Breaking the glass ceiling

Women have risen to become political leaders in a number of powerful nations since Sirimavo Bandaranaike led the way by becoming Sri Lanka’s premier in 1960. But they still only make up a small percentage of senior politicians worldwide

Female Leaders

Since 1988, Indonesia, Senegal, Bangladesh, Mali, Pakistan, Kosovo, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey have all, at one point or another, been led by a female president or prime minister. None of these countries are known for being at the forefront of women’s rights – in Indonesia, women-only train carriages had to be introduced in 2010 in response to high sexual harassment rates. Pakistan is ranked the second worst country in the world for women’s equality by the World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2014 and is, along with Bangladesh, known internationally for acid attacks. Around one in five women in Turkey are illiterate.

Meanwhile, the UK, with its reputation for being a herald of human and women’s rights, has had one female prime minister, back in the 1970s and 1980s, and no woman has led any of its three main political parties since then. The USA has yet to elect a single female president. Even Sweden, which ranks fourth in the Gender Gap Report (see page 7), has had no female heads of state. Globally, the gender gaps for educational attainment and health have almost closed, while gender discrepancies of 40 per cent for economic outcomes and 80 per cent for political outcomes remain. It seems that the world is happy for women to have the same education and health care as men, but more reluctant when it comes to letting them have any significant responsibilities.

The first woman to break through the glass ceiling for political leadership was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who became Prime Minister of Sri Lanka in 1960, and from then on the number of female heads of government grew and grew. From 1960 through to August 2010, 79 women from 58 countries joined the ranks of the national executive elite, with the number of women leaders doubling in the 1990s and rising further still in the 2000s.

Nevertheless, women represent only a minuscule number of all leaders worldwide today. For instance, women made up six per cent of all national leaders in 2009 and, while this figure did show some improvement, it only weighed in at around seven per cent by 2014.

“The executive glass ceiling is truly shattered in contexts like Finland (where, to date, three different women leaders have come to power), only cracked in Britain (with Margaret Thatcher as the only example of a female prime minister), and remains firmly intact in the United States,” writes Farida Jalalzai in The Washington Post.

Furthermore, women seem to govern more in systems where they are granted fewer powers by their office – and they are more likely to be appointed prime minister than be elected to presidential office.

“Women’s greater tendency to be prime ministers is significant since prime ministers routinely possess fewer powers than presidents,” says Jalalzai, who is also the author of Shattered, Cracked, or Firmly Intact? Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide. “Several female prime ministers hold weak positions. A major liability facing nearly all the weak prime ministers is that they can be dismissed by both parliament AND the president.”

In her 2008 concession speech, Hillary Clinton said: “I am a woman and, like millions of women, I know there are still barriers and biases out there, often unconscious, and I want to build an America that respects and embraces the potential of every last one of us.”

Such a claim does not seem unfounded when four per cent of Americans polled in 2014 by analytics company Gallup stated Clinton’s gender as their primary reason for not wanting her to gain presidency in 2016 – while her stance on ‘issues’, including employment and health care, weighed in at an average of one per cent a pop. Similarly overlooking any political characteristics, 18 per cent of respondents said that it would be good if Clinton assumed office for the primary reason of her becoming the USA’s first female president (while an average of two per cent cited each issue).

“Clearly Clinton’s ‘unique selling proposition’ is that she would be the first woman president. Nearly one in five Americans mention this historic possibility as a positive, including 22 per cent of women, 27 per cent of 18- to 29-year-olds, and 30 per cent of Democrats,” read the Gallup report.

The year 1997 saw a great influx of female members into the UK parliament, 101 of whom were from the Labour Party and nicknamed ‘Blair’s Babes’ after the then prime minister, Tony Blair. Even then, these MPs were expected to focus on topics traditionally associated with their gender, such as education and health. When Glenda Jackson MP overstepped this boundary and spoke on defence, a Conservative MP called out: “Stick to what you know, Glenda.”

Other comments towards female MPs from male peers were more hostile and condescending – asking with whom they had had to sleep for a promotion, loudly talking about wanting to “roger” them and accusing them of receiving preferential treatment on account of their gender, were some of the indignities related during a study of female MPs by Birkbeck College.

“I remember some Conservatives: whenever a Labour woman got up to speak they would take their breasts – their imaginary breasts – in their hands and wiggle them and say ‘melons’ as we spoke,” Barbara Follett, who was the Labour MP for Stevenage from 1997 until 2010, told Birkbeck researchers in 2004.

