To celebrate International Women’s Day, which takes place this year on Sunday 8th March, we asked author of Women of Power: Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, Torild Skard, to share her reflections on where we are today in terms of political gender equality and the necessary conditions to enable women to take crucial leadership roles within politics.
For more than a century women have spoken out, marched and demonstrated for equality and rights on International Women’s Day. And there has been progress, though it has been uneven and slow. Whilst the gender gap globally has been nearly closed in areas such as health and education, it continues to remain wide open in economic participation and even more so in political empowerment.
In 2014/15 only 22 per cent of the members of parliament and 17 per cent of the government ministers worldwide were women. Not more than 9 per cent of the nation states had a woman as head of state or government. This is a record high, but still very far from gender balance, even from the benchmark of 30 per cent women.
Gender equality roadmap
The UN theme for international Women’s Day 2015 is “Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!”. Governments and activists around the world will commemorate the 20th anniversary year of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, a historic gender equality roadmap signed by 189 governments with the necessary strategic objectives and actions for achieving women’s rights.
The endorsement of the world’s governments of the Beijing Platform for Action in addition to the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of discrimination against Women (CEDAW) is decisive, but they then have to ‘walk the talk’. And follow up effectively.
Looking at steps that have been taken in the direction of equality – such as the increase in the number of women presidents and prime ministers worldwide over the past 50 years – can provide useful lessons to help us (and, perhaps more importantly, the politicians and policy makers) understand what conditions are necessary to achieve the goals they have agreed to.
“How could a woman cope with such a demanding task?”
In 1960 when Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the world’s first woman prime minister in what was then Ceylon, it caused international concern. How could a woman cope with such a demanding task?
Half a century later the woman president of Liberia, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, received the Peace Prize from an impressed Nobel Committee for her contribution to “ensuring peace, promoting economic and social development and strengthening the position of women”.
Attitudes evidently have changed – a bit. But all over the world national political institutions are still dominated by men. How did women manage to rise to the top, and what happened when they got to power?
During the half century after 1960 about 40 per cent of industrial countries have had one or more women as heads of state or government, while this has been the case for only 20 per cent of developing countries. High living standards improving people’s health, education and income may contribute to broader participation in politics.
In fact, most of the women presidents and prime ministers during this period were very well educated. Many had long professional careers before they became political leaders and achieved very high positions. To be able to get to the top, more women top leaders had such positions than their male predecessors.
Industrial countries have also often been democratic. And the great majority of women presidents and prime ministers around the world obtained their positions in countries that were characterized as “democracies”.
But the type of democratic system makes a difference. For example: of the women national leaders most rose to the top in countries with both a president and a prime minister. There were two top positions and a woman obtained one of them as part of a “top leader pair”. Very few women acquired the top position where there was only an executive president or an executive prime minister.
If a democratic system is necessary to increase women’s representation in the national political leadership, it does not follow that this is sufficient.
“An active feminist movement was required to increase the participation of women and their access to power”
After World War II, Western industrial countries mostly had liberal democracies with political rights for women. But women were usually not mobilized and welcomed in established political institutions. An active feminist movement was required to increase the participation of women and their access to power.
The women presidents and prime ministers did not become top leaders primarily because they were women, but because they felt they should lead the nation. Some also acted in the same way as their male colleagues, fighting on their terms, without being particularly engaged in ‘women’s issues’.
But many women top leaders tried to compromise, looking after both men’s and women’s interests. And a certain number challenged the male domination and explicitly promoted women friendly or feminist policies. In most cases, it made a difference that a woman rose to the top instead of a man, but the difference was often limited.
Dynamic women’s movement
To empower women then, woman-friendly democratization processes have to be actively implemented. A dynamic women’s movement is needed as a driving force and men with power must take their responsibility for reform of institutions and policies.
This means, among others things, that the political culture, the political parties and the media must ensure that women can promote their interests on equal terms with men. Parliament and government must become more representative, for example by changing the electoral system and adopting measures such as quotas to increase the recruitment of women. And “good governance” must entail emphasis on participation, protection of human rights and promotion of social justice and equality.
Women of Power publishes in paperback on Monday 9th March. Copies are available from our website here & if you’re a subscriber to our newsletter you’ll receive a 35% discount on the website too (subscribe here if you’re not part of our community yet!)
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