IPSA World Congress Montréal

There were two highly successful GenParlNet panels at the IPSA World Congress Montréal, 19-24 July 2014.

(1) A new sphere for feminist institution-building? Gender-focused parliamentary bodies

Position Person
Convenor Marian Sawer (Australian National University)
Chair Lenita Freidenvall (University of Stockholm)
Co-Chair Amanda Gouws (Stellenbosch University)
Discussant Mona Lena Krook (Rutgers University)

Over the past 20 years a substantial literature has emerged on feminist institution-building within the state and within international governance institutions. So far there has been relatively little attention paid to the emergence of feminist institution-building within another sphere, that of parliament. This has all begun to change. In 2004 the Inter-Parliamentary Union called for the strengthening of the role of parliaments in advancing gender equality and in 2006 established a database of parliamentary bodies with a mandate in this area. A range of case studies began to emerge, exploring the role of such parliamentary bodies in supporting ‘critical acts’ and providing a platform for gender-focused discourse.

This panel will seek to further develop a typology and comparative framework for the analysis of gender-focused parliamentary bodies, encompassing their origins, functions, resources, civil-society linkages, leadership and perceived effectiveness in promoting gender equality. In addition to the framework paper, case studies will be presented from four continents, covering six national parliaments as well as the European Parliament. Among other aims, the case studies will seek to establish how successfully such bodies have been nested within parliamentary institutions dominated by different norms and political cultures.

Language: English

Session: RC19 Gender Politics and Policy


Comparing parliamentary bodies with responsibility for gender equality

Marian Sawer

This paper will focus on developing a typology of gender-focused parliamentary bodies and a framework for comparative analysis.  So far the types of gender-focused parliamentary body on which the Inter-Parliamentary Union collects data include only: (1) parliamentary standing committees or commissions, constituted under standing orders and (2) women’s caucuses, whether cross party or single party in nature. Another type, so far excluded from data collections, is (3) the gender-focused all-party parliamentary group, approved by a presiding officer or some other parliamentary authority. Under this heading would come bodies such as the Speaker’s Reference Group on Gender Equality in Sweden, the Parliamentary Groups on Population and Development in many parliaments and the gender-focused All-Party Parliamentary Groups in the UK parliament.

The proposed framework for comparing gender-focused parliamentary bodies includes their origins, mandate, resources, linkages with women’s civil society organisations and perceived effectiveness in promoting gender equality and/or gender mainstreaming. Sources of effectiveness might include the role of critical actors, of partnerships with other parliamentary and non-parliamentary agencies and with international actors, as well as with strong NGO partners. The paper will also explore the different kinds of rationales that can be provided for gender-focused parliamentary groups, such as:

  1. empowerment arguments
  2. functional arguments and
  3. feminist arguments.

It will finish by considering whether feminist institutionalisation is by its nature ‘precarious’.

Comparing gender-focused parliamentary bodies at the national and sub-national levels in Canada

Joan Grace

Recent scholarship has turned to exploring ways to “feminize” governing institutions to determine challenges and opportunities as a method to identify best practices. While this work has been undertaken in many jurisdictions, there is a lack of attention to the study of gender-focused parliamentary bodies in the Canadian context. As a decentralized federal system with distinctive sub-national political environments, Canada provides an excellent opportunity to analyse and compare parliamentary committees and other institutional bodies. Such an analysis might serve as a prism through which to view the distinctive social connections Canadians have with different levels of government.

With that in mind, this paper has a number of research objectives. I will initially make the case for studying legislative committees as institutional sites of influence for the articulation of policy issues of import to gender equality within the Canadian federal system. I then turn my attention to the Standing Committee on the Status of Women Committee in the national House of Commons to compare its work with like bodies at the sub-national level to account for similarities or differences. Finally, this paper will glean the ways in which gender-focused committees and parliamentary practices facilitate the integration of an equality discourse and the participation of non-governmental actors. 

This paper will argue that gender- or equality-focused legislative committees have the potential to substantively attend to the policy requirements of women while also building democratic government-society relations.