Reactions from men to the growing number of female MPs at Westminster ranged from sheer disbelief that a woman could be an MP, and not just a secretary to one, to actual physical abuse following a vote to include more women on a committee. Subtler comments, like Prime Minister David Cameron’s remark that MP Angela Eagle should “calm down, dear” in 2011, are more gently dismissive of women’s input.

And this sort of sexism isn’t entrenched in UK politics alone. When Ayaka Shiomura, a member of the Japanese Assembly, addressed senior city administration figures during a 2014 debate on supporting women with children, a member of the opposition yelled at her: “Why don’t you get married? Are you not able to have a baby?”

A poll of members of online forum Mumsnet, 97 per cent of whom are female, carried out in 2014 showed that nine out of ten members believe that the political culture in the UK is sexist, with two out of ten claiming that political success boils down to what school or university the candidate attended as well as the ‘old boys’ network’. One poll respondent said: “The problem with Prime Minister’s Questions isn’t so much that it’s shouty, but that the so-called pinnacle of political debate in this country is two men trading petty insults and making nasty jokes about the other while the rest of parliament boos and cheers behind them. We may as well get some pre-schoolers to call each other poo-heads and be done with it.”

“People are so fed up. We know that the reason there is a lack of female representation in parliament isn’t just down to sexism at the point of selection; there just aren’t enough women prepared to put themselves forward,” Justine Roberts, the founder of Mumsnet, told The Guardian in 2014. “Even male MPs have complained about the hours. The hours seem to revolve more around 50-year-old men who want to socialise than thirtysomething men who are dads and might like to have a family life.”

While the people of Britain tend to favour ‘family people’ – and indeed David Cameron has spoken about his commitment to doing everything he can to support families in the country – the rules make juggling parenthood and being an MP exceptionally difficult. The House of Commons sits during irregular working hours, with Monday sessions pencilled in for 14:30-22:30 before taking into account commuting times and overruns, making it tough for people with young children, particularly women, to commit to the inflexible arrangement. To add to this, there is no formal provision of parental leave as MPs are considered self-employed.

“The work of an MP makes significant demands both on the individual and on their immediate family,” reads Section 7 of the final report on the Speaker’s Conference on Parliamentary Representation. “For the eight to nine months of the year when the House of Commons is sitting, Members are generally required to be present at Westminster from Monday lunchtime until late afternoon on Thursday. Most Members will then return to their constituencies where they will work on local issues through Friday and the weekend, making themselves available to help constituents at times when the constituents themselves are free. When the House is not sitting, most Members expect to spend their time working in the constituency unless they are formally taking leave.”

“[My wife] was basically a single mother for most of the week, because I found it difficult to get back to Glasgow; it placed a huge pressure on the family,” Labour’s Tom Harris told The Independent in 2014.

Other countries in Europe have taken measures to accommodate working parents. In Denmark, voting ends at 19:00 on sitting days, while Switzerland has adopted a proposal to co-ordinate sittings with school holidays. While women presidents and prime ministers have emerged in some unexpected contexts, such as Pakistan, Malawi and Kyrgyzstan, given the inequality women generally face in these countries, other countries have been less surprising, for example Norway, Finland and Denmark.

Iceland, more predictably, was the first country in the world to directly elect a female had of state when, in 1980, Vigdís Finnbogadóttir was voted in as president to serve as such until her retirement in 1996. The country vaulted another hurdle in 2009 when it became the first in the world to have an openly gay head of government with the election of Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir as Prime Minister.

So why is it that countries that offer women fewer political, economic and social opportunities – like India – have had more women as political leaders than countries – for instance Sweden – that generally offer them more?

“When women have fewer opportunities in places, the ones who fight for them are strong. They want their rights and then fight for them. In addition, they recognise people who are marginalised in society, can relate to them better and end up winning public admiration,” says Aini Lund, a student at the University of Cumbria, UK, who was born in Karachi, Pakistan.

“I think in places where the majority of people’s rights are unheard, the public will turn to anyone that will hear them, even if it’s a woman. Also, I think it’s because a lot of politics carry on within families. You have dynasties, such as the Gandhi dynasty in India, or the Bhutto dynasty in Pakistan. So women in those families are given more opportunities to come forward.”

Indira Priyadarshini Gandhi, the third Prime Minister of India and a central figure of the Indian National Congress party, was India’s second longest serving prime minister and the only woman to hold the post. Like Bangladesh’s Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina (see pages 14-15 and 66-67), Gandhi was the daughter of a prominent politician – Indian Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. Serving as his administration’s Chief of Staff from 1947-64, she gained popularity within the government and was elected congress president before being offered the opportunity to succeed her father as prime minister. She declined, instead choosing to become a minister in the country’s cabinet before finally consenting to succeed Lal Bahadur Shastri as prime minister in 1966.

