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Equal playing field? The toxic reality for young female MPs

by | Sep 2, 2019 | News

What does it mean to be young and female in parliament?

Women and young people are systematically under-represented in parliaments all over the world. According to the Inter-Parliamentary Union, women under the age of 45 are the most under-represented of all groups. But what exactly does this mean for young women in politics?  In our recent study of the Swedish parliament, we investigated whether age impacts female and male MPs differently – and the results provide a depressing insight from an equality perspective. 

While women have made significant inroads into national legislatures during the past two decades, that they still face greater obstacles than their male counterparts

While women have made significant inroads into national legislatures during the past two decades, that they still face greater obstacles than their male counterparts, often experiencing varying rates of discrimination, sexism and marginalisation once elected.  In addition to gender, other characteristics may also influence women’s ability to conduct their parliamentary duties. For example, women of colour are particularly exposed to inequalities, while the fact that many women MPs are newcomers, and as such have varying degrees of experience in the political arena, is also associated with certain difficulties. 

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Leila Ali Elmi, 31, Sweden’s first MP of Somali descent, and the first woman to wear hijab in government

The intersection between gender and age has received less attention to date. We set out to fill this gap in our recent article published in Politics, Groups and Identities and investigate whether this particular intersection impacts the legislators’ opportunities to carry out their representative tasks on equal grounds.

In contrast to gender, age discrimination is highly context-dependent, with no clear hierarchy between differing age groups. Research has in fact revealed the existence of both ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ ageism insofar as being older can comprise an advantage in certain contexts, while being a source of discrimination in others. It is thus possible that a young age might be either a resource or a drawback for MPs, with gender influencing how this plays out in practice. 

Young men and women in the Swedish parliament— gender inequalities reinforced

The Swedish parliament provides an ideal case for exploring the interaction between gender and being young. Women have held over 40% of the seats for more than two decades and in 2014-2018 the parliament had one of the largest proportions of young MPs in the world, with 70 elected MPs (20% of seats) who were 35 years or younger. There are thus not only young and old women MPs in the Swedish parliament, but there are also MPs of different ages with different experience from parliament, a prerequisite to be able to study the role of age independently of seniority.

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World Economic Forum: Global Gender Gap Index 2018

Based on original survey data with a high response rate (82%, or 287 out of the 349 MPs) and 40 in-depth interviews with men and women MPs under the age of 35, we were able to conduct a thorough empirical analysis of the state of play. 

The effects of being young are not simply additive — while women are negatively influenced, men appear to be positively affected

Our findings showed that the gender gaps in parliamentary work are more pronounced among young MPs. Young women experience more pressure and anxiety, and are more often subject to negative treatment, while young men are less exposed than all other groups, even compared to older men and women in the Parliament. The effects of being young are not simply additive — while women are negatively influenced, men appear to be positively affected. 

The interviews enabled us to form a more comprehensive understanding of the problem, and revealed that young women’s competence is being questioned on two grounds; for both their gender, as well as their age. As one woman MP put it “Many people kind of think that you are not relevant, they prefer to talk to your older [male] colleague”. A rather different picture emerges from the young male MPs’ experiences, for whom age was either irrelevant, or an actual advantage. Consider for example the following remark from a young male interviewee: “The advantage [of being young] is that you have greater leeway for making mistakes and for eccentricities”. 

It is clear that the combination of being a woman and being young is particularly toxic for MPs. While a young age is an advantage for men in their roles, it becomes a double burden for women. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a young woman referring to her age as a positive factor, one that would give her ‘permission’ to make mistakes at work. Combined with other intersecting inequalities, this shows that even when the numbers appear to be telling a positive story and we get closer to gender parity in politics – as is the case in Sweden – in practice we still have a long way to go before we reach a truly equal parliament. 


This blog post is based on the author’s journal article: ‘Equal Playing Field? On the Intersection between Gender and Being Young in the Swedish Parliament’, published in ‘Politics, Groups and Identities‘. Read the original here

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