This content is not available in your region

How do EU member state parliaments compare on gender equality?

Access to the comments Comments
By Marie Jamet
Yaël Braun-Pivet has been elected President of the French national Assembly, the first time a woman is appointed to this position in France
Yaël Braun-Pivet has been elected President of the French national Assembly, the first time a woman is appointed to this position in France   -   Copyright  Michel Euler / AP

For the first time in its history, France has elected a woman at the head of its lower house of parliament, the National Assembly.

Yaël Braun-Pivet was elected a few weeks after Elisabeth Borne was appointed the country's Prime Minister. Borne is the second woman to hold this position in the country after Edith Cresson who held the position for 11 months in 1991 and 1992.

The fact that two women now lead France's parliament and government reflects the country's efforts to improve gender equality in politics.

It's an effort that is unevenly shared in the European Union.

The glass ceiling: In Europe, the share of women has never reached 50%

In France, on the parliamentary side, the number of female deputies fell slightly following the new legislative elections in June. It went down from 224 elected women out of 577 seats to 215.

France is one of the EU countries where the share of women in parliament (including the lower and upper house) has increased the most between 2003 and 2021.

It is, along with Italy, one of the two countries where the share of elected women in parliament has more than tripled: from 12% of parliament to 39% in France and from 10% to almost 36% in Italy.

In 2021, Sweden is the country with the highest number of female MPs with just over 47%, followed by Finland, Belgium, Austria, Denmark, Spain, Portugal and France. Iceland, a non-EU country, but often cited as a good example of gender parity, is on par with Sweden. This figure is the highest ever achieved in the European Union.

No EU country has reached a 50/50 sex ratio in parliament nor had a majority of women MPs.

Sweden, Finland and Belgium are the three most consistent EU member states in terms of having the highest representation of women in parliament with averages of 46%, 42% and 39% of parliament being women respectively between 2003 and 2021.

Bulgaria is the only country in the Union where the share of women in its parliament decreased between 2003 and 2021 from almost 25.9% to 24.6%. 

But the country remains ahead of the lowest-ranked EU states in terms of parliamentary gender parity. 

Three member states had women making up fewer than 20% of their parliaments in 2021, with Hungary coming last with 13% of its parliament being women.

Hungary did not improve its standing in the April 2022 parliamentary elections, gaining only one female MP, barely reaching 13.6% of MPs. On average between 2003 and 2021, women made up no more than 10% of the Hungarian parliament.

Malta and Romania are only slightly better with averages of 11% and 13% of their parliaments being made up of women.

The European Parliament has also failed to break the glass ceiling for women. The current mandate resulting from the 2019 elections has the highest rate of women represented in the European Parliament at just 39%.

The majority of EU member states have a higher proportion of female MEPs than female members of national parliaments.

Only six countries have more women in their national parliaments than in the European Parliament: Cyprus (which has no female MEPs), Belgium, Romania, Croatia, Lithuania and Austria. 

With a few exceptions (Hungary and Malta), many countries with few female MPs have few female MEPs.

Female MPs in Malta make up just 13% of the national parliament and 33% of the country's MEPs in the European Parliament. 

The European Parliament is currently chaired by a woman, Roberta Metsola, from Malta.

She is only the third woman to hold this position since the creation of the institution.

In the rest of the Union, 22% of parliaments are chaired by women, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

Greater quantitative parity in governments than in parliaments

Looking at percentages, the situation for women appears to be better in governments than in parliaments. 

While no European parliament has ever had more women than men, several governments have already had more women than men. 

Sweden and Finland, the two most consistent countries for gender equality in parliament, are also the ones that have had the most governments being made up of more than 50% women. 

Five countries meanwhile -- Hungary, Greece, Malta, Cyprus and Slovakia -- have appointed less than 15% of women to governments between 2003 and 2021, with Hungary again having the least amount of women in government with an average of 8% during this period.

The European average between 2003 and 2021 is 26%, the same figure as for the representation of women in parliaments; in 2021 it is 33%, also the same figure for parliaments.

The figures do not underline the nature of the portfolios held by women ministers.