Inclusive Institutions versus Feminist Advocacy: Women’s Legislative Committees and Caucuses in Latin America

Jennifer Piscopo

Practitioners in the field of international development have identified gender-focused legislative institutions as critical for achieving various political goals related to gender equity.  This paper explores the specific claim that gender equality committees and women’s caucuses enhance female legislators’ ability to build policy coalitions around women’s rights. Bill introduction and interview data from the cases of Argentina and Mexico are analysed, revealing a counter-intuitive finding: the more gender-focused legislative institutions allow female politicians to collaborate on women’s rights reforms, the less the resultant policies challenge traditional gender roles. 

The Latin American evidence shows that gender equality committees and inter-partisan caucuses sacrifice feminist policy goals for cohesion among female (and some male) officeholders. This exchange becomes especially pronounced when electoral gender quotas ensure that women are elected from parties that span the ideological spectrum. As women’s caucuses derive their legitimacy through broad membership bases, and as gender equality committees require formal or informal consensus to endorse policies, the radical nature of proposed reforms decreases.

This analysis thus brings new insights to studies of gender-focused legislative institutions. First, equality commissions and women’s caucuses force a trade-off along two dimensions of women’s rights reform: depth (the ability to challenge traditional gender roles) and scope (the ability to mainstream gendered policy analyses). Second, women’s caucuses face an additional, yet related tradeoff: between inclusive membership and feminist advocacy. These tensions suggest that gender-focused institutions may not challenge the patriarchal legislatures in which they are embedded.

Parliamentary Bodies and the Quality of Women’s Substantive Representation

Karen Celis and Sarah Childs

What constitutes the ‘good’ substantive representation of women? Feminists used to think they knew: women representatives acting for women in a feminist fashion. Yet today the heterogeneity of women is increasingly recognized by gender and politics scholars; and creative theories of representation suggest a gendered economy of claims, with a multitude of competing claims ‘for women’. Neither account provides for an adequate evaluation of the quality of women’s substantive representation. In earlier work where we address this limitation and have argued for a shift of focus onto the processes through which the gendered economy of claims is realised. In this, women’s substantive representation is not regarded as something to be achieved through the presence of women representatives pursuing feminist goals. Rather ‘good’ substantive representation is a process, which involves debate, deliberation, and contestation over what constitutes the interest of women. At the systemic level inclusiveness, equality, and responsiveness to the represented are necessary conditions.

In this paper we investigate the extent to which parliamentary bodies with an explicit gender focus - the most evident site for political debate, deliberation and contestation - contribute to an inclusive, equal and responsive process of women’s substantive representation. To answer this question we conduct a comparative analysis including Belgium and the UK, which enables also to investigate the effectiveness of parliamentary gender bodies varying in level of institutionalisation and linkage to civil society. Belgium has long established institutionalized gender equality committees (Lower Chamber since the mid 1980, Senate since 1997) that are considered to be part of the state architecture, i.e. the women's policy agencies. In the UK, in contrast these are far less formalized and state oriented. The All-Party Groups (APGs) are informal cross-party groups that have no official status within Parliament. They are essentially run by and for Members of the Commons and Lords, although many groups involve individuals and organisations from outside Parliament in their administration and activities. Given that the APGs are in comparison to the Belgian parliamentary gender equality bodies more stronger linked to civil society makes us to expect that the UK type of parliamentary gender bodies holds to greatest promise for delivering an inclusive, equal and responsive process of women’s substantive representation. Our study furthermore pays attention to the role and contribution of other ‘institutions’ operating in parliament in that respect, more precisely the women’s party committees.

Gender Mainstreaming inside the European Parliament

Petra Ahrens

Since 2003, the European Parliament committed itself in various resolutions to implement gender mainstreaming through a policy plan in all its policies, in the parliamentary committees, in delegations, and in the administration. The activities foreseen encompassed a broad variety of goals such as setting up a High Level Group on Gender Equality, gender balance in decision-making processes, incorporating gender analysis into all stages of the budgetary process and a press and information policy that avoids gender stereotypes. The main responsibility for implementing gender mainstreaming, however, still rests with the Committee on Women’s Rights and Gender Equality (FEMM). In this paper I will discuss, what the exact mandate and function of the FEMM committee within the EU parliament regarding gender mainstreaming is, which activities it carried out since 2003 with regard to implementing gender mainstreaming in parliamentary processes, and whether civil-society linkages played a role.


