Many party associations claim that they search high and low for female candidates but that women decline to run for political office. However, many women report that it is extremely difficult for them to be included on the electoral lists, especially in a spot that would give them a real chance of being elected.
Who is responsible for the fact that women are being screened out from the pool of candidates? Is it the voters? Is it the local party associations and their male dominated nomination committees? Or is it that women don’t want to run? Because we live in the Nordic Countries, we also have to ask the question: Who is responsible for the fact that women’s representation has increased, especially during the last 10 to 15 years?


Many women drop out, or, rather, decide not to run, in the mobilisation phase. While women make up about half of the electorate, fewer women than men are willing to let themselves be recruited as candidates for a party at an election. The important question to answer is why this is so.

We must look for explanations in the living conditions of women: double workload and a general lack of time in exactly the years when the foundations for a political career are laid. Many women also lack sufficient self-confidence and need a push in the right direction. But we also have to ask whether the political culture, the climate, the way meetings are conducted, the time pressure and the conditions of representation can’t be improved so that more women would want to be part of the process. Other underrepresented groups in society might also benefit from such reforms.

Have there been changes in the desire and courage of women to come forward as candidates? It seems that more women are willing to hold political office now than was previously the case. Norwegian opinion polls show an increase in the share of women who are willing to let themselves be recruited from only 29 per cent in 1971 to 33 per cent (one third) in 1979 and 38 per cent in 1983. This is important because it has doubtless been a determining factor for women’s representation that fewer women than men are interested in running for political office.

The Nomination Meeting

The nomination phase is also important. At the nomination meeting or during candidate elections or primaries within the parties, the party members choose their candidates and determine their ranking on the electoral lists and who gets which districts.

In their survey of the recruitment process for municipal elections in Norway, Hellevik & Skard monitored every nomination meeting in all local party associations the county of Akershus. They found that in some party branches, competition for a spot on the lists was fierce, especially in parties that were in a position of power and had major influence in the municipality. In other local party associations, it was difficult to get people to run. Competition at nomination meetings in those parties were for the spots on the list that would ensure that you were not elected.

When the list of candidates is being compiled, most parties strive for a certain mix of ages, representation from different districts and a certain mix of professions. They also look for personalities with the potential to make their name known and bring voter attention to the party. One problem for women has been that they were rarely considered representatives for districts, professions, etc. And the kind of personality traits the parties have looked for have often had a striking resemblance with the traits of the male role. Until 20 years ago, a party was happy if it had just one woman on the list (“The token woman”).

However, this area has seen important changes. In “Blomster & Spark” (Flowers and kicks), a book of interviews with female politicians in the Nordic Countries, several women say that in some situations the fact that they were women has been an advantage to them.

“If I have to be completely honest, I think I was included during the so-called female wave – the party needed a woman placed somewhere near top of the electoral list”, says Inga Lantz, Member of the Swedish Parliament.

This does not mean that women do not encounter opposition any more. Most politicians are still men. However, it means that the parties have listened to popular demands for more women in politics. This public pressure and the tenacious work of the women’s organisations within the parties, actually managed to persuade the parties to recruit more women. It can be done – that is an important lesson.

In their survey, Hellevik & Skard also found that it had become a general feature of the nominations that it was considered important to secure a balanced gender distribution among the candidates. Both the nomination committees, which prepare the process, and the nomination meetings expressed this wish. However, some local party organisations were happy with having 30 per cent women on the party list, whereas others aimed for fifty per cent representation of either sex. At half of the nomination meetings in Akerhus county, it was mentioned that it had been a problem to find women who were willing to let themselves nominate, especially at a spot ranking high on the electoral lists – in other words, a spot that would make election a relative certainty.  However, we do not know how persistent the search for female candidates had been. At any rate, it is no use to go around just before election time asking someone with no political experience or other organisational experience to run for office. If you do that, you are likely to get a no. Recruitment starts with smaller posts and smaller encouragements.

Why is there a lack of women, when we have just been told that there are more than enough women and men who are willing to be nominated? Hellevik & Skard’s conclusion is that it is because the potential candidates are not asked! The most important reason for this is that any party looks for candidates among its own members, but in the Nordic Countries only 10  to 20 percent of the voters are members of a political party. In addition, some of those who would be interested in taking on a political post might not be ready just now. Perhaps not until the children are older, or when, sometime in the future, there is hopefully less pressure at the job, or when their husband, sometime in the future, hopefully starts doing his share at home!

The Decoration Spot, the Competition Spot, or the Election Spot

With few exceptions, the percentage of women elected to office is lower than the percentage of women on the ballot. This means that women are being screened out during the electoral process to a larger extend than men. This could either be because of party decisions when making up the prioritised list of candidates or because of the way voters vote, or possibly a combination.

The discussion over whether the parties or the voters are responsible for the low degree of women’s representation seen in relation to the number of candidates is seemingly never ending. The way the election systems are organised plays a major role, and here is considerable variation between the Nordic Counties. One extreme is the elections to the national parliament in Finland, where voting for a candidate is mandatory and where voters chose which of the candidates on the list are elected. The other extreme is the elections for the national parliament in Norway, where voters can only vote for a party list without the possibility of choosing among the candidates on the list and thus influencing their ranking. It is the party alone that decides which of their candidates will be elected. There are many different variations on the continuum between these two extremes, and the countries usually have rules for national and local elections.

Are women really being screened out from the lists when the parties have to prioritise their candidates (where this is possible and takes place)? Several studies, including that of Hellevik & Skard, show that there are often fewer women among the high-ranking candidates on the lists – whether this happens by cumulation (the name of the candidate appears several times on lists within a district) or the candidate gets a spot near the top of a prioritized list.

The spots on the lists that are likely to ensure election may be called the “election spots”. By placing a candidate here, the party gives the candidate a better chance at election than the others on the list have. The next places may be called “The competition spots”. Depending on how well the party fares in the elections, these places might result in the candidate being elected. “The decoration spots” are those that are very unlikely to lead to election.

Most often, there are more women in the competition spots and the decoration spots and fewer in the election spots. If we want increased women’s representation, it is not enough to have many women on the lists. They must also be placed in positions with a real chance of election on the lists.

Hellevik & Skard’s study shows that in some parties, the women themselves are responsible for their low ranking on the lists. In these parties, it was difficult to find women who were willing to be placed in an election spot on the list. In other parties, there was a lot of competition for the spots. Here it becomes important that incumbent candidates, those who are running for re-election, are usually accommodated first. And most politicians today are men. The incumbent’s advantage will be discussed later in this chapter.

However, there are big differences from party to party and from area to area within the same country. In some local party organisations, women are just as likely as men to take up the election spots, or at least get the same ratio of election spots to marginal spots on the party lists. A study by the Danish Equal Status Council of the elections to the Danish parliament in 1979 and 1981 concluded that female candidates on average ran under the same conditions – i.e. had the same list rankings – as men once they had managed to get a spot on the lists. However, this study, too, revealed considerable differences among the parties.

Do Voters Screen Women Out or Give Women Priority?

Do voters have a share in the responsibility for the fact that there are fewer women elected than their numbers on the party lists would indicate? Or is the determining factor the way the parties have prioritised among the candidates?

It is difficult to say. Under all circumstances, the sum of voters’ actions plays a significant role. Some voters perhaps prefer men, while others vote for women because they think there are too few women in politics. Others might not consider the gender of the candidate – at least not consciously – but may be looking for a farmer, someone from the district etc. But is that usually also a man?

Hellevik & Skard found that at the 1979 Norwegian local elections, the net result of the way the voters had adjusted the electoral lists in the County of Akershus came out in favour of the female candidates. On the other hand, the net result from all of Norway was negative for the women – whether this happened consciously or because the voters preferred male candidates for other reasons.

37 percent of the Norwegian women who corrected the lists in 1983 and 14 percent of the men who corrected (a fourth of the population corrects) actually said that one of their reasons for the correction was because they wanted to promote the female candidates. Only 2 percent of the women and 2 percent of the men who corrected the lists said that their motive was to weaken the chances of female candidates. This appears from an opinion-poll conducted by Norsk Opinionsinstitut in 1983.
In Denmark, studies have shown that on average, a slightly higher number of voters choose to give their vote to female candidates than to male candidates. However, the very complicated Danish electoral system makes the net effect of voter reactions tough to elicit and difficult for voters to figure out.

