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Is There Gender Bias In The Jobs That Female Politicians Get To Do? Take A Closer Look

Posted: July 10, 2020

Female politicians are rarely given Cabinet/Minister roles, and if they make it, they usually get only welfare portfolios. Let’s look at what the data says.

The present Lok Sabha (elected in 2019) includes 78 female representatives, the irony being  that this 14.39% (out of a total of 542 members) is actually a cause of pride for the nation with regard to women’s representation in politics. 

Moving beyond these representation figures at the national level, if we examine the composition of state government ministries on the basis of gender, the findings reveal the next layer of challenges that women as elected representatives face. 

A closer examination of the portfolios that women ministers handle reveals the skewed development agenda followed by politicians as well as the low confidence reposed in women. 

Recently, as a consequence of the political horse-trading that is common  in India, the state of Madhya Pradesh witnessed a rise in its state cabinet members. Among the 28 new members, were three women ministers, which on the face of it, is higher than in many other states. The portfolios have not been finalised at the time of this article being written, but this one incident reveals the way women are perceived in Indian politics. They are not individual representatives but part and parcel of the party, whose political career is determined by ‘postings’ rather than ‘policy’.

Let’s take a closer look.

Where are the women in state cabinets?

To start with, 7 out of 28 states have absolutely no women as part of the state’s council of ministers, these being Arunachal Pradesh, Delhi, Meghalaya, Mizoram, Nagaland, Sikkim and Uttarakhand. In the remaining states, the numbers usually average between one to three.

The best performer in terms of women’s political representation is the state of West Bengal, which is incidentally the only one with a female Chief Minister. 

Among the Union Territories, only Puducherry has a female Governor, Dr. Kiran Bedi, with the remaining seven having male administrators. (Puducherry is a Union Territory with an elected legislative assembly and state cabinet – although the cabinet includes no women at present). 

Female ministers as a percentage of total cabinet size (as of July 2020)

The total cabinet size of Indian states mentioned varies from as low as six to as high as 43 (Maharashtra). It’s striking that even in a cabinet consisting of 43 members, women’s representation is still at the bare minimum. Male ministers often handle multiple portfolios rather than their being divvied up to make way for fairer representation of women.

Summary of women’s representation across Indian states (as of July 2020)

This trend is common across regional and national parties, with in most cases the heads of parties again, being male.

What portfolios do female ministers handle?

Another common thread among the states is that women ministers usually handle the portfolios of Women and Child development or Social Welfare. While these portfolios are vital for development and equality, female representatives are completely sidelined from portfolios such as Revenue, Trade/Industry, Home (Law & Order), Transport, Mines, Irrigation etc.

What this means is that they have lesser ability to impact on the state’s finances or policies in a significant manner, and it also makes it harder for them to have a stake in the state’s financial success. Nor can they control the police or impact on areas like irrigation/farming, which are crucial in developing a vote bank for themselves. 

Women & Welfare Portfolios (as of July 2020)

Note: The above chart does not represent Madhya Pradesh’s present state cabinet after its expansion last week since portfolios have not yet been finalised. It also does not include states with no female ministers at present.

Women representatives are often side-stepped as they are projected as extensions of their family and not independent, capable candidates. Women politicians have to face the tug of war between party policies and their gender as an identity. Often couched in ‘respect’, women leaders get translated as Amma, Didi, Behenji etc, even in political spaces. This PR exercise inhibits active participation and puts women leaders at a disadvantage.

As exceptions to every rule, we do have women ministers handling the portfolios of finance, trade at the centre as well as the state level. It has to be noted that as a country we have had female Defence and Foreign ministers but the numbers are minimal and closer examination reveals the caste/class/religion bias that dictates overall women’s political representation.

Presently, Goa is the only state with a woman minister handling the portfolio of Revenue, Information Technology, Labour. Additionally, she is also the only female representative in the state cabinet. This bias reveals the indifference towards women political leaders as well as the overall indifference towards betterment of development indices.

How this gender bias impacts policy

India spends a mere 1.28% of its GDP on health. This low figure interconnects with other issues like lack of access to sanitation and water supply, and poor quality of public healthcare including maternal healthcare – issues that impact women who face these as day to day challenges. 

These issues get short shrift without much progress even in the hands of female politicians as the male leadership bastion decides on subjects such as commerce, law and order as more vital for progress. Conversely, those ‘vital’ subjects hardly make space for women in them. 

Grassroots level representation is often absent in the national parties, and even in regional ones and this gap exacerbated by gender bias reveals the ill-informed development policy.

In the wake of the COVID crises, the Kerala state model was praised for its efficiency and many attributed its success to the minister K.K. Shailaja Teacher. The array of portfolios she handles is truly diverse and hints at her competence. Similarly, in West Bengal, with the highest number of women representatives in the state, portfolios range between Family Welfare to Information technology among the ministers.

Handling a ministerial portfolio requires professionalism and the success of the department reflects the capabilities of the individual. There are many examples that illustrate how women leaders are as capable as their male counterparts. For example, even today, portfolios like, Industries, Trade, Education, Home, Sports, and Disaster Management, are being handled by women ministers in a few states like Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Punjab, Telangana, West Bengal, and Tamil Nadu. This aspect deserves mention as it can help usher in more candidates geared towards achieving better development outcomes.

Women in politics has always been a contentious issue. The public voice of women excluded in many policies has led to skewed environmental as well as developmental practices. 

Additionally, public infrastructure, police, and the judiciary often represent an alien world for many women, because of the lack of representation. For example, a woman minister who handles a portfolio like Law and order can really help sensitise caste, class, gender relations. Just expanding the scope of portfolios available for female politicians can help move forward towards gender equality. 

The way forward

The 33% reservation bill has been a holy grail for women activists, who want the magic number to be reflected in the Indian parliament. This number has been calculated as the starting point towards implementation of gender conscious policy changes. While many critics argue that the bill is not inclusive enough , the ground reality reveals how even those supposedly ‘privileged’ women get sidelined because of gender. 

The boys club mentality of Indian politics has been a major hurdle towards the achievement of many developmental goals. Male politicians more often than not, discount their female counterparts as unsuitable for the public lifestyle that politics demands.

The women politicians who do prevail face a lot of prejudice and sexism, not just from their fellow party members but also many times from the voters. This bias is an extension of the patriarchy that engulfs all women in form or the other. 

There are many forms of disadvantages that women face, like class, caste, religion which gets reinforced into the political system and in governance. Progressive social stances are only possible if women who are already elected are given equal opportunities.

Gender is one of the basic forms of disparity in society that can only be erased with meaningful representation. It’s high time party chiefs introspect and go beyond sound bytes, to give women their dues. 

A homemaker following "the ten year-Bucket List."

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