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by Carina Autengruber, President of the European Youth Forum

On International Women‘s Day and less than three months ahead of the biggest demonstration of European democracy - the European Parliament elections in May - we are asking ourselves: where are the young women in politics?

They really shouldn’t be so hard to find. Politically active, opinionated, engaged young women are everywhere in our societies, if we listen. However, in elected ‘power’ positions, we have to look a bit harder.

Data published this year from the Interparliamentary Union, shows that only one in four of all national parliamentarians are women and only three countries worldwide have 50 per cent or more women in parliament in single or lower houses (1). Only a handful of them are young women. In the last European Elections, less than 3% of elected members were women under the age of 35.

So, instead of trying to answer the question of where are young female politicians, we should rephrase it and tackle the real issue: what makes it so hard for young women to enter politics?

Quite often young women find themselves subjected to the idea that “the best man wins”. In other words, if you are qualified and work hard enough, you will get one of those desired parliamentary seats. But is it really “that easy”? The truth is that even once elected, the imbalance of power is still clearly visible. In the European Union, the only country anywhere near achieving gender balance in terms of the share of women ministers, members of parliament and women in regional assemblies is Sweden. It scores over 90 in the “political power” indicator (with a score of 100 equalling gender balance). In comparison, the European Parliament currently scores just 36,1 per cent (2).

If we look at these numbers from a merit perspective, does that mean that men are three times more capable of being politicians? Are we, as young women, simply just not good enough for the job?

I don’t think so. This is because politics doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Our elected representatives don’t reflect our societies, because our societies overlook and undervalue particular groups. The current definition of “merit” has its origins defined by an exclusive group that find themselves in a position of power and aim to maintain its power. We must not assume that merit is an objective, neutral way of assessing success and an increasing number of studies prove that (3,4). A white paper published by the UN Women Australian National Committee shows that the notion of merit is highly subjective and perpetuates gender equality. Politics based on an outdated merit system is clearly not accessible for young women.

What does this all mean in practice? In short, by not having women in politics, our democracies suffer. But it is not solely about promoting a seat at the table for young women. It is also about changing the system itself. Too often the support for young women in politics is limited to training opportunities. Young women are being trained to fit into a system that hasn’t been shaped by young women at all. But how can you actively participate when the established system hasn’t been created for and with you? If we want to bring real change we need to address the unwritten rules and barriers young women face in political life. This includes working on party internal regulations, fostering an open and inclusive dialogue or promoting gender-responsive governance at the national level (5).

The upcoming European Parliament elections will be decisive for our democracy. The more young women get elected in political positions, the more they will be able to change the structures they find themselves in. Recent elections in the United States saw a record number of women being elected to office, bringing with them a greater diversity needed to challenge the bias we consciously or unconsciously hold. Sounds like the way forward to strengthen our democracy, right?

Who will be Europe’s answer to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? If we don’t fix our political system, I’m afraid we’ll never find out.

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