A Quest for Women's Political representations: Lessons from the Nordic Countries

Abstract: 
The purpose of this paper is to map inter-organizational coordination in urban Political equality as a value is central to the normative theories of democracy, which considers that women are equal citizens and therefore should share equal voice with men in the public decision-making processes. This objective is yet to be achieved across the globe. The first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was granted to the majority of males in the United States. From that point to date, women’s voting right was established, to reach even the top most positions. However, the net visibility of women is still low in many countries. Globally, women’s underrepresentation is attributed to factors like lack of education, economic inability, family responsibilities, religion, stereotypes in society, electoral system, party ideology, psychological barriers (lack of assertive power, low self-esteem) etc. Most of the developing countries are struggling to remove these barriers. The developed west, has successfully addressed many of such barriers. Despite these impressive achievements, the statistical analysis of those countries shows a dismal situation in terms of the women’s representation in many of the developed countries compared to the Nordic countries; like USA 17%, France 19%, Italy 22%, UK 22%, Canada 25% and Australia 25% of the women representation in the parliament. There are differences of 10-20% women representation in the national parliament among the Nordic countries and the other industrial democratic countries. Now, the question is what are the determinants for the women’s higher level of representation in these Nordic countries while important determinants like education, economic empowerment, electoral system, religion etc. are more or less same? The answer may be embedded in the institutional arrangement of the countries. This study measures the institutional arrangement from the cultural perspective. The Nordic countries have transformed their institutional arrangement in such a way that it may create a supportive environment for women. The trends of the Nordic countries show that to increase women representation in the parliament, a country needs to reduce power distance and masculinity while the individualism needs to be concurrently increased. The global statistics of different countries also support these trends. Most of the western countries indicate that success of removing the economic and the other institutional barriers may be important but may not be adequate to ensure women’s political representations. If they are not supported by favorable cultural stimuli, they cannot ensure women’s representation. These trends may provide some learning lessons for the industrial democracies and for the other developing countries to increase women’s visibility in the political arena.
Main Article: 

Introduction
The value of political equality is central to the normative theories of democracy (Tremblay, 2007) which considers that women are equal citizens and therefore, they should share equal voice with men in the public decision making processes. This objective is yet to be achieved across the globe. In modern times, the first wave of democracy began in the early 19th century when suffrage was granted to the majority of males in the United States ("Jacksonian democracy") (Huntington: 1991). From that point to date, women’s rights on voting are established even to reach the top most positions. Nevertheless, the net visibility of women is still low in many countries. Globally, women’s underrepresentation is attributed to many factors like lack of education, economic inability, family responsibilities, religion, stereotypes, myths in society, electoral system, party ideology, psychological barriers (e.g. lack of assertive power, low self-esteem) etc. Most of the developing countries have been struggling to counteract these barriers. However, in the developed West, many of such barriers have been successfully addressed. For example, most of these countries can provide the access to education to increase personal competence of women, which can ensure increased level of women’s’ participation in the economic activities; especially for the inclusion in the formal workforce or the removal of the legal barriers for the electoral participation. In spite of these impressive achievements, the statistical analysis of those countries shows a dismal situation in terms of women’s representation in many of the developed countries such as the US 17%, France 19%, Italy 22%, UK 22%, Canada 25% and Australia 25% of the women representation in the parliament(WEF, 2012). However, the Nordic countries stand as exceptions from these trends. They have showed an impressive level of women’s representation compare to other western countries. According to the World Economic Forum (2012) the representations in the Nordic countries are: Sweden 45%, Finland 43 %, Norway 40 %, Iceland 40% and Denmark 39% (WEF, 2012). Now, the question is what could be the determinant factors for the women’s higher level of representation in these Nordic countries while vital factors like education, economic empowerment, electoral system, religion etc. are more or less same. This article seeks to explore the probable explanations of these variations among the industrial democratic countries.
Women’s Representation in the Parliaments: Exploring the Trends
Social justice and gender equity demand greater participation by the marginal-ized or the underrepresented social groups (Moghadam, 2010). About the marginal and underrepresented group, Anne Phillips (1998) put four arguments to support women’s political representation: (i) women politicians act as role models for aspiring women candidates; (ii) numerically equal representation of women and men in parliaments is an important parameter of justice; (iii) only women are positioned to represent women’s interests; and (iv) women’s political representation revitalizes democracy. Suzanne Dovi (2007) recently added two other arguments: (v) according to the trust argument, women’s political representations necessary for women to repose their confidence in political institutions; and (vi) the legitimacy argument contends that the presence of women representatives increases the legitimacy of democratic institutions (cited in Kantola, 2009).
