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Cabinets, Ministers and Gender

Professor Claire Annesley, Deputy Pro-Vice-Chancellor (Equalities and Diversity) - and Chair of the Staff Survey Steering Group

Claire Annesley, Karen Beckwith and Susan Franceschet

Joining the ranks of cabinet minister is often the pinnacle of a politician’s career. But until now we have not fully understood the process of how people qualify for ministerial office. Our study Cabinets, Ministers and Gender excavates the rules - formal and informal - of ministerial recruitment across seven parliamentary and presidential democracies, unearthing rules about who is empowered to select ministers as well as the rules about how to qualify for ministerial office. Learning about these rules then allows us to explain why in most countries historically, and still in some countries now, so few women have made it into cabinet. What’s more, by learning the rules we can seek ways to change them, to produce more inclusive and balanced ministerial teams.

The hardest part of the process of ministerial recruitment to research is rules about qualification: there are no formal, written rules on how to qualify as a minister. But a lack of written rules does not mean an absence of rules altogether. Unwritten rules and norms can be equally powerful in guiding practice. Through qualitative research, interviewing former ministers and assessing media commentaries on ministerial appointments, we identified three sets of rules, all of which are unwritten, that set up ministerial opportunities.

All ministers of course need ‘experience’. For some, experience is accumulated through political office – as a member of parliament or by holding office in their party – but for others relevant experience can be demonstrated via a professional career or through policy expertise. We find that all cabinets need ministers with both types of experience. It is not the case that parliamentary democracies prefer political experience and presidential democracies professional.  It is also not the case that women don’t have relevant experience. There are plenty of qualified women in politics and the professions. Experience is a threshold criterion. All ministerial appointments need to have some kind of experience, but there are other rules that are decisive in determining who is deemed qualified for cabinet and who isn’t.

In five of the seven countries we study - Australia, Chile, Spain, UK, US - there is a strong rule that aspirant ministers can qualify for ministerial office if they are considered by the selector as a loyal ally, as trustworthy.  This is in part about selectors rewarding past loyalty through patronage, but it also reflects the intrinsic nature of cabinet. Appointing people you know could mean that the business of government runs more smoothly; and bringing on board people you trust minimises the risk of leaks. Unfortunately, women are historically absent from the elite networks which reproduce power from men to men. As one minister told us, “over centuries informal networks have worked for men. They knew each other, they always nominated each other.”

In two of the counties we study – Canada and Germany – different rules apply. Both these countries have a strong tradition of balancing ministerial appointments across political, regional, religious and social groups so that the cabinet looks more like the country. This means that individuals can qualify on representational grounds – as someone from Quebec or North Rhine Westphalia. Strong rules about qualifying for cabinet through representational criteria promote women’s appointment to cabinet in a number of ways. First, the need to meet various quotas reduces the number of slots available for selectors to reward their trusted allies. Second, over time representational criteria have changed so that in both these counties gender is now part of the equation of a balanced cabinet; a kind of informal gender quota for cabinets.  Third, in counties with traditions of appointing on representational criteria, adding gender is not controversial as in countries where the pretence is that ministers are appointed on ‘merit’. One former minister in Germany sums it up well: “if we didn’t have the quota women would always lose out […] now they are forced to say, I can’t just put forward men, I also have to nominate women and I have to have women on my radar. Without the quota they would say ‘no, she doesn’t quite fit, he would be better, he would be better, he would be better’.”

This Cabinets, Ministers and Gender project was awarded the 2016 Skytte manuscript workshop by the Skytte Foundation at Uppsala University, Sweden. The workshop in October 2016 allowed us to present the book manuscript and invite discussion and feedback from a distinguished group of international scholars over a four-day period.


By: Laura Arnold
Last updated: Friday, 19 January 2018

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