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Why women have less power than you think

Woman outside the Supreme Court, to oppose Judge Kavanaugh's nomination Image copyright Getty Images

The discovery that more men than women hold positions of power rarely comes as a surprise. What may be more unexpected is that things are not always as they seem when women appear to have equality.

Countries can sometimes stand out for their efforts at getting women into positions of power.

Take, for example, Rwanda's appointment of a cabinet in which half of the posts went to women. Its move came just days after a gender-balanced cabinet was named in Ethiopia.

Elsewhere in the world, there are many striking examples of women having equality with men, or even outperforming them, in other jobs that offer power and influence.

Walk into a courtroom in Slovenia and the judge is four times more likely to be a woman than a man. In journalism, Namibia stands out: half of its top newsroom posts are held by women.

It is not difficult to find other countries which buck the trend for a particular job. Half of IT professionals in Malaysia are female, along with six out of 10 medical researchers in New Zealand and five out of 10 engineers in Oman.

That women hold these posts, which are so often dominated by men, is to be welcomed. Yet while it may seem obvious that other countries could learn from these examples, it is often worth asking ourselves where influence really lies.

The power of judges

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Ruth Bader Ginsburg is one of three female judges in the US Supreme Court

Fresh in many people's minds will be the controversy surrounding the confirmation of judge Brett Kavanaugh to the US Supreme Court, despite allegations of sexual assault - which he denied. The Supreme Court - in which three of the nine judges are women - is an example of a system in which top judges wield considerable power.

As in the UK, the legal system is based on common law. In the US judges are often appointed late on in their careers - sometimes through male-dominated networks - and the law is based on their decisions and precedent.

By contrast, in other countries such as France and Slovenia, judges' power is far more constrained. In these civil law systems - which are based on written rules - judges have less discretion to make their own interpretations.

And the way in is different too. Law graduates become judges by passing a competitive exam to enter training straight after graduating.

The fact that positions are allocated on academic merit rather than via a tap on the shoulder makes a big difference.

More than six out of 10 judges in France are female, but the position comes with a loss of pay. Lawyers can often earn more working in private practice.

Some of the highest percentages of female judges are found in post-Soviet societies. Like Slovenia, seven out of 10 judges in Romania and Latvia are women.

Under communism the role of the judge was not only poorly paid but much constrained by ideological factors - the real power lay elsewhere. The judiciary in these countries still has a relatively low reputation and earning power.

After the upheaval

In other professions, it is often the case that women have gained power following a period of change, or upheaval.

For example, in communist-era Bulgaria, journalism was primarily a function of the state. But after 1989, press freedom grew and many well-educated and entrepreneurial women changed their career path and now have parity in top-level newsroom jobs.

In Rwanda, parliamentary gender quotas were introduced in 2003. The move came after the the destruction of government institutions during the genocide of 1994.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Rwandan President Paul Kagame with 80 new MPs in September 2018

That six out of 10 parliamentarians is now female puts it ahead of every other country worldwide.

But here too there are questions over what real power looks like.

Rwanda's male leader, President Paul Kagame, has been accused of being authoritarian. Some have argued that having large numbers of female MPs offers little in the way of concrete power.

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On the other hand, others have pointed to the wider social effects of women's presence in parliaments.

This may include increased respect for women from family and community members, and greater ability for women to influence decisions.

So what does all this tell us?

The relationship between women and power is complex and it's difficult to draw strong conclusions from looking at any one statistic - it's important to always look at the bigger picture.

While we may still have a long way to go, we know that having more women in top positions - even if they're not perfect - can be symbolically powerful, increasing people's acceptance of female leaders.

Nonetheless, one thing does seem clear: when things are done the way they've always been done, change happens very slowly - if at all.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

Laura Jones is a research associate at the Global Institute for Women's Leadership, at King's College London.

The Global Institute for Women's Leadership carries out research to better understand and address the causes of women's underrepresentation in leadership positions.

Edited by Duncan Walker