In spite of this urgency, women are still poorly represented in the political arena throughout the world. Studies have shown that a range of factors influence women’s access to legislative arenas (Tremblay, 2007).The explanatory variables are those identified by the previous research can be grouped into three umbrellas: social-economic factors, political factors and cultural factors (Moghandam, 2010). Socio-economic factors shape the conditions that lead women to envision careers in politics. Variables considered under this category include the type of society (agricultural, industrial or post-industrial), the birth rate, the proportion of women in the labor market, the per capita Gross National Product (GNP), public expenditure on education and healthcare, and the urbanization rate etc. (Tremblay, 2007). Studies show, the proportion of women in parliaments is positively influenced by such factors as participation in the labor market (particularly in specialized employment), a high score on the Human Development Index (HDI), a post-industrial society, and a developed welfare state (Ibid).Gender-based gaps in educational attainment, employment, and income stand on the way to women’s access to economic resources, creating obstacles to funding political campaigns (Moghandam, 2010). Inglehart and Norris (2003)argue the gender gap in political participation is often the greatest in the poorer developing nations and often diminished or reversed in the post-industrial societies. By elaborating this proposition, Moghandam (2010) posits that the more developed a country, the greater the likelihood of women’s political representation and participation, which was tested through Human Development Index and Gender Development Index, or GDI and the Gender Empowerment Measure, or GEM.
The next cluster of variables comes from ‘culture’ which refers to values, standards, beliefs, and attitudes that underpin in a society and which animate the population’s ways of being, talking, and doing (Tremblay, 2007). Religion, education, and views of gender-based social roles are the primary cultural factors identified as the determinants of the proportion of women’s representation in the parliaments (Ibid). The third group of explanatory variables stems from the political arena. In terms of women’s representation, these political factors are two-dimensional: the political rights of women and the political regime. The first dimension refers to the political citizenship of women. The factors like freedom to form and join organizations; freedom of expression; right to vote in elections and to stand for the public office; right of political leaders to compete for support and votes; freedom of information and availability of alternative sources of information; free and fair elections; and institutions for framing government policies that depend on votes and other expressions of preference etc. are important here. The second dimension relates to the state structure (unitary or federal), the structure of parliament, the nature of the legislative career, the composition of the parliament (provision of quota system), the party system (the ideologies of the parties, how candidates are selected) and the electoral system itself (Ibid).
All these factors cumulatively construct the ‘institutional arrangement’ of a country, which determine the degree of women representation in the political arena of a country. Institutions are considered both the medium and the outcome of the action and interaction of organizations, groups and individuals (Giddens, 1982: in Hanf and Jansen, 1998). “Institutions are here conceived as both patterns of human activity and symbolic systems, cognitive constructions and normative rules through which actors categorize that activity and infuse it with meaning and value (Friedland and Alfrod, 1991:232 in Hanf and Jansen, 1998:4). Based on the variations of these factors, the institutional quality can vary among different countries. If we consider some of the industrial democratic countries (total 13 countries are considered in this study for analysis), we can see that some of the indicators like the economic participation and opportunity, educational attainment, health and survival are more or less same among these countries (Graph 1). However, in case of the political empowerment, there are wide variations among these countries.
Graph 1: Comparative Scenario on Different Indicators among the Different Industrial Democratic Countries

The religion, which is one of the strongest determinants of a societal system, is also more or less same among these countries. There are higher levels of various political rights like freedom of expression, right to vote or participate in election etc. among these countries. In spite of these similarities, there are variations of women representation among these developed countries. The Nordic countries however show a different trend. The Nordic countries did not differ from other Western European nations on women suffrage as far as timing is concerned. They were all part of the first wave of equal suffrage rights (Blom, 2012). Now, the question is-why such variation exists. The answer may be found in the nature of the institutional arrangements of the respective countries as both the supporting environment and the impediments for women representatives emerged from the constituent elements of the institution. Being one of the key elements for constructing a country’s institutional arrangement, culture can provide some important insights on the variations of women’s representation in different countries. Except for this factor, other factors are more or less the same for the sample 13 industrial democratic countries. To map the cultural differences, Hofsetde’s cultural dimensions can provide a rational framework as it comprehensively and systematically comprehends the culture in a country. He identifies four types of cultural dimensions (power distance, individualism masculinity and uncertainty avoidance), which contribute to capturing the nature of an institutional arrangement of a country. This captured nature may explain the variation of women representation among the countries under investigation.
