Opinion / Changing the narrative about women's political leadership
Changing the narrative about women’s political leadership
In many ways, 2018 has been a monumental year for women’s political leadership around the world. In the United States, women played a bigger role in the midterm elections than they have in any other election in American history. A record 255 women ran for office in the two major parties; of those, 117 won. As of October 2018, Ethiopia’s president is, for the first time ever, a woman - as is the president of the country’s Federal Supreme Court. Half of prime minister Abiy Ahmed’s cabinet is female, including the minister of defense. In Spain, Bahrain, and Mexico, too, women have also made significant political strides this year.
Greater female leadership is often associated with gains on issues like health, sexual violence, gender gaps in employment and financial inclusion. Female leadership is also often championed as a harbinger of improved governance. UN Women’s executive director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka observes: “Where there are more women in decision–making positions, we see more inclusive decisions, and we find different solutions to long-standing problems.” This notion is rooted in the belief that men and women have fundamentally divergent leadership stylesand that, once in office, women will advance a feminist agenda.
But the link between gains in numerical representation and gains in strategic representation isn’t so clear. And the record of female political leadership (like that of male political leadership) is mixed. During her eight years in office, for example, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner helped narrow the country’s gender poverty gap. She also imposed a ban on abortions and defaulted on international loan payments. Dilma Rousseff appointed record numbers of women to Brazil’s highest offices, including some of the most important cabinet positions. Yet her presidency ended with an embattled economy and a government ensnared in corruption investigations. Female political leaders have engaged in conflicts (such as the ex-prime minister of the UK Margaret Thatcher and the Falklands War) and have traded arms to nations outwardly repressive of women’s rights (such as Swedish arms sales to Saudi Arabia under foreign minister Margot Wallström’s “feminist foreign policy”).
This begs the question of the metrics against which female leaders are judged, as well as whether the emphasis on simply increasing the number of women in political positions doesn’t obscure more sophisticated debates over good governance and women’s empowerment. If the history of women’s political leadership varies, then perhaps there is more to the story.
Two misapprehensions that continue to inform discussions of women’s political leadership are the notion that ‘women’s issues’ somehow diverge from other policy issues –– and, equally, that other policy issues are somehow not ‘women’s issues’ –– as well as a disregard for the institutions in which female leaders, like all leaders, are embedded.
Rethinking ‘women’s issues’
What constitutes a ‘woman’s issue’ remains a matter of debate, but the term is generally understood to include matters of wage equality, childcare coverage, reproductive rights, girls’ education, violence against women, political participation and property ownership. History teaches that not all women advance these issues. Two women, Khaleda Zia and Sheikh Hasina, served as prime ministers of Bangladesh for 15n consecutive years (1991–2006). During that time, little to no effort was made to enhance women’s rights. History also teaches that successful political leadership entails more than promoting women’s issues at the expense of other policy initiatives. Brazil under Rousseff and Argentina under Kirchner are two of several cases in point. Women leaders should of course be championed for their efforts to advance other women. But more importantly, they should be championed for their efforts to advance societies overall.
World Economic Forum Geneva, Switzerland