But this was no mere ceremonial position. Gandhi went on to wage war on Pakistan in support of the independence movement, the victory resulting in the growth of India’s influence in South Asia and the creation of Bangladesh; she ruled through a state of emergency and made permanent changes to the constitution. And her popularity didn’t end with her assassination: in 2001 Gandhi was voted India’s Greatest Prime Minister in a poll run by India Today, and Woman of the Millennium in another poll by the BBC in 1999.

“I don’t think you can say that developing countries have more women in power, excluding situations in which their families are heavily involved in politics, like Bhutto or Gandhi,” says Julian, an Italian PhD student at the University of Cambridge, UK. “I think that Margaret Thatcher, regardless of our opinion of her, was still more representative, also given that she was in power for 11 years. The same is true of most other northern European and Anglo-Saxon countries: I’m thinking of Germany, Denmark, Norway…

“You then have Bachelet in Chile – perhaps a bit special; Roussef in Brazil, people like her because of Lula having been in power before; and Kirchner – her husband was in power before her. I don’t think that there’s an institutional explanation necessarily. In developing countries, at times, they happen to be some politician’s wife.”

This doesn’t necessarily imply that these women aren’t qualified for their roles, but that if it wasn’t for their personal and often familial connections they would not have had the opportunity to gain power. Farida Jalalzai’s research seems to echo this point:

“The progress women have made in attaining executive office worldwide is a bit limited because nearly all women exercising dominant powers as presidents AND elected by popular vote hail from political families. But women’s reliance on the family in Latin America has subsided, with women like Dilma Rousseff of Brazil and Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica being excellent examples of broadening paths, although Bachelet in Chile only to lesser extent.”

It seems harder for women to garner popular votes in presidential elections, whether this is due to personal shortcomings or the entrenchment of men as leaders that exists in many countries, including the USA. “When women do vie for presidential offices, they rarely secure more than five per cent of the vote. Most victorious women presidential candidates did not garner electoral majorities but were elected through pluralities or second round run-offs,” says Jalalzai. “In nearly all cases, triumphant women did not have to spar against incumbents (almost universally male).”

Dilma Rousseff, currently serving as president of Brazil, won her first term in a run-off and her second in a narrow second-round victory. Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, on the other hand, won both her first and second term in office without going to a second round or a run-off, becoming the first directly elected female president of Argentina. However, she is also the widow of former president Néstor Kirchner, and critics of her administration have accused it of corruption and censorship.

The World Economic Forum Gender Gap Report 2014 ranks India 114th out of 142 countries for gender equality. Despite having had a female head of state for 21 of the past 50 years, and ranking first in the report for this variable, women’s political empowerment for India averages at 0.214, where one represents equality and zero inequality. This is down to women holding fewer than ten per cent of ministerial positions in the country and approximately 13 per cent of parliamentary seats, with scores similarly low for women’s economic participation and opportunity, particularly when it comes to positions as legislators, senior officials and managers. Further to this, the Reuters Foundation named India the worst place in the world for women in 2011, with statistics showing that a woman is raped every 22 minutes and a child every hour.

France, on the other hand, comes in 16th out of 142 countries in the report. Women hold nearly half of the country’s ministerial positions and approximately a quarter of seats in parliament. Women’s educational attainment has met or surpassed that of men, and their economic participation and opportunity ranks 57th in the report, with positions as legislators, senior officials and managers as well as wage equality figures dragging down the score. Overall, France comes in 98 places ahead of India – and yet France has had a female head of state for just one of the past 50 years.

“I was born in France, I often work in Belgium, Germany, the UK, etc, and I really love living in Europe, where values, human rights and women’s rights are mostly respected,” says Benoît Firmin, a translator based in Lille, France.

“I am quite surprised France has only had one female head of state over the past 50 years. That’s disappointing, to say the least. I remember being particularly excited about Ms Royal’s campaign during the 2007 presidential elections. She lost, unfortunately, but I think she would have been a decent president, and a good role model for women.

“In France, the situation is not critical but there is still work to be done as far as gender equity is concerned: wages, taxes, discrimination and even that stupid law on the wearing of pants that it is about time they abolish. A female leader sounds like a great idea, provided it is not Mrs Lepen, who is valuing patriotism over women’s rights and dignity,” says Firmin, adding: “Yes to female leaders, but not at any price.”


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