Power Distance (PDI)
Power distance expresses the degree to which the less powerful or disempowered members of a society accept and expect that power is distributed unequally (Website: Hofstede). The fundamental issue here is how a society handles inequalities among the people. People in societies displaying a large degree of power distance approve a hierarchical order in which everybody has a place and which needs no further justification. In societies with low power distance, people strive to equalize the distribution of power and demand justification for inequalities of power (Ibid). The society, which has less power distance, is favorable for women’s representation in the political arena. This is because, in the societies where there is higher power distance, women face higher level of resistance to have a position in the extant power structure. Based on this argument, a hypothesis can be put as:
Hypothesis 1 (H1): Lower level of power distance has a positive impact on women’s representation in the national parliament.
Individualism versus Collectivism (IDV)
The high side of this dimension, called ‘Individualism’, which can be defined as a preference for a loosely knit social framework in which individuals take care of themselves and their immediate families only. Its opposite, ‘Collectivism’, represents a preference for a tightly knit framework in society where individuals can expect their relatives or members of a particular in-group to look after them in exchange for unquestioning loyalty (Website: Hofstede). In an individualistic society, everyone looks for his or her own opportunities. In contrast, in the collective society, one has to comply with group’s preference. As most of the world’s political system is male- dominated, the group interests are mostly skewed to men in a collectivist society. Under such a situation, a high degree of individualism can help a woman penetrate the political structure of a country. In line with this logic, the hypothesis can be put as:
Hypothesis 2 (H2): Higher the level of individualism, higher will be women’s representation in the national parliament.
Uncertainty Avoidance (UAI)
The uncertainty avoidance dimension reveals the degree to which members of a society feel uncomfortable with uncertainty and ambiguity. Countries exhibiting strong UAI maintain rigid codes of belief and behavior and are intolerant of unorthodox or liberal behavior and ideas. Weak UAI societies maintain a more relaxed attitude in which practice counts more than principles (Website: Hofstede). In a traditional society, politics is mostly dominated by men. The countries, which have higher level of UAI, may tend to shun women’s leadership as it does not match their deep-rooted norms and looks unorthodox. In line with this argument, a third hypothesis may be framed as:
Hypothesis 3 (H3): Higher level of uncertainty avoidance leads to lower level women’s representation in the national parliament.
Masculinity versus Femininity (MAS)
The masculinity side of this dimension represents a preference in society for achievement, heroism, assertiveness and material reward for success. Society at large is more competitive. On the other hand, femininity stands for a preference for cooperation, modesty, caring for the weak and quality of life. Society at large is more consensus-oriented amid the femininity culture (Website: Hofstede). Thus, the country which has the culture of femininity, are more supportive for the empowerment of the marginalized people like women, because, such kind of society believes in equity and supports the weak and backward people to remove inequality.
Hypothesis 4 (H4): Lower level masculine culture (femininity) may lead to higher-level women’s representation in the national parliament.
Data and Method
The research approach pursued for this study is divided into two segments. Firstly, the cultural trends of the Nordic countries, calculated through Hofstede’s cultural dimensions are compared with some of the industrial democratic countries. For this, a total of 13 countries are selected as they have similarities on many socio-economic and political indicators. The countries constitute mostly western industrial democratic developed countries. Due to the unavailability of data, some of the countries have been dropped from the scope. For instance, Iceland is dropped from the analysisas the data on cultural dimensions are not available in the Hofstede’s country database. In the second part of the study, it analyzes the validity of the trends observed among these 13 countries with the global data. For these, a total of 68 countries are considered based on the availability of all sets of data for both the independent and the dependent variables. The values for the explanatory variables ofeach country are extracted from the Hofstede’s country database. The levels of women’s representation in the parliament (dependent variable) of the different countries are extracted from the World Economic Forum’s databasepublished in ‘The Global Gender Gap Report, 2012’.
Findings and Analysis
The statistical trends of the Nordic countries show that all these countries have less power distance (score is less than 33), higher level of individualism and less masculinity . In the case of uncertainty avoidance, it suggests a mixed picture. These countries have the trend of medium to lower level of uncertainty avoidance.
