Women occupy an average of 22 percent of seats in parliaments around the world, but only 12 percent of seats in the Ukrainian Verkhovna Rada, or parliament, are held by women. In addition, Ukrainian press and social media spent more time covering a change in former Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko’s hairstyle than they did discussing her faction’s role in the political crisis surrounding a vote of no-confidence in parliament. Despite examples like this, though, many Ukrainian women deny they are victims of sexism or discrimination.
The National Democratic Institute sought to explore attitudes toward women’s political participation in Ukraine using cutting-edge public opinion research techniques. NDI investigated voter preferences on candidate gender, gender balance and quotas in elected institutions, the role of political parties in women’s political participation, and the barriers women candidates face when running for office.
One of the enduring myths about women’s political participation in Ukraine is that women are underrepresented in Ukrainian politics because voters prefer male candidates. However, NDI's research demonstrated that one of the key barriers to more women in elected office is bias among political party leaders, and the power they wield as gatekeepers, rather than gender bias among voters.
In NDI’s recent survey, 56 percent of those surveyed cited the belief that voters prefered male candidates to explain why there are fewer women than men in elected office in Ukraine. However, when questioned about how gender influences their vote, almost all respondents ranked other qualities such as honesty, the candidate’s platform, experience, party affiliation, education, and age well above gender. In fact, the number of respondents citing gender as a deciding factor in their vote was so small it fell within the survey’s margin of error.
During in-depth interviews with candidates and potential candidates, respondents confirmed these surprising results. Candidates cited youth, lack of experience and party affiliation as characteristics more likely to provoke negative reactions from voters than gender. One respondent from Vinnytsia who sought election and won reflected: “I was told that I was young, so I [would] have to change something to show that I can deliver…The fact that I’m a woman, it helped. [Voters] also said that I’ll think about people who need help, [like] the elderly [and] children.”
In Kyiv, NDI was able to further test voters’ gender preference by using tablet computers rather than pen and paper to record responses in door-to-door surveys. This allowed respondents to be split randomly into two groups. Half of the respondents were shown male images and half were shown female images, so none was unaware that the question was testing gender preference. All respondents were told “Each of the following pictures is a lawyer who has decided to get involved in politics to fight corruption” and were asked “On a scale of 0 to 10, how likely would you be to vote for this person?” The results showed that if gender is the only difference between candidates it has no effect on voters’ choices.
NDI’s polling also demonstrates a preference among voters for a more equal distribution of men and women in elected office. Most Ukrainians are aware of the current imbalance in elected institutions, a trend that holds true across regions, and would prefer a more equal distribution of gender roles in politics. In May 2015, 41 percent said they believed the parliament should ideally contain 41-50 percent women. This figure rose to 47 percent in December 2015. Most respondents (56 percent) also believe that if Ukraine were to achieve an equal balance of men and women in elected office, politicians would focus more on their everyday concerns.
Although political parties are part of the problem, some progress was made in the leadup to the 2014 parliamentary elections. More women were placed in winnable positions on party lists, and 20 percent of those elected from party lists were women, double the number in the previous parliament. However, only two women won in majoritarian contests. In 2015, after passing a 30 percent gender quota for the local elections, all the main political parties monitored by NDI nominated more than the required number of women. However, some parties performed much better than others and most progress was made below the level of oblast (regional) councils.
During in-depth interviews, potential candidates cited the attitudes of political party leaders as a major factor in their decision to run for office. But when women had a positive relationship with their political party they were more likely to seek nomination. A woman who ran for office in Zaporizhia and won cited party outreach as a main reason for seeking nomination. “I was surprised and pleased to hear directly from the [party] leader,” she said. One woman from Kirovograd who ran for election and lost reflected on the importance of joining a party that reflected her values: “I realized that if you want to really change something, then one is as good as none. You must join a team. It should be a team [that adheres] to the same principles and the same thoughts as you.”
NDI used implicit association tests (IATs) in order to measure attitudes towards gender in Ukraine. IATs measure attitudes and beliefs that respondents might be unlikely to report in traditional polling. In the case of Ukraine, IATs enabled NDI to measure the extent to which women and men associate women with political life, whether there are differences between men’s and women’s explicit and implicit associations with different political and social roles, and whether voting behavior reflects these attitudes. The IATs showed that most people do not associate women with political life. More importantly, it was found that women are even less likely to associate women with political life than men. This was consistent with the results of the in-depth-interviews, which highlighted the barriers to political participation in the minds of women aspirants. However, the IATs also found that associating men with political life does not prevent voters from supporting a woman candidate. Seventy-five percent of those who voted for a woman mayoral candidate in Zhytomyr explicitly and implicitly associated men with political life.
Although NDI’s 2015 surveys disproved some traditional myths about the barriers to women’s political participation in Ukraine, they highlighted others. In order for Ukraine to move towards higher levels of women’s political participation, the government should improve the country’s legal framework, including enforceable gender quotas and reform of campaign finance laws, to create more incentives for parties to nominate women candidates. There is also room for parties to develop more robust national and local level structures that reach out to women voters and attract and develop women leaders. Finally, it is critical to address barriers in the minds of potential women aspirants themselves.
Politically-active women should be empowered to know that they have a fair chance of selection, that they can develop a strategy and campaign effectively, that they will be allowed to participate in decisionmaking if elected, and that they can grow in numbers and thereby change Ukraine’s political culture. In addition, the media must raise the visibility of women leaders while tackling sexism in its portrayals of men and women.
This research is funded by the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), Global Affairs Canada (GAC) and the Government of Sweden. NDI is responsible for its contents. Cette étude est financée par la Fondation nationale pour la démocratie (NED), les Affaires mondiales Canada (AMC) et le gouvernement suédois. L'Institut national démocratique (IND) est responsable pour le contenu.