When you hear the word “political leader”, what comes to mind? A man in a suit? Despite significant gains in female representation in powerful roles, such as New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Arden, women remain dramatically underrepresented in political leadership positions. Of the world’s heads of state and government 93% are men, and more than two-thirds of the seats in  parliaments globally are occupied by men. 

Today is International Women’s Day, and this year’s UN theme is “Women in Leadership: Achieving an equal future in a Covid-19 world”. This theme emphasizes the need for women in the decision making-process, as they bring an essential perspective leading to more comprehensive and inclusive solutions. Yet, as biased norms, structures and legislation combined with a culture of distrust in female leaders hold women back, how will this equal future be achieved?

International Women’s Day 2021- Women in Leadership 

This year’s International Women’s Day March 8th 2021 commemorates the efforts by women around the world in shaping a more equal future and recovery from the global crisis created by the Covid-19 pandemic. Women are being disproportionately affected by the pandemic-linked recession, with many pushed into poverty. Meanwhile, women are underrepresented in policy and scientific committees related to the Covid-19 response. Women Political Leaders (WPL) -an independent organisation which aims to increase the influence and number of women in political leadership positions- stresses that the differing perspectives brought by a diverse range of female leaders can aid in informed and successful policy-making in order to achieve sustainable pathways for societies to “build back better”. 

However, only 22 countries have an elected woman as head of state or government, and 119 countries have never had a female leader, according to UN Women. There is, additionally, only one G20 leader who is a woman; Angela Merkel. Data by UN Women further suggests that achieving gender parity will, at the current rate of progress, not be achieved for another 130 years. These figures are disheartening, especially as actors such as UN Women and WPL emphasize the urgent need for enhanced female representation in political leadership positions.

Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Director-General of the WTO (Photo by: World Bank Photo Collection, Flickr)

Barriers to female political leadership 

From the appointment of Kamala Harris as Vice President of the United States to Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala becoming the new Director-General of the WTO, there have recently been significant gains in female representation in leadership roles. However, barriers such as biased norms, structures and legislation restrain women from acquiring leadership positions. Only ten countries have prohibited discrimination against women in their constitutions, and there are still laws restricting female employment and economic decision-making around the world. There also exists a culture of distrust in female  leaders. According to recent research, this is true even in countries where female leadership is not new, such as Germany. The idea of women in charge remains resisted by much of the public, and as women climb in ranks they have to battle sexist comments, as experienced by Jacinda Adern for example after she was appointed Prime Minister of New Zealand. 

The Reykjavik Index assesses attitudes towards female leadership across different countries. In its latest study, only 41% of German people said they felt very comfortable with a woman being the head of government. The average G7 score was higher, at 78%. Interestingly, young men seem especially unlikely to endorse female leaders, in spite of the supposed progressiveness of younger generations. This could partially be due to people, especially young men, overestimating women’s representation in politics. For instance, in schools and universities they see more women, and in universities there are more female than male students. Generally, if one thinks that gender equality already exists, one may not find it as important to elect women leaders. 

Additionally, beliefs about leadership tend to default to stereotypes of masculine behaviour, which leads to an unconscious gender bias. Both among men and women, there is a common belief that women are too delicate to lead and that they are not decisive and authoritative. Because these latter traits are traditionally associated with men and with leaders, notions of leadership have become connected to perceptions of masculinity. This poses difficulties for women in leadership, and according to a Wilson Center report on women’s public leadership in the Middle East and North Africa, public perceptions of women’s ability to lead largely determines how much influence they will have while in office. 

In multiracial societies, stereotypes about women of colour are especially penalizing. Black women are often stereotyped as too abrasive and Asian women are regarded as too docile to lead. These biases are deep-seated and difficult to change, but it is important to understand and reflect over them in order to overcome them. 

What can be done? 

Quoting Winston Churchill’s “Never waste a good crisis”, Helen Clark, former Prime Minister of New Zealand, believes that the Covid-19 pandemic could offer an unprecedented opportunity to challenge and overcome the barriers to female political leadership. She believes that women must become an integral part of decision-making moving forward. Legal frameworks must be restructured and norms need to be redefined. However, redefining norms requires strong examples.

The visibility of such examples is crucial, with the media playing a key role in ensuring coverage and conversations about women leaders that will result in sustained impacts. It is simple, we cannot only imagine it, we need to see it. Especially for young girls, parents should also think about the model that they provide. Stereotypical beliefs about women’s leadership potential are unlikely to change if parents stick to traditional labour divisions within the home and if girls are directed into nurturing roles while boys are directed into decision-making positions.

WPL further highlights the role of policy interventions. Abolishing legislation that prevents equal rights and access, as well as enforcing policies that treat women and men equally are part of this progression. For instance, policies such as gender quotas and childcare support have proved to be effective measures for improving female participation in leadership positions. However, women must also be encouraged to participate in politics, with communities motivated to support their participation.

Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand (Photo by: Governor-General of New Zealand, Wikimedia Commons)

Why we need more female leaders

According to WPL, bringing in more women into inclusive decision-making  is not only fair, but relevant to all challenges currently faced by the world, such as the Covid-19 crisis, climate change, and racism. They stress that in order to achieve a sustainable and equitable future, society must champion more women at the helm. WPL further emphasizes how people should not be afraid of championing equitable representation and equality. “It is possible for everyone to access opportunity without doing so at the expense of others”. Moreover, Women Deliver -a global advocacy organisation promoting gender equality- argues that women in leadership positions tend to advocate social issues that benefit all, resolve national crises without resorting to violence, and allocate budgets to health and education. 

International Women’s Day is a day for women and men to celebrate the achievements of women, raise awareness against bias and of barriers to equality, and to take action for a world where women and men are equal. WPL believes that the key figure in realising this world is the “collective individual”, someone who regards themselves as responsible for assuming and spreading the mindset that women and men should have access to the same opportunities. Parliamentarians and leaders play an essential role, but everyone can be a collective individual.

Ellen Löfgren