The electoral system for Norwegian municipal elections and Danish parliamentary elections are probably the most complicated in the Nordic Countries. An electoral system that is transparent and easy for voters to grasp ought to be a democratic right. It must surely be a democratic right that voters can see what the results of their votes are. This is not always the case today. The following chapters will give advice on what voters can do in order to help more women to be elected. 


Hellevik, Ottor & Torild Skard (1985), Kommunestyrer – plass for kvinner? Oslo: Universitetsforlaget.

The Strategies of Political Women’s Organisations

Getting more women involved in politics is an important goal for all the women’s organisations, women’s committees and equality committees of the political parties. Those women’s organisations play a crucial role in all phases of the recruitment process.

The large political women’s organisations with tens of thousands of members and with many local branches – especially prominent in Sweden and Finland – mobilise women to become active in politics through the nature of the work they do. To be active in a women’s organisation is a schooling in political work.

The women’s organisations, and the women’s committees and equality committees, use a variety of strategies in order to increase the women’s representation. For the purposes of this handbook, a survey was conducted among all the women’s organisations and committees of the political parties in the 5 Nordic Countries. Among other questions, the survey asked about the strategies they used to recruit women. This is a summary of the answers:

Strategies for the Mobilisation of Women:

  • Encourage and prompt women to run for office; find candidates.
  • Capacity building of female candidates, including courses on how to be less nice.
  • Work for reform of the way meetings are organised and when they are scheduled for, so that women, including those with children, have a real chance of participating.

Strategies During the Nomination Phase:

  • Suggest female candidates (in some parties, especially in Finland, the women’s organisations always put forward their own candidates).
  • Speak in favour of female candidates during the nomination meetings and support them during internal party elections or primaries.
  • Work on getting more women on the nomination committees (In some parties, the women’s organisation has a right to a seat on the nomination committee according to the statutes).

Strategies During the Election Phase:

  • Call on voters to vote for women (where it is possible to give your vote to a candidate on the list).
  • Arrange meetings, possibly cross-party, with female candidates.
  • Make sure that the female candidates are as visible during the electoral campaign as the male candidates; including meetings, the press, and election brochures.
  • Develop material to help new candidates.

General strategies

  • Work to ensure that the national party asks the local party associations to put more female candidates forward – in electable spots.
  • A general mobilization of support and resources from the party for the task of increasing women’s representation. It has to be the task of the whole party.
  • Produce studies of the degree of women’s representation at all levels in the party.
  • Produce brochures and folders about why it is important to have more women in political life.

“We have to say it again and again”, the women’s organisations say. “We have to keep the pressure up constantly”. Or as one of the organisations says: “We put women forward, we make a fuss and we support women!”.

In the interview book “Blomster & Spark”, Karin Andersson tells about her work as national secretary of the Women’s Organisation of the liberal Swedish Centre Party from 1965 to 1979.

“In my days, we worked very hard within the women’s organisation in order to increase the representation of women. We trained women in political issues, but most of all we trained them to present themselves and be part of the political game. Furthermore we tried to influence the nomination process in a tactical way – even though one really oughtn’t to do that”.

It is a general experience that it is normally too late to start the process when you are coming up on election time. The nomination process within the parties is crucial for women’s representation. Therefore, campaigns have to take place between elections, usually from 1 to 1½ years before election Day.

The Most Successful Strategies

The survey also asked women’s organisations within the political parties to assess which tools they consider to have been the most effective to increase women’s representation within their own party. Here is a sample of the very different answers:

“Continual pressure”


“That there are already women who favour gender equality on the boards of the local party associations”

“Capacity building of candidates”

“Personal contact with decision makers”

“The most successful has been to launch women; to make the invisible visible”

“Recommendation of gender quotas and the fact that we in the women’s organisation (and others in the party as well) keep stressing how important it is that women are part of the process”

“1. Decisions in the party’s governing bodies. 2. Making women aware of the issues”

“Identifying female candidates. The best results are when women at the nomination meetings are really determined that women must be included”

“No success. Our party has no female MP’s!”

Finally, gender quotas are mentioned as the most successful tool by those parties that have introduced this more radical approach. Other parties mention passing new rules that men and women must alternate on election lists. This is, of course, only a success if the party manages to have than one candidate elected from each constituency. Otherwise, even this way of organising the list could result in an all-male group, if the men are everywhere first on the list.

Action by women across party lines has also been used as a strategy. Throughout the twentieth century, women’s organisations worked together to improve women’s representation. In later years, there are new examples of cross-party actions by women, some of them as joint ventures with the respective Equal Status Councils. 

“We Can Do It If We Want To, and We Want To”

The Women’s Organisation of Folkpartiet (People’s Party, a Swedish liberal party) has published a 5 page orange brochure with advice on what women in different parts of the party organisation could do to help more women run and get elected for the national parliament, the county councils and the municipal councils.

  1. Check the membership database of the women’s association and of the party to identify women who could be potential candidates for Parliament, county councils and municipal councils. Ask them if they want to run.
  2. Make sure that female candidates write letters to the editor in local newspapers and articles in the internal party publications. They must be seen and heard at meetings both in the local party organisations and on the county level. Support women by repeatedly referring to what they did and said at internal party functions. Tell party friends how capable those women are. Also, make sure to encourage the women – stress how important it is that they are running.
  3. In the fall, one year before the elections, it is time for nominations (some local branches hold nominations early in the spring). Individuals, groups, committees and the local branches of the women’s organisation can suggest names for the national parliament and the municipal councils. The best approach is for the women’s organisation to agree on which candidates to support – both for the national parliament and county and municipal councils. This gives more weight to the proposed candidates, and all the members of the women’s organisation would then vote for the same people during the internal party election. This can be a determining factor in the final result.
  4. Get in contact with the chairs of the county and local party associations. Ask her or him to make sure that party leaders ask the election committee to take women’s representation into account when they make their recommendation for the list of candidates.
  5. Present the candidates of the women’s organisation orally to the members of the election committee. Talk to them about the importance of women’s representation. Recommend the candidates and do not shy away from highlighting their qualities and qualifications.
  6. Speak with individual party members about how few women hold elected office and how that must be changed in the elections.
  7. At internal elections in the party, make sure that all members of the women’s organisation actually participate and vote for the organisation’s candidates. Remember that only party members can vote. The internal party elections are crucial. Therefore, it is important that the women’s organisation has marketed its candidates in different ways, as mentioned in item 2.
  8. The election committee starts its work. Call the committee and stress how important it is that the 40-60 rule is taken into account – also at spots that are likely to lead to election… Also refer to calls by the party leadership at the national level (to put forward more female candidates).
  9. Late in the autumn the year preceding the elections there are meetings in the local party association and in the county associations to determine the make-up of the party lists. Make sure that all members of the women’s organisations and others who support the female candidates are present. Stand up – the more the better – to recommend the women again and again. Don’t be afraid to say what strong candidates they are, and how important it is that there be women in spots that can lead to them actually being elected. Much is gained if an “important” member of the party – preferably a man – would speak in favour of the female candidates and of women’s representation.
So now the lists have been compiled and if all goes well there will be more women in “electable spots” than in previous years. Perhaps there is even a woman in the top spot.
A piece of good advice is to work together with the youth organisation of the party. Perhaps you could use the principle of give-and-take in relation to the candidates.
It is often not easy to promote a (female) candidate and “make a fuss” about the low representation of women in election spots. Therefore, you should make sure to arrange frequent meetings in the framework of the women’s organisation where women can meet under simple and open forms – SISTERHOOD BREEDS SELF CONFIDENCE.
The Folkpartiet’s Women’s Organisation has around 5,000 members.


Courses on How to Be Less Nice

The women’s organisation of the Moderate Party has created a program for the training of female candidates. The aim is to give their members the skillset needed to take on political posts. The courses take place between elections.

The local branches of the women’s organisation appoint one or a couple of women whom they want to promote. During regional and national conferences the women are trained in tactics, technique and politics; and the barriers that women encounter in political life are discussed in detail. The courses began in 1976.

