Women make up half the world’s population. For a functioning democracy, it is vital that women are equally represented in politics. One of the few women who have made it to the top in politics is Chilean Veronica Michelle Bachel Jeria. After being elected twice as President of Chile, she served as the United Nations (UN) High Commissioner of Human Rights from 2018 to 2022. She stated: “If one woman goes into politics, it changes the woman. If many women go into politics, it changes politics.”
The UK to date has only had three female Prime Ministers (PM): Margaret Thatcher, Theresa May and (very briefly) Liz Truss. But the representation of women in the UK Parliament is on the increase. Currently, 32% of Members of Parliament (MPs) are women – the largest ever proportion of women MPs (Apostolova and Cracknell, 2017). Until 1997, when this percentage rose to 18%, it had been in single figures. Since then it has increased considerably. I will not make any comment here about the quality of the current MPs, male or female and whether more female MPs would mean that women’s issues would receive the appropriate representation. For example, the struggle of 1950-born women for their pensions might have received more support.
However, the UN estimates that achieving gender parity at the highest echelons of power will not be reached for another 130 years, with legislative representation equality not expected before 2063.
“Women serve as Heads of State and/or Government in only 31 countries. Women make up 26.5% of Members of Parliament. Globally, less than one in four Cabinet Ministers is a woman (22.8 per cent). New data show that women lead important human rights, gender equality, and social protection policy portfolios, while men dominate policy areas like defence and economy.”UN Women – ‘Women in politics: 2023’
Reasons for this underrepresentation of women
According to research, there are a variety of obstacles that prevent women from starting a career in politics. These difficulties, like the conflict of combining family care with a demanding career, continue once they are in political positions. Especially in more traditional societies, women are expected to put families before their careers. Female politicians with young children rarely get nominated for major political roles, in the expectation that they are mothers first and politicians second.
There is also the impact of media coverage and the public unconscious stereotyping of women as leaders, as well as exposure to harassment, abuse and violence against women in politics.
Old boys’ clubs
Looking at history, political parties were built by influential men for men, and this ‘old boys club’ mentality is still to be found in many political parties. See the number of current UK politicians who attended Eton, an exclusive rich boys’ institution. Women are often excluded from informal networks within parties where decisions are influenced. This exclusion of the ‘club’ restricts the potential contributions of women, and their voices are marginalised or ignored.
Successful women leaders
Despite these disadvantages, there are growing examples of successful women leaders, some embracing their motherhood, which is often seen as an obstacle to advancement: New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern gave birth to her daughter a few months after becoming prime minister. She set a precedent by even bringing her few-months-old daughter to the UN’s General Assembly. Former Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin also became an internationally followed head of government when her daughter was just under two years old.
In European politics, there is a growing influence of female leaders like Roberta Metsola, just the third woman to hold the role of President of the European Parliament. There are, of course, Commission President von der Leyen