What influence do women wield in African governments?

May 14

Kim Yi Dionne: This post is the second in a three-part series on gender and politics focused on political leadership. The series highlights recent political science scholarship that examines experiences from around the world. An earlier post by Farida Jalalzai discussed global trends of women achieving executive office and a forthcoming post by Jana Morgan will discuss women’s leadership in Latin America. Today’s post is a contribution from Leonardo Arriola, Associate Professor of Political Science at UC Berkeley and Martha Johnson, Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mills College. Arriola and Johnson share insights from their recently published article in the American Journal of Political Science: “Ethnic Politics and Women’s Empowerment in Africa: Ministerial Appointments to Executive Cabinets.”

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Central African Republic’s interim President Catherine Samba-Panza visits refugee camps in Bangui, Central African Republic, Saturday Feb. 1, 2014.  (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Women in African countries have considerably expanded their participation in political power over the past three decades. Current presidents like Joyce Banda of Malawi, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf of Liberia, and Catherine Samba-Panza of Central African Republic offer visible proof of women’s increasing presence in African executive authority. The emergence of these women leaders reflects a broader regional trend. Since 1980, the proportion of women appointed as cabinet ministers in African countries has increased from 4 percent to 20 percent, placing the region second in the world just behind the Americas and ahead of Europe. Whereas only one-third of African countries had a woman cabinet minister in 1980, today women are included in the cabinet of every African country.

But the growth of women in African governance has not necessarily translated into real influence. Previous scholarship has shown that women around the world typically receive appointments to less prestigious, more “feminine,” ministerial portfolios like women’s affairs, which are rarely launching pads for greater authority. This remains true in much of Africa. Based on data from 43 African countries between 1980 and 2005, we find that women are significantly less likely than men to receive high prestige appointments in areas such as finance or defense. Women are more likely to be found in medium prestige portfolios like education, which may have sizable personnel and resources but little influence, or low prestige portfolios like culture with small budgets and narrow constituencies.

Prevailing cabinet appointment patterns among African governments have tended to limit the influence of women in high politics. Women are more likely than men to get stuck in less prestigious cabinet positions. As Figure 1 illustrates, men and women have contrasting tenure patterns: men spend more time in more powerful positions whereas women spend more time in less powerful positions. This is problematic because appointments to low prestige portfolios are cabinet dead-ends for most politicians, since they are typically shuffled out of the government without being elevated to more powerful positions. This is especially true for women: while 12.06 percent of men who start in low or medium prestige portfolios are promoted to high prestige portfolios, only 5.74 percent of women have experienced similar promotions.


Despite their growing numbers in African governments, women continue to have limited policy influence because they tend to be concentrated in a single area of government. Figure 2 shows the functional classification of 9,824 portfolio appointments held by men and women across 43 African countries between 1980 and 2005. Whereas men tend to be broadly distributed across functional areas, more than half of all women (53.95 percent) are appointed to portfolios that concern government’s social welfare functions in areas like education, family affairs, community development, and culture. Only one-fifth of men (20.82 percent) are appointed to such portfolios. These proportions nearly flip among portfolios that oversee economic functions such as agriculture, lands, and public works with only 22.87 percent of women receiving such appointments versus 43.09 percent of men.



Why do women continue to be appointed to less influential positions in African governments? Previous studies of government formation in advanced democracies suggest that women tend to lose out on powerful portfolios where such appointments are used to forge coalitions among party leaders, who are primarily men. We believe a similar dynamic holds in African countries. Despite the ongoing process of democratization, incumbent presidents use high prestige appointments to win the support of influential politicians who, because of their sizable ethnic or regional constituencies, can potentially pose a threat to the executive’s continued hold on power. Women are rarely in such positions in African countries.

African leaders may instead appoint women to their cabinets to signal their intent to deliver on campaign promises. Ongoing democratization has created greater pressure for the region’s governments to deliver on reform and improved governance. Some leaders have responded by appointing women to their cabinets with reputations built through work in activist movements, professional associations, and non-governmental organizations. For example, in Uganda, women’s rights activist Miria Matembe, an outspoken critic of corruption, was appointed to lead the Ministry for Ethics and Integrity. In this respect, the entry of women policy advocates in African governments conforms to a broader cross-national pattern in which women with policy or professional expertise are more likely to be appointed to the cabinet.

African women’s executive influence will ultimately depend on the emergence of women who possess both the political capital to negotiate high prestige appointments and exceptional qualifications in related policy areas. Although existing patronage channels connected to state agencies and ruling parties remain dominated by men, growing opportunities in the private sector and international organizations may enable women to acquire expertise and influence in a wide range of policy areas, making them attractive candidates for the highest levels of government. In Nigeria, for example, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, was twice appointed finance minister after having gaining experience as an economist and vice-president working for the World Bank. Her path, like that of Africa’s three women presidents and the other women ministers we have studied, demonstrates that African women are using professional training, career excellence, and outspoken activism to make ever larger cracks in the glass ceilings of executive power. In the process, many women ministers are pushing for a new model of African governance, one that is more professional, transparent, and responsive to women’s needs and concerns.

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