Although nearly one hundred years have passed since women gained the right to vote, their representation in Czech politics remains low and has hardly increased. Are women less interested in politics? Are they less qualified or competent than their male counterparts? Or is it that women face hidden obstacles, a form of glass ceiling?
First, a few numbers – women today constitute 20,5% in the Chamber of Deputies, 18,5% in the Senate, and hold three ministries (17,6%). Czech women are better represented at the local level (27,1%). But even here in the 26 largest towns in the Czech Republic, women hold a slim 4% of mayors. With this record it should not surprise that the Gender Gap Index, published since 2006 by the World Economic Forum, has rated the Czech Republic last in four categories in the field of politics.
Some may interpret the low numbers of women in elected office as reflecting a lack of interest among women in political participation. But is this really the case? The problem to me resides elsewhere – in the political parties that give women unfavourable positions on the candidate lists. An analysis by the Czech Statistical Office showed that female candidates standing for election to the Chamber of Deputies in 2013 usually occupied the 21st position or lower. The discrepancy between the number of women in political parties and those in elected positions can be clearly seen in the Christian Democratic Party. Despite the fact that women constitute a higher percentage of party membership (52%), none of the 14 mandates the party won in the aforementioned election went to a woman. Political parties are the gatekeepers blocking a more balanced representation of men and women in politics.
Resistance towards quotas
Quotas are often suggested as a way to increase the number of women in politics. The Czech government has unfortunately refused to adopt mandatory legislative quotas in the candidate lists that would facilitate a gender balance across the party spectrum (parties failing to abide the quota would get reduced state contribution for won mandates).
Let me dispense now with two of the more common arguments against quotas – that they deny free choice and secondly that they may lead to the election of less competent women over more qualified male counterparts – by observing that free choice doesn’t currently exist. Political parties rather than voters rank-order candidates for election. Moreover, the suggested legislative quotas aimed at the composition of the candidate lists, not the final makeup of the legislative assembly. Regarding the latter argument, it is crucial to ask ourselves whether we don’t already apply different standards to male and female candidates. Do we question to the same extent qualification of male candidates? Since political parties claim to select candidates on the basis of their competence and skills, are we to understand that only 20% of women in Czech society (and 80% of men) possess the necessary skills for political office?
Legitimate claim to women’s representation
It seems to me we are asking women to justify the legitimacy of their participation in political life. Some even view women in politics as inappropriate or just odd. It makes one wonder if the political system, created historically by men, for men, is really capable of taking an unbiased approach to the inclusion of women in the political decision-making process. By no means do I suggest that women are somehow better than men, much less restore public confidence in the political system. I’m convinced only that the experiences and perspectives of one half of the population should be represented since political decisions influence both men and women alike.
 Voluntary party quotas have been used on candidate lists by three political parties in the Czech Republic –Green Party, Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (where they are termed obligatory recommendations, not quotas) and Czech Social Democratic Party. The disadvantage of this type of quota is that it has been non-binding and not enforceable in practice. Moreover, the majority of political parties does not practice quotas. Therefore influence of party quotas on women´s political representation is limited. The Czech Social Democratic Party is the most recent one adopting voluntary party quotas. We will be able to evaluate their effects in the next election. I’m rather sceptical about their impact since the measure mentions only seeking a balance of women and men on the candidate lists but offers not a word about the ranking of candidates by gender. It is possible that the respective lists may boast more women candidates while again relegating them to unwinnable positions.