A report by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE), quoted by the European Parliament, shows that in 2018, two-thirds of male ministers were in ministries of state or controlling economic functions, compared to half of their female counterparts. 

In addition, 40% of female ministers were given socio-cultural portfolios compared to only 19% of men. The European Parliament points out that at the national level, there is little change in these discriminatory practices.

It shows how quantitative parity cannot compare entirely to qualitative parity.

The consequence is that, when these men are in positions of power, the women who avoid them also avoid power itself and gradually move away from it.
Fiona Texeire
Co-founder of the Observatory of Gender and Sexual Violence in Politics

Only seven women have reached the rank of head of state or government in the 27 member states; if we include other European countries outside the EU, there are 12 women in 11 countries.

Gender quotas: necessary but insufficient

As the UN has analysed, there are many obstacles to greater participation of women in the political life of their countries where sexism is systemic: unequal access to resources, unequal division of domestic and family tasks, sexist political cultures, gender stereotypes, lack of female role models, sexist and sexual violence.

A joint report by the IPU and the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, published in 2018, concluded that 85% of female parliamentarians in Europe had been victims of psychological violence in parliaments; 68% had been the target of sexist comments and 25% victims of sexual violence.

While the political #metoo movement is still struggling to make the voices of female victims of violence heard, particularly in France or Belgium, the European Parliament has alerted to the persistence of the problem:

"The level of abuse and violence against women in political and public life because they are women, and sometimes because of their increased presence, is in itself a growing problem," the parliament said in a report.

"It also risks deterring women from engaging in politics because they find the environment too toxic."

Fiona Texeire, co-founder of the Observatory of Gender and Sexual Violence in Politics and co-host of a podcast on the topic, believes that this contributes to keeping women away from the power.

"Often when you are new to a political party or public institution of any kind, you hear recommendations like 'beware of so-and-so' or 'beware of so-and-so who is known to behave inappropriately' and so on," Texeire said.

"The consequence is that when these men are in positions of power, the women who avoid them also avoid the power itself and gradually move away from it. We have fewer opportunities than our male colleagues."

She comes to a conclusion similar to the one highlighted by the European Parliament.

"Women's careers in politics are shorter than men's. Women with long careers, who are more likely to be in politics, are less likely to be in politics than men," she said.

"Women with long careers, which last several decades, can easily be counted as they are so few in number: Martine Aubry, Ségolène Royal, Roselyne Bachelot, Michèle Alliot-Marie... The others end up integrating that it is not their world."

Women were all granted the right to vote and stand for elections in the countries of the current European Union between 1900 and 1960 at the latest. 

Women entered parliaments relatively quickly after these rights were won by women, sometimes with great difficulties. 

However, the century or half century of women's presence in parliaments has not resulted in a significant increase in their numbers.

When laws establishing rules to promote parity are issued, it increases the share of women three times faster, according to a study conducted by the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). 

The Institute counted 11 member states that have passed laws establishing some form of gender quota in parliamentary elections since 2000. France was the first EU country to introduce a parity law in June 2000; Italy the last in 2017.

In 10 years, the gap has widened between countries with gender quotas and those that have chosen to let the ballot box decide. 

In 2011, countries without gender quotas had an average of almost 24% women compared to 23% for countries with quotas. But now in 2021, the gap has reversed in favour of member states with gender quotas (just over 32%) compared to almost 29% for the others.

However, progress did not happen overnight: the EIGE predicts full parity in 2033 for countries with gender quotas compared to 2050 for others.

In its report on women in politics, the European Parliament considers all types of gender quotas necessary but insufficient. 

It stresses the beneficial effects of support and training to run for office, but also of measures to ensure fair access to sources for campaign funding.

"Once women are elected, parliaments can take a number of measures to ensure that the environment is 'safe and supportive of women', by changing androcentric working practices and combating harassment," the parliament said.

But Texeire says that women working in the French National Assembly between 2017 and 2022 did not report a real change in behaviour accompanying the increased number of female MPs.

"There is a veneer of course, but there has been no structural change in the institutions. Parity has brought about a feminisation of positions but has not changed the way power is exercised," she said.

"Real decision-making positions are still marked by a manly approach to power."