Discrimination against women in public life

Other Names:
Denial of right to access to public service for women
Active prejudice towards participation of women
Exclusion of women from community decision making

The inferior status of women and discrimination against them in public life is revealed in all countries by the comparatively small number of women in high positions or as representatives of organizations whose members are from both sexes. In most countries, irrespective of the political system or state of development, women are under-represented in the legislative and executive bodies of the state and as a result do not participate fully in political decision-making. Although most governments accept the need to integrate women in development planning and decision-making, little has been done in many countries to implement this and any changes are extremely slow. The civil service, the main source of employment for women in most countries, particularly in the areas of social affairs, has a poor record in promoting women to higher positions of responsibility. The fact that so few women occupy the highest posts in the civil service, limits there presence in international organizations also, as this is one of the professions they recruit from.

Male leaders are statistically more representative of male non-leaders than are their few women colleagues. Women politicians sacrifice more for their position. They are less often married, have fewer children and are better trained than other women. In Western democracies they are more often recruited by parties of the left, and they tend to be more liberal than male colleagues. Being unmarried increases a woman's chances of success in terms of career or public life. Women leaders tend still to be assigned to posts in the stereotypically soft ministries of family, welfare, culture and except where this is considered an important post, education. These posts tend not to lead to further promotion in that they do not provide the experience of high level management of economic or foreign affairs considered to be important in top leadership selection. The same thing can be said about women's departments in government. In state socialist countries, women, also, tend to have responsibilities in areas traditionally viewed as women's concerns: health, culture, education, and social welfare. While socialist male aspirants are involved in party work in a number of geographical areas with experience in a number of administrative tasks, women hopefuls tend to be considerably less geographically mobile and are confined to few specialities, notably those which follow from training in the humanities or education. If state socialist regimes officially support political equality of women they have failed to give this goal the kind of priority given to economic equality. State socialism has replaced control of ownership by men with control of political power by men. Western liberal democracies lag behind even this.


Worldwide, there was 9% of positions of legislative power, and 5% of the four highest government decision making posts were held by women in 1990. Between 1987 and 1990 there was no significant development in the representation of women in such positions, except in Latin America and the Caribbean, where the proportion of women at ministerial level went from 3 to 5% and those in the four highest echelons went from 6 to 8%. The few women who occupy positions in governmental decision-making organizations are concentrated in social affairs. In 1990, half of the 146 women who occupied posts at ministerial level were in charge of ministries for social affairs, health and education. There were no women at all in the crucial political ministries of foreign relations, defence, economics and finance. Hardly any of the directors of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund are women. The same situation applies in the UN -- which is supposed to serve as a model for national policy in promoting women's rights. The proportion of women in high-ranking positions only slightly exceeds the world average. This is partly due to the under-representation of women in the UN delegations. In 1989, of the 1,695 persons representing the diplomatic staff of the permanent delegations at the UN in New York, there were 337 women (20%); only eight of these held the rank of ambassador.

In the EEC/EU countries in 1992, there were around 19% women local councillors, with a European average of only 5% women for mayors and 8.4% women deputy mayors. The participation of women in European trade unions lay between 0 and 30%, depending on the country, and is lower at the decision-making level than at membership level, although 20% of trade union representative on public consultative bodies were women, and in certain work areas with large female rank and file membership (such as health and teaching) female leadership was much higher. In employers' organizations of each member state, women represented between 0 and 15% of executive members, only 1 woman occupies an executive seat, and there were several executive committees in national bureaux in which there was no woman at all. In higher social consultation bodies (with government, employer and employee representation), 7.6% of positions with effective mandates were held by women (and 13.7% for substitutes). On statutory consultative committees, women's participation ranges between 0 and 32%. Slightly over 10% of EC national-level, public administration posts involving decision-making and high responsibility were held by women (women hold 44% of public service positions).

In 2001, only 24% of members of European governments were women. This varied from 5% in Greece to 18% in the UK, to around 50% in Sweden. In Denmark in 1989, women were two-thirds of the public sector employees (35% of staff in state administration and about 70% of staff in municipalities), but only 5% of the top managers, around 16% of middle managers, except in the area of education, where they were 67% of principals. In 1990, Danish public committees had 23% of women members and were chaired by women in 10% of cases. 33% of elected members to the 1990 Danish parliament were women. (In Norway in 1986 were 40% women on public committees and 36% women national parliamentarians).

Related UN Sustainable Development Goals:
GOAL 1: No PovertyGOAL 5: Gender EqualityGOAL 11: Sustainable Cities and CommunitiesGOAL 15: Life on LandGOAL 16: Peace and Justice Strong Institutions
Problem Type:
E: Emanations of other problems
Date of last update
04.10.2020 – 22:48 CEST