In the beginning, there was some sceptical reactions within the party: “Why hold special candidate training courses for women?” Today the courses on how to be less nice are an established institution within the party.
The Women’s Organisation of the Moderate Party has around 67,000 members.


Analyse the Recruitment for Your Own Organisations

It is important to establish where the barriers for women are – whether it is about recruitment for an elected body or for a position of trust in an organisation. It is easier to target the action if one knows where, how, and why women are being screened out.

For this reason, every party, trade union or any other kind of association would benefit from analysing the way recruitment is done. For women, the time is past when we just demanded “more women in politics” or “more women on the executive committee” and then appealed to the men to do something about it – or ignore the demand.

An analysis of how to increase women’s representation in an organisation could include the following steps:

  1. Collect statistical data on the percentage of women among the membership and those elected at all levels; the latest party congress, the executive committee, the staff – and do this both on the central level and in the local branches.
  2. Study how the female members view the work in the organisation and which barriers they see, either through a questionnaire or by talking to large numbers of members. Compare this with information a¬¬-bout the living conditions of female members. The clash between the living conditions, including the responsibility for the family, and the way the organisation functions, ¬the meeting times and workload for elected representatives can lead to proposals for changes to the way the organisation operates.
  3. Analyse the recruitment. Find out how, when, and by whom candidates, party leadership and trade union representatives are elected. What qualifications are crucial and who decides what is considered “qualifications”. How may greater emphasis be placed on the qualifications and experiences of women – both by the men and by the women themselves. No one starts out as Prime Minister or head of a trade union! Study the routes of recruitment within the organisation, party or trade union. This can be done by looking into the backgrounds of the present leaders. This way, it becomes apparent which kind of posts and tasks seem to lead to positions with an increased level of responsibility. Therefore, make sure that women are also part of the tasks that give the necessary qualifications – or try to change the routes to recruitment so that the tasks that women do in the organisation are considered equally important when electing the party leadership and trade union representatives. By the way, who decides who is “young and promising”? Women often lack mentors. Identify the informal power structure, and find out where decisions are actually being made. Remember that most things have been decided before the meeting that elects new candidates.
  4. Develop a strategy for how women can support each other within the organisation. To be underrepresented is often a vicious circle: When there are few women in the governing bodies, few women are recruited. On the other hand, having more women elected might lead to a self-accelerating positive effect if these women consciously recruit and support other women.
  5. Make sure that the organisation allocates the necessary resources (money, secretary et cetera) and support for the survey.

Tips on Improving Women’s Representation

“A democratic decision-making process requires that the knowledge and experience of both men and women are included. It is therefore important that more women are represented in the governing bodies in order to enable them to influence the work within the trade union”. This was the wording of a study of women’s representation within the Central Organisation of Professionals, TCO in Sweden. TCO unites 19 trade unions with a total of one million members, of which 60 percent are women. However, women are underrepresented in the governing bodies, congresses, national executive committee and the district boards. In Denmark, the equivalent of TCO is FTF – the Confederation of Professionals in Denmark. 
The low degree of women’s representation is a common problem for the labour movement, the political parties and many other organisations. Within the labour movement, efforts to change the situation have been initiated and women’s representation is slowly increasing. However, it does not happen automatically. Here are the tips from the TCO-study about what concrete steps might be taken to remedy the situation:
In Terms of Internal Representation:
  • Provide targeted training for the underrepresented gender (most often women).
  • Fill vacant posts with candidates of the underrepresented gender.
  • Produce statistics on gender balance at each new nomination.
  • Ask those who nominate candidates to do so in a way that ensures that the gender balance becomes more proportionate.
  • Run gender equality campaigns to accompany the nomination of candidates 
  • Try to increase the number of seats on boards reserved for the underrepresented gender.
  • Put forward proposals for nominations that reflect the gender-distribution among the membership.
  • Change election rules to include provisions on a proportional representation of the sexes.
  • Limit the number of posts that a single person may hold.
  • Test new ways of conducting meetings.

In Terms of External Representation:

  • Compile gender balance statistics each time a representative is appointed for an external body.
  • Recommend that those who nominate candidates strive towards the goal of full proportionality.
  • Limit the number of times persons who hold many positions may be re-nominated.