Millennial Women Steer Clear of ‘Dirty’ Politics

Hillary Clinton may just become the first woman president of the US, but millennial women would still rather pursue careers or go into entrepreneurship than join politics, according to Lake Research Partners. In India, powerful women like Sushma Swaraj, Smriti Irani and Mamata Banerjee are at the helm of affairs, even though the number of women MPs in the Lok Sabha has grown only 6 per cent in the last 60 years!

At an event held by the US Consulate last week, leading political strategist Celinda Lake, and spokeswoman of the All India Congress Committee, Priyanka Chaturvedi, discussed why women do not participate in political life. Both agreed that women are more wary than men of entering the political world because of the the sexism in the current system, and the public scrutiny they will likely receive. Both Chaturvedi and Lake agreed that women have to face the double bind of being both–qualified and likeable.

Celinda Lake and Priyanka Chaturvedi

Political strategist Celinda Lake and spokeswoman of the All India Congress Committee, Priyanka Chaturvedi

Lake said that though there is a record gender gap in this US election, with women overwhelmingly supporting Clinton, the sexist attacks her campaign had to manage actually serve as an example of how difficult it is to get elected in the minds of young women. Availability of funds also makes a big difference for women who wish to run. Women donors lag significantly behind male donors, leaving women candidates with less access to big money, she added. “Women are half the purchasers in the US economy, but they just aren’t buying into politics,” Lake said.

In the world order, India is at a dismal 103 when it comes to women in politics, said Chaturvedi. Political parties do not create a defined path for women. In addition, women are not empowered to become decision makers in their families, and the road to politics is often looked at as a dark place, Chaturvedi said. Citing her own journey, she said that she had to convince her family members to understand why she was giving up a good career to take the less certain path of politics.

She added that a reservation or quota system for women may help them cross that first barrier.  In the 90s’, India decreed that 30 per cent of the seats in municipal bodies would be reserved for women. As a result, women’s participation in municipal elections jumped from 4-5 per cent to 35 per cent at the grassroots level. “But this cannot percolate, said Chaturvedi because we do not have reservation at the national level.” Indeed, the Women’s Reservation Bill has been pending in the Lok Sabha for almost two decades.

It is a good solution, she said, and is not unfair, because further growth will happen only with merit. Reservation helps with taking the first step. Nepal leads the SAARC nations when it comes to women in politics, and it has a reservation system, she added, while making her point.

Voters’ perceptions are a big reason why women are not advancing in politics. American voters think men will be better able to handle the economy, according to research done by Lake’s firm. Voters are ok with voting for men they don’t like, but not ok with voting for women who are not ‘likeable’.

In addition, Lake said that women have to prove their qualifications much more than men do, and often need accomplished personalities to validate them in order to be taken seriously.

Interestingly, women are considered to be qualified if they have good negotiating skills, are experts, hold creative and non-traditional jobs and have experience leading both men and women.

The media, as has been widely discussed, is a party to attributing values to candidates based on their gender. Even compliments, said Lake, diminish voters’ sense of the capabilities of women candidates.

Changing voters’ perceptions is at the crux of the issue, Lake said. Attaching gender to the agenda can help a woman contest. Everyone believes that more women politicians are needed, she said, but that does not predict more voting for women. What is a good predictor of whether a voter will vote for a female candidate is if they believe that women govern differently than men, and to that end more studies showing how women govern differently are needed.

And of course, perceptions shape the destinies of women in India. Chaturvedi said that politicians don’t speak to women voters because they think women are not the decision makers in the household. They think women will vote for what their families vote for. The more representatives we have who are women, the more people will get sensitized to women running for political posts, Chaturvedi said.

“More awareness, like after the Nirbhaya case, is needed,” Chaturvedi added.

She said that when she told her family that she wanted to go into politics, they told her it was a dirty place to be in. “If I don’t get into the muck and clean it, who will,” she told them.

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