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Thursday, Sept. 10, 2009

Women lack confidence, ambition for Diet: experts


Staff writer

Although last month's election brought an unprecedented number of women into the Lower House, female lawmakers both at home and abroad are still subject to double standards and lack the ambition to take the stage in national politics, experts said at a recent symposium.

News photo
Be ambitious, girls: Donna Brazile, a political strategist for the Democrats, speaks at a symposium Friday at Sophia University in Tokyo. YOSHIAKI MIURA PHOTO

"Women need to be three or four times more qualified than men just to hold the same position, and they doubt their own qualifications," Donna Brazile, a renowned political strategist for the Democratic Party, said at an event Sept. 4 at Sophia University in cooperation with the U.S. Embassy.

Brazile has worked on every presidential campaign from 1976 through 2000, when she was campaign manager for then Vice President Al Gore, becoming the first black American woman to direct a presidential campaign.

American and Japanese experts agree that female politicians need to be more aggressive when aspiring to higher posts, and avoid being exploited by parties that merely want to fill a gender quota.

The event was opened by John Roos, the new U.S. ambassador to Japan, who was making his first public speech since assuming the post last month. Roos called for ways to close the "significant gender gap" in Japanese politics.

The landslide victory by the Democratic Party of Japan last month in the general election increased the proportion of women in the Lower House to a record 11 percent. There are now 54 women in the House of Representatives, up from 43, with 70 percent from the DPJ.

Despite the latest statistics, Japan remains the lowest-ranked industrialized nation in terms of female representation in national legislature, putting it in the bottom fifth of the 190 countries worldwide that have a parliament, according to the United Nations.

The U.S. Congress is only 17 percent female, giving it a ranking of 83rd.

Brazile called both the Japanese and U.S. figures "embarrassing," comparing them with Rwanda and Sweden, which have the highest proportion of women in parliament, with 56 percent and 47 percent, respectively.

Prominent female representation in politics is crucial because women are often considered reformers who advocate for cleaner politics and peace, and speak up on such issues as human rights and medical matters, experts said.

"Politics is often controlled by men who are wrestling each other for power, but women are able to apply common sense obtained from everyday life," said Kumiko Shindo, a social sciences professor at Toyo Eiwa University.

Obstacles for women stem from their stereotype as the weaker sex, according to Brazile, who is also a contributor on CNN and a consultant to ABC News.

Brazile said female politicians are often judged by their wardrobe and that their passionate speeches can be dismissed by men as a sign of weakness — problems even political heavyweights such as U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton face.

These difficulties are further compounded by women themselves, who often doubt their own potential, said Barbara Palmer, assistant professor in the Department of Government at American University in Washington, D.C., and an affiliate of its Women and Politics Institute.

"Statics (in the U.S.) show that if men and women with identical resumes are asked, 'Are you qualified to run (for office)?' men tend to answer 'yes' while women answer 'no,' " said Palmer, who also spoke at the symposium.

Female lawmakers also spend time agonizing over the impact that running for office would have on their families, allowing their male counterparts to take the initiative, Palmer said.

Women also shy away from raising money for their own candidacy, find it difficult to penetrate the established men's network and are less likely to be encouraged by their spouses to run, she added.

According to House of Councilors member Yoriko Madoka, who also is a DPJ vice president, many female politicians in Japan are not keen to participate in key decisions in areas traditionally considered too highbrow for women.

"Women are on committees that discuss the falling birthrate, the environment and welfare, but with budget, finance, diplomacy and defense, female Diet members themselves feel these are matters better dealt with by men," she said.

Madoka herself heads the Upper House Budget and Finances Committee — the only woman to hold the position since the first female Diet members were elected in 1946.

"New female politicians need to be taught what power is and how it needs to be monitored, whether they are in the ruling or opposition party," said Madoka, who is also director of a nonpartisan school that trains women for political careers.

Some of the young lawmakers have difficulty appreciating that gender discrimination exists in politics because they have been educated abroad and haven't experienced it themselves yet, Madoka said.

Brazile agreed that women must avoid being marginalized in key political decisions.

"We must not just accept token positions (meant) as window-dressing, but advocate the authority and power that give women the ability to demonstrate that we can have a seat at the table," she said.

American and Japanese panelists criticized the DPJ's tactic of pitting young female candidates against veteran Liberal Democratic Party politicians as window-dressing. These women, branded by the media as "Ozawa girls" after chief poll strategist Ichiro Ozawa, were fielded as pawns to win the race rather than as serious contenders for future roles in the legislature, they said.

Madoka, however, said the newly elected should take their victories as an opportunity to prove themselves.

"They should do their job thoroughly, and let people see that female Diet members can do it properly, which would lead to putting more women in the legislature," she said.

While the American panelists said there are a few women in Congress with the potential to become the first female U.S. president, the Japanese speakers were more circumspect in predicting when Japan's first female prime minister would take office.

"We have to think about how to nurture women who have that ambition" and how to get them elected on their merits rather than through popularity votes, Madoka said.



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