(2) Gender, diversity and power in legislative committees: Comparative perspectives

Position Person
Convenor Hilmar Rommetvedt (International Research Institute of Stavanger)
Chair Anne Maria Holli (University of Helsinki)
Discussant Joan Grace (University of Winnipeg)

A legislative committee in Parliament can be defined as a subgroup of legislators entrusted with reading in detail a bill in a specific policy area on behalf of the plenary and, often in practice, in its stead. In fact, this task of scrutinising and amending bills most often is actually delegated from the plenary to parliamentary legislative committees. The status of such committees as well as the internal hierarchies within parliaments have proved to be a major internal obstacle for newcomers, such as women and minorities, making it difficult for them to gain power or advance to higher positions. Typically, world parliaments display both an internal horizontal and vertical gender segregation in this respect.

This panel calls for comparative studies on the accessibility and functional consequences of legislative committees for women and minority representatives. What are the mechanisms hindering their access to high-status committees; do they make a difference in terms of substantive representation when they are there? In addition, the panel is interested in empirical studies of recent developments, such as the emergence of parliamentary committees for equality in many parliaments and their effectiveness from these perspectives.


A legislative committee for gender equality: does it make any difference?

Anne Maria Holli

In Finland, from 2001 onward, one of the parliamentary standing committees was given an explicit mandate for handling gender equality issues in the process of legislative scrutiny, with a concominant change of its name to Committee for Employment and Equality. The same thing has occurred also in some other countries, although these developments have only recently been subjected to systematic analysis. Drawing both from parliamentary studies and state feminist scholarship, the paper provides an empirical case study comparing this particular committee with the other parliamentary committees of the Finnish parliament as well as temporally, before and after it achieved the equality mandate. The analysis focuses on five dimensions: the composition of committee membership; members’ level of information concerning gender issues; consultative practices; committee outputs; and evaluation of overall significance.

Does the Women’s Delegation in the French National Assembly encourage the participation and inclusion of civil society representatives in parliamentary hearings?

Manda Green

The year 2014 will mark the 15th anniversary of the creation of Women’s Delegations in both chambers of the French Parliament.  Initially set up to assist the passage of gender parity legislation and to introduce gender mainstreaming, these bodies – the first explicitly gender-balanced agencies in parliament - have succeeded in stitching themselves into the fabric of the Senate and National Assembly under four separate legislatures, under right- and leftwing majorities.  Some initial research has looked at the institutional design of the Delegation in the National Assembly and the way it operates within the committee system (Green, 2005 & 2013).   The debates surrounding the creation of these Delegations revealed a strong desire to open parliamentary deliberation to organisations and individuals from civil society – ‘to make women’s voices heard in legislation’, as one of the sponsors put it during the vote.  This presentation will analyse how this has worked out in practice by analysing feedback from the organisations and individuals called as witnesses since 1999.   On the basis of participating NGOs’ appraisal of subsequent legislation, cases of Delegation success and failure to incorporate civil society demands can be identified.  Subsequent in-depth analysis of the processes – formal and informal – involved in these bills can help us to understand which strategies work and why some bills have fallen short of expectations.

Institution-building and the substantive representation of women in the Danish Parliament

Mette Marie Staehr Harder

This paper looks into former and present institutions dealing with gender equality in the Danish National Parliament. It does so from a theoretical standpoint inspired by feminist institutionalism. Especially two types of institutions will be analyzed; the Legislative Committee on Equal Opportunities and women MP networks. Focus will be put on these institutions’ ability to support the substantive representation of women by 1) facilitating cooperation among female MPs, 2) ensuring specialization (e.g. through interaction with women NGOs), 3) creating a forum for the monitoring of the government’s policy in the area of gender equality and 4) supporting the placement of gender equality and gender mainstreaming on the parliament’s agenda. Best practice and the role of critical actors will also be identified. So far the studies done suggest that the networks in particular have played an essential role in promoting cooperation among female MPs, getting women issues on the agenda and advancing women’s careers in and outside Parliament. For example, the Women Nights, in which female MPs and female journalists through the 80s met over dinner and sing-along about the political male dominated culture did not only advance female MPs access to the media. They also advanced female journalists’ careers by providing them with connections and information which enabled them to break through the (former) male dominated world of political journalism. The analysis is based on qualitative interviews with former as well as present MPs and might also include statistical findings concerning the parliamentary behaviour of MPs.

Date & time

Sat 19 Jul 2014, 9am – Thu 24 Jul 2014, 5pm




Updated:  12 December 2018/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications