Break the Bias

Julia Berghofer

European Leadership Network

Julia Berghofer is a Policy Fellow with the European Leadership Network (ELN), where she coordinates the Younger Generation Leaders Network (YGLN). Her research area includes nuclear arms control and European defence & security. Previously, she held positions with Stiftung Wissenschaft und Politik and the Munich Security Conference. Julia holds a B.A. in Political and Communication Sciences from LMU Munich and an M.A. in Political Sciences from the University of Hamburg. She is a member of the Heinrich Boell Stiftung’s Forum Neue Sicherheitspolitik, vice-chair of the YGLN, and an alumni of the Réseau nucléaire et stratégie – nouvelle génération.

Achieving Gender Parity in European Parliaments

The average share of women in national parliaments worldwide remains behind the times, amounting to around 25 percent. In Europe, the figures are only slightly better, and even the European Parliament (EP) has so far failed to be a poster child of gender equality. While the EU, other advanced democracies, and regional parliaments in wealthy federal states should be role models for promoting gender balance, they are often behind their ambitions.

The following article aims to offer a very personal selection of perspectives on the issue. A European citizen out of conviction, a German national on paper, and a Bavarian by heart, I choose to compare women’s representation in regional, national, and European parliaments, where progress is being made, and where it is lacking. I will look at the Landtag in Munich, the Bundestag in Berlin, and the EP in Brussels.

The Bavarian Parliament: No easy time for women in the land of “Laptop und Lederhose”

For someone working in international security, the Bavarian Landtag is something that seldom crosses my mind. This is not because I disregard the importance of local politics, but rather because the German Länder do not have their own defense or security policy, therefore their domestic debates are not high on my agenda. Even for someone who only occasionally tunes into Landtag debates, however, it is hard to ignore that women are dramatically under-represented. After the most recent elections in 2018, the share of female MPs even dropped to the lowest point in sixteen years. With 26.8 percent women in the Landtag, Bavaria performs only slightly better than the global average for national parliaments.

In 2008, the share of women reached a peak with 31.6 percent and has since declined. Given that the post-WWII Landtag started with three women in 1946, this is an improvement by 30 percentage points. But given that women make up 50 percent of the population, half a century should have been enough time to make the Landtag gender balanced. Yet, the parliament, traditionally dominated by the Christian Social Union (CSU), the slightly more conservative sister party of Angela Merkel’s CDU, has not paid much attention to gender equality. Embracing a strong regional identity and a sometimes-crude mixture of traditionalism and progressiveness (German President Roman Herzog, born in Bavaria, coined the term “Laptop und Lederhose”), the Landtag looks middle-aged or old (only 3 percent of the MPs are under 40), very German (only 1 percent has a migration background despite over 25 percent of the state population), elitist (16 percent hold a doctoral degree), and farmer-friendly (they make up 10 percent). But it does not actually look women friendly.

Likewise, the situation in the committees looks dim for women. While women are chairs or vice-chairs of some committees like civil service, environment, finances, and constitutional affairs, they are highly under-represented in most of them. The committees on the constitution, economic affairs, and federal and European affairs have two female members each, while the committee on internal security has only one female member.

The Bundestag: Despite Baerbock and Lambrecht, security and defense matters remain in the hands of men

The newly-elected Bundestag was hailed in the media for being “younger, more female, more colorful.” However, the share of women rose no more than three percentage points between 2017 and 2021. Women now make up nearly 35 percent of the MPs in the Bundestag: 255 out of 735 MPs are women. Not everyone sees this as a dramatic success. The former President of the Bundestag Claudia Roth was only moderately enthusiastic about this result. Looking for a reason for such slight progress, one usually ends up blaming the CDU/CSU, the Liberals (FDP), and—by far the most ruthless ones when it comes to ignoring women in political positions despite prominent figures like Alice Weidel and Beatrix von Storch—the far-right Alternative for Germany. While the Christian Democrats have a share of around 23-24 percent of women parliamentarians, the number for the AfD is even lower at around 13 percent.

On the positive side, the Green Party has an internal quota for women in all committees and on party tickets, established through the Frauenstatut in 1986. The Greens and the Left Party are the only parties who are sending more women than men to the Bundestag. In comparison, the Social Democrats with slightly more than 40 percent female MPs have so far never reached gender equality among their parliamentarians.

Although Germany has a female foreign minister, and although the coalition partners have pledged in the coalition treaty to support a feminist foreign policy, the share of women in the committee on foreign affairs is less than 20 percent.

Some see quotas as a necessary way to achieve a more gender-balanced parliament, for others, the solution lies elsewhere. For Gyde Jensen, who was the youngest woman in the Bundestag when she became an MP at the age of 28 in 2017 and the youngest-ever chair of a Bundestag committee (the committee on human rights), the solution might be found somewhere in the middle. Amongst her party colleagues from the FDP, she is a minority, not only because she is a young woman, but also because she fights for more women in key positions in the diplomatic service and security roles. Her comments on a quota for female MPs actually sound rather cautious. She acknowledges that not considering a numerical target would be a “denial of reality,” but from a legal perspective it might still be difficult to achieve.

Apart from the raw numbers, it is also helpful to have a look at the composition of the Bundestag committees alongside the ministerial posts, to understand whether traditionally “male” fields are becoming more gender balanced. After the 2021 Bundestag elections, Germany for the first time in its history got a female foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, and its first-ever female minister of the interior, Nancy Faeser. Meanwhile, Christine Lambrecht is the third woman in a row to lead the Ministry of Defense. Therefore, in the Scholz cabinet, the three predominantly male connotated ministries are headed by women. Eight out of seventeen posts in the cabinet are held by women.

Other than in the cabinet, the picture looks dim for highly relevant and traditionally male-dominated Bundestag committees. In the committees on foreign affairs, defense, finances, and interior, women are dramatically under-represented. Although Germany has a female foreign minister, and although the coalition partners have pledged in the coalition treaty to support a feminist foreign policy, the share of women in the committee on foreign affairs is less than 20 percent. Both the chair and vice-chair are men. The situation in the defense committee is not promising either; while the chair is a woman, Marie-Agnes Strack-Zimmermann of the FDP, 74 percent of the committee members are men. Similar numbers can be found in the committee on finances (73 percent) and in the committee on the interior (63 percent). Both are chaired by men.

European Parliament: A mixed picture but hopes for a trickle-down effect

The representation of women in the European Parliament is 39.3 percent, thus slightly more promising than in the Bundestag. Meanwhile, apart from the lack of gender balance among MEPs, another trend in the Bundestag is mirrored in the EP: women are significantly under-represented when it comes to the composition of the committees. This applies especially to those committees that traditionally have a male connotation. For instance, out of the 59 members in the subcommittee on security and defense (SEDE), only 22 percent are women. The committee on budgetary control (CONT) has 54 members of which almost 70 percent are men.

On the other hand, some of these committees have women as chairs, which raises the question of whether female chairs distract from the fact that women make a small portion in terms of members or whether there could be in the long run a positive trickle-down effect, leading to a more equal representation within these committees. Other committees with a highly unequal representation are the committee on constitutional affairs (AFCO, 82 percent male), the committee on budgets (BUDG, 77 percent male), and the committee on foreign affairs (AFET, 75 percent male). Overall, only three EP committees come close to gender parity, while the overall proportion of women as committee chairs has decreased between the previous and the current term. Notwithstanding, there is also a positive trend towards more women as chairs of influential committees, including CONT, SEDE, and the committees on internal markets (IMCO), and economic and monetary affairs (ECON).

There is one obvious pattern that prevails in the rather conservative-traditionalist Landtag as well as in the Bundestag and the EP: the striking under-representation of women in finance, economic affairs, security and defense, and foreign affairs committees. This ongoing trend is also backed by the recent Reykjavik Index for leadership whose findings underline that in the public perception, women are still considered less capable of leading in these sectors.

No less important, the European Parliament since January 2022 has a new President, Roberta Metsola, who is only the third woman to hold this position after Nicole Fontaine and Simone Veil. After Ms. Metsola’s appointment, two out of three main EU institutions are led by women for the first time in the Union’s history.

With regards to gender balance in the EP itself, there is a clear trend towards more equal representation of women as MEPs. Their share has more than doubled between the first elections to the EP in 1979 (15.2 percent), and 2009 (35.5 percent). But since then, the gradual increase has somewhat slowed down and only rose by around 4 percentage points in 2019.

On the level of the EU member states, some have adopted quotas for their national MEPs to boost the share of women candidates, and most of them have fulfilled their self-imposed numerical targets. Though it is important to mention that national quotas do not necessarily imply that a country attempts to establish gender equality. The targets range from greater than zero to between 33-50 percent. Overall, eight out of 27 EU member states achieved equal representation, three of which have previously adopted quotas. Only the Finnish and Swedish women are somewhat over-represented in the EP. At the same time, the Gender Statistics Database of the European Institute for Gender Equality reveals that there are more men than women in all parliaments in the EU member states. This in turn means that a number of countries, including Finland and Sweden, who have not yet established gender equality on a national level at least do so on the EU level.

The way forward

The EU, understanding itself as an early advocate of gender equality, fails to meet its own goals and has only made slow progress over the past decade. However, the fact that women hold influential positions within the EU system and as chairs of important committees gives hope that there could be a positive trickle-down effect in the long run.

As said in the beginning, the selection of parliaments in this article was based on my very personal perspective. Therefore, while it is possible to compare them with regards to the share of women parliamentarians, their respective situation differs. However, there is one obvious pattern that prevails in the rather conservative-traditionalist Landtag as well as in the Bundestag and the EP: the striking under-representation of women in committees that are usually branded as male domains, including finances, economic affairs, security and defense, and foreign affairs. This ongoing trend is also backed by the recent Reykjavik Index for leadership whose findings underline that in the public perception, women are still considered less capable of leading in these sectors.

Therefore, it remains one of the key challenges for parliaments, be it on the regional, national, or European level, to acknowledge the excellent work that women are doing in the economic, defense and security, and foreign and constitutional affairs sectors. It is one important step to bring women in key positions as chairs of the respective committees, but it is not less crucial to increase the number of women among committee members. And this in turn needs to be matched with an increase in the share of women as MPs and MEPs. It is 2022—let’s not stay behind the times!

The views expressed are those of the author(s) alone. They do not necessarily reflect the views of the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies.