Written by: Sara
Edited by: Chris
Visual by: Issy
Over the past few decades, women have increasingly become more prominent in politics. Women currently hold 25.4% of legislative seats around the world, an improvement from the previous 12.7% in 1998. At the executive level, 29 countries have a female elected head of state or government. However, it cannot be denied that despite the advances made in recent years to empower women, there is still a long way to go until equality is achieved. Women continue to be underrepresented in government, and this can be attributed to the obstacles that prevent them from being acknowledged as effective leaders.
For a long time, women have had very little opportunity to exercise leadership in positions of authority. Consequently, leadership has come to be associated with traditional masculinity. Women are expected by society to be kind, sensitive, and nurturing, but a person with these traits will be called out for not being tough enough to make difficult decisions. When women express a desire for power, people are more likely to view this negatively because it contradicts the expectation that women should be modest and deferential. An example is Hillary Clinton, who was repeatedly criticized throughout her 2016 presidential campaign for being power-hungry and thus, unlikeable. On the contrary, when men show power-seeking behavior, they are cast in a positive light as being assertive and strong.
So, how do women leaders around the world face these obstacles? Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, is one of the world’s most respected leaders today. She has been credited with significant economic growth and a relatively successful response to the COVID-19 pandemic, among many other accomplishments. Her leadership style is characterized by pragmatism and coolheaded reason, painting her as a leader who is cautious but able to make bold decisions when necessary. Notably, despite being the first woman chancellor of Germany, Merkel’s political personality does not associate with this achievement, nor at all with the fact that she is a woman. Ute Frevert, Germany’s leading gender historian, observed that Merkel is “the least motherly person you can imagine, though people want to build a feminine image of her that’s easier to digest…she’s not a woman playing a man, either. She seems to be gender neutral in a way.” In this way, Merkel’s desire to be viewed as a highly capable leader, equal to any other, has allowed her to be less judged against prevalent gender stereotypes.
Another example of a successful woman leader is Jacinda Ardern, prime minister of New Zealand, who has been widely praised for her swift and effective response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Her authenticity, vulnerability, and above all, kindness resonates with the people on an emotional level, bringing out a high level of trust in Ardern and her government. She leads on her own terms instead of changing her style to fit the expectations of traditional masculine leadership, and is a more successful leader because of it. When asked about her leadership style, she said, “I think one of the sad things that I’ve seen in political leadership is – because we’ve placed over time so much emphasis on notions of assertiveness and strength – that we probably have assumed that it means you can’t have those other qualities of kindness and empathy. And yet, when you think about all the big challenges that we face in the world, that’s probably the quality we need the most.”
Much work is still necessary in order to fully move beyond gender stereotypes and other forms of discrimination in politics. However, these women leaders are model examples of the progress being made towards equality. Hopefully, with continued efforts, this will one day become our common reality.
Blackwell, Geoff. “Jacinda Ardern: ‘‘Political Leaders Can Be Both Empathetic and Strong.’” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 30 May 2020, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/may/31/jacinda-ardern-political-leaders-can-be-both-empathetic-and-strong.
Chesser, Susan G. “Women in National Governments Around the Globe: Fact Sheet.” Federation of American Scientists, Congressional Research Service, 8 Feb. 2021, fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45483.pdf.
Chira, Susan. “The World’s Most Powerful Woman Won’t Call Herself a Feminist.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 16 Sept. 2017, http://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/16/sunday-review/angela-merkel-feminist-germany.html.
Okimoto, Tyler G., and Victoria L. Brescoll. “The Price of Power: Power Seeking and Backlash Against Female Politicians.” Gender Action Portal, Harvard Kennedy School, June 2010, gap.hks.harvard.edu/price-power-power-seeking-and-backlash-against-female-politicians.