Strengthening Women’s Civic and Political Participation (2017)

A Synthesis of the Scholarly Literature

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Research Team:

In 2016, USAID’s Center of Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights, and Governance launched its Learning Agenda—a set of research questions designed to address the issues that confront staff in USAID field offices working on the intersection of development and democracy, human rights, and governance. This literature review—produced by a team of WSU professors and graduate students representing the academic disciplines of communication, history, and political science—synthesizes scholarship from diverse research traditions on the following Learning Agenda question:

What are the most effective ways to encourage women’s civic (e.g., volunteer, advocacy, etc.) and political (e.g., voting, running for office) participation? What are the risks to women of these strategies in contexts where resistance to changing gender norms is strong?

The team identified four strategies for increasing women’s civic and political participation that are analyzed in academic scholarship:

  • Using quotas to enhance women’s representation.
  • Using social media platforms to mobilize women and amplify their voices.
  • Targeting women as participants or beneficiaries of social programs.
  • Mobilizing women through their intersecting identities.

The team found that quotas are effective in increasing the number of women in elected office at the national and local levels and may also encourage women to participate in political and civic activity more generally. However, how quotas are designed and implemented greatly influences their success, and it is unclear whether more women in office leads to substantive changes to women’s agency within the legislature. In addition, although gender equity reforms implemented in the legislature can make such reforms more likely in other institutional settings, quotas are not common in other government branches.

Social media is a double-edged sword: it provides a relatively inexpensive, accessible tool for women to participate in civic and political life and bring attention to issues that disproportionately affect women; however, it also creates a new space in which women are contested, harassed, and silenced.

Social programs that target women also can be effective, but they almost always impose unanticipated costs, burdens, or risks on the women who participate, and so can depress women’s participation while seeking to increase it. These adverse effects have predictable patterns, and programs that target women as beneficiaries should take these patterns into consideration during the design phase.

Mobilizing women through their intersecting identities—as mothers, workers, members of a religious group—is an underdeveloped area of the literature. Although several articles covered cases of this sort of mobilization, the results are ambivalent. In addition, although mobilizing women through certain frames—such as “motherhood”—can be effective, this strategy also reinforces traditional norms of gender roles.