Table 1: Women Representation in the Parliament and the Cultural Dimensions in the Nordic Countries
Women in Parliament Cultural Dimensions
Countries Female Rank PDI IDV MAS UAI
Sweden 45 2 31 71 5 29
Finland 43 3 33 63 26 59
Norway 40 8 31 69 8 50
Denmark 39 10 18 74 16 23
In general, 30% of women representation in the parliament is considered the ‘critical mass ’ (Moghandam, 2010), because this level of descriptive representation is expected to lead to substantive representation on women . That is why the UN now recommends a benchmark of at least 30% female representation. The Nordic countries were able to reach this level in the 1980’s but many of the sample industrial countries are yet to reach that level. Table 2 indicates that within the Nordic countries, the country which has lower level of masculinity (Sweden and Norway), took less time to reach 20% and 30% representation threshold compared to the other two countries (Finland and Denmark).
Table 2: Time required to cross different threshold level of women representa-tion in the Nordic countries
Denmark Finland Norway Sweden
First women elected to parlia-ment 1918 1907 1922 1922
Required time to reach women representation at 20% 61 years
(in 1979) 67 years
(in 1970) 55 years
(in 1977) 51 years
(in 1973)
Required time to reach women representation at 30% 70 years
(in 1988) 76 years
(in 1983) 63 years
(in 1985) 64 years
(in 1986)
Table 3 shows that except New Zealand, all the sample industrial democratic countries have medium to high level of power distance. In the case of individualism, most of the countries have higher level of individualism even more than the Nordic countries. The highest score of ‘Individualism’ in the Nordic courtiers is 74, whereas USA or UK has about 90. Compared to the Nordic countries, the power distance and the masculinity are higher among the sample industrial democratic countries. The femininity of the Nordic countries may be the key to the degree of differences of women representation among the sample countries. This approach may also help reduce the power distance in the Nordic countries. Among the industrial democratic countries, the Netherlands is less masculine country. Interestingly, its female representation is also very high and equivalent to the Nordic countries. However, other countries show medium to high level of masculinity. All the countries with medium to high level of masculinity show lower level of women representation than the Nordic countries.
In general, it can be said that in the case of uncertainty avoidance, the Nordic countries have lower level of uncertainty avoidance than the sample industrial countries. Although there is large level of variations within the sample countries, the low level of uncertainty avoidance in the Nordic countries indicates that there is higher level of acceptance on unorthodox activities. As in most of the countries, the political arenas were male-dominated; the presence of women may appear as unusual in many countries. Because of the lower level of uncertainty avoidance tendencies, the Nordic countries have a higher level of acceptance on women leadership in the political arena.
Table 3: Women Representation in the Parliament and the Cultural Dimensions in the Selected Industrial Democracies
Women in Parliament Cultural Dimensions
Countries Female Rank PDI IDV MAS UAI
Netherlands 41 5 38 80 14 53
Germany 33 18 35 67 66 65
New Zealand 32 22 22 79 58 49
Australia 25 38 36 90 61 51
Canada 25 38 39 80 52 48
United Kingdom 22 51 35 89 66 35
Italy 22 55 50 76 70 75
France 19 69 68 71 43 86
United States 17 78 40 91 62 46
The statistical trends of the Nordic countries are also supported by the global trends. Hypothesis 1 states: Lower level of power distance has a positive impact on women representation in the parliament of a country. Table 4shows that for power distance (PDI) and women representation, r= -.440and p< 0.01; i.e. there is an inverse relationship between the two variables. If the power distance reduces, the women representation in the parliament increases. Similarly, the Nordic countries, which have higher level of women representation, also have lower level of power distance compared to the other countries.
Hypothesis 2 indicates that the higher the level of individualism, the higher will be the women’s representation in the parliament in a country. The global data support this proposition as it shows, r=0.270 and p<0.05. This means, the higher the level of individualism, the higher will be the women’s representation. However, the statistics of some industrial democratic countries show that many of them have higher level of individualism, even more than the Nordic countries; but they have lower level of women’s representation compared to them.
Table 4: Correlation between Representation in Parliament and Cultural Di-mensions of the Different Countries (N=68)
Representation in Parliament PDI IDI MAS UAI
Representation in Parliament Pearson Correlation 1
Sig. (2-tailed)
PDI Pearson Correlation -.440** 1
Sig. (2-tailed) .000
IDI Pearson Correlation .270* -.628** 1
Sig. (2-tailed) .026 .000
MAS Pearson Correlation -.272* .128 .075 1
Sig. (2-tailed) .025 .300 .542
UAI Pearson Correlation -.170 .247* -.253* -.067 1
Sig. (2-tailed) .166 .042 .037 .585
**. Correlation is significant at the 0.01 level (2-tailed).
*. Correlation is significant at the 0.05 level (2-tailed).
