes of those who reach the highest level of responsibility are shaped by how many resources they can invest in their political careers. Needless to say, those resources are overwhelmingly in the hands of cisgender white men and are a direct result of the power that comes with being one. On the other hand, women aspiring to run the same race are expected to juggle too many things in too little time, with too few resources (and in many occasions, without any voice about how to better spend them). As a rule of thumb, they need to try two or even three times harder as their male colleagues to succeed.
If you are a woman pursuing a career in traditional, representative politics, be prepared to face the odds, and expect nothing but unfair conditions compared to those that don’t have to worry about balancing the usual load of domestic work that usually falls in them.
It doesn’t get much better if you hold the more modest ambition of simply getting more involved in traditional political participation: even in progressive spaces, the existing tools and methods of political organising are often conceived by men and for them, and design types of engagement that usually don’t take into account the specific needs of working women. It’s no wonder this modus operandi tends to discourage and alienate women.
There is a cycle here of disenfranchisement here where women are discouraged from participation at every level by being asked to build their lives around the needs of their political entities. Knocking on doors, attending assemblies and rallies (whenever that becomes safe again), showing up to the polls on election day: these are often the only options traditional political entities offer when they lay down their dynamics of participation.
This circle is fueled as well by a mindset that conceives political engagement exclusively around the idea of voting as if electoral activation was the ultimate objective of political mobilisation. This idea that the goal of an organisation is decided only at the polls is not only a recipe for disengagement, it’s also a massive waste of resources and mobilisation opportunities. The reality is true democracy happens on a much more daily basis, with every opportunity for civi engagement from our local level actions to our larger civic organisation roles. Supporters might feel used, disenchanted, and particularly in the case of women (as well as in that of other marginalized groups of people), the repetition of this cycle over and over again is a powerful reason for even further disengagement.
Organisations need to move beyond suffragism and embrace a more holistic approach to organising that distributes the opportunities for participation in a more fair way.
What can be done?
Political participation is not only about the right to vote and the right to be elected: it’s about equal participation and decision-making power. If we don’t change the fundamental ways we do politics, organisations will not succeed in engaging and galvanising their supporters, women and other marginalized people will not have a voice in at the table, and the progressive space will continue to fail because they make the same mistakes over and over again. As long as we continue failing to engage those who are left behind, the risk that that failure becomes permanent is an increasing certainty.
At Tectonica, we believe in changing the political process in a way that favours a deeper level of engagement of people with diverse backgrounds and experiences. We are convinced that this can be done only by redistributing the nature of power and representation in the political process. It’s about building tools around the necessities and lives of all of us, not only around the preferences of a privileged minority of men holding power. A big part of what we do at Tectonica is about designing and building tools for everyday changemakers, not only campaign staff. First, because empowering activists is one of the most effective ways to expand the reach of any movement, and in this sense, the more easy to use, attractive, and “natural” a campaign tool feels, the higher the chance it will be successfully integrated for day-to-day activism. Second, because people are one of the most valuable resources of any organisation: different individuals use tools and methodologies in different ways, and there is just too much to learn there to go to waste. As a designer, I know first glance how much a simple website functionality can be transformed into a powerful organising tool when activists are kept in mind during the development process, and how constructive and creative their feedback can be. I have learnt, first hand, that two different groups from the same campaign can use a petition template, and how much more effective it can be with just a few adjustments.
Political entities need to go to the people and establish new contracts for participation and engagement that recognises current disparities, and, at the same time, compensate for them. They need to put to work tools for organising that isare up to the challenges of our current political realities. If companies can reshuffle their structures to make remote work possible, why can’t these political entities re-think their methods of participation? The following are just a few examples of what they can put in motion with relative ease:
Start as close as possible to the baseline of your organisation by listening. Include women and minorities in your organisation in the design and implementation of tools and methods by providing a real space of collaboration and listening. Ask them about the most significant obstacles they face when it comes to political participation.
Guarantee instances of participation all across the board. Facilitate tools that will allow everybody to take part in different activities remotely, and in a way that doesn’t require a fixed schedule. Not everybody’s day to day looks the same.
Support more diverse candidates to decision-making places both within and outside your organisation.
Decentralise your campaigns and activities, and dramatically expand the quantity and quality of engagement opportunities you allow to your activists. Include them in your political work, and inspire them to develop ownership and accountability about what they bring to the table — and honor that commitment, by creating permanent places in that same table for them. Provide the digital and strategic tools in a way that more people have the chance to exercise opportunities to lead others.
We are all spending much more time online and moving an increasingly bigger part of our activities to the web, quickly finding ways to participate in the public life that would have been unthinkable just a few months ago. Political entities must act quickly and provide participation opportunities that don’t require one’s presence.
Here at Tectonica we think success is more than just winning a campaign —we could be part of many winning efforts, and our mission, which is all about changing the way politics work, would still be unaccomplished.
We do believe that embracing the full potential of technology in politics has the potential of opening the game at a fundamental level, by giving women a voice and a place in the table in a world where classical electoral, representational electoral politics is increasingly perceived as more detached from their everyday life.
So far, women and other under-represented groups have tried to adapt to politics as they are made. What we need is to fundamentally change how power and politics are now.
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