This trend can be interpreted in two ways. First, it may indicate that before creating certain enabling environment (level playing field); only individualism may not impel in increasing women representation further. Conversely, it can be interpreted in the other way as well, after a certain level it may work negatively to encourage women’s participation, as everyone looks for his or her own opportunities rather than cooperating with others. Both of these may explain the lower level of women representation in the parliaments (like USA, UK or Australia) despite having a very high level of individualism (around 90). If these explanations are valid, the institutional arrangement may need to be changed to create the enabling environment to support individualism but at the same time there should not have very high level of individualism. The data of New Zealand and Australia also support this. New Zealand has lower value in this indicator (79) compared to Australia (90) and has a higher level of women representation (32% and 25% respectively).
Hypothesis 3 is about the link between masculinity and women’s representation- the lower the masculinity of a country, the higher will be women representation in parliament. The global data show an inverse relationship between these two variables as r=-.272 and p< 0.05. This implies that this hypothesis holds true as less the level of masculinity, higher will be the level of women’s representation. The separate analysis of the Nordic countries and the industrial democracies also support this trend. For example, Table 3indicates that the Netherlands has lower score for masculinity (14) compared to other sample countries and has a higher level of women’s representation.
Hypothesis 4: the lower the level of uncertainty avoidance, the higher will be the women’s representation. The global data support this proposition, as r=-.170 but the data do not show statistical significance as ‘p’ value is more than0.05. The individual analysis of the Nordic countries do not show any specific pattern as the score varies from low to medium (Table 1). In general, the Nordic countries have lower level of uncertainty avoidance compared to other industrial democratic countries. However, due to the wide variation of the value of this variable and the higher level of ‘p’ value, the trend may be consistent and may appear randomly.
Conclusion
Different previous studies suggest the importance of various socio-economic, political and cultural factors for the enhancement of women representation (Moghadam, 2010; Thames and Williams, 2010;Viterna et al. 2008;Matland, 1998). These factors cumulatively construct the institutional arrangement of a country. Being an important constituent factor for institutional arrangement, the culture of a country has significant influence in determining the level of women’s representation. If the cultural system of a country fails to effect the institutional arrangement into certain patterns, it may fail to ensure women’s political representation. This trend is demonstrated in some of the developed industrial countries. In spite of overcoming some of the key constraints on women’s representation like economic participation, educational attainment, health support and various political rights; there are differences of 10-20 percent women’s representation in the national parliament between the Nordic countries and the other industrial democratic countries. This lower level of women’s representation may be explained by the variation of cultural factors. The trends of the Nordic countries indicate that the power distance and the masculinity needs to be reduced while the individualism needs to be increased. The global statistics of the different countries also support these trends, though, in general, the Nordic countries have lower level of uncertainty avoidance compared to other industrial democratic countries.
However, the industrial democratic countries indicate that only the increase of individualism is not sufficient. Many of them have higher level of individualism, even more than the Nordic countries like Australia, USA or UK. In the individualistic society, everyone looks for his or her own opportunities (Website: Hofstede), which can ultimately lead to intense competition in the society. Before the creation certain enabling environment, such competition may not facilitate increased women’s representation. The experience of the Nordic countries indicate that while there is little variation in power distance and the individualism, the level of masculinity may play an important role. Lower level of masculinity means preference for cooperation and caring for the weak in the society (Website: Hofstede). This may foster the creation of an enabling environment. Raaum (2005) indicates that such culture can lead to ‘women friendly welfare policies’. Among the Nordic countries which have less masculine culture, some were able to quickly enhance the degree of the women representation in the parliament. Empirical statistics shows that Sweden and Norway are less masculine compared to the other two (Denmark and Finland) countries. These two countries (Sweden and Norway) need less time to reach 20% and 30% threshold level of women’s representation compared to the other two countries. Similarly, the masculinity level of the Netherlands also supports this as it has lower level of masculinity (14) and higher level of women’s representation in the parliament. These trends may provide some didactic lessons for the industrial democracies as well as to the other developing countries. To increase the proportion of women representation, the countries need to grow the cultural attributes, which can help to adopt instruments and policies to support the weak and disadvantaged people in the country. The adoption of these policies may create an enabling environment to increase women’s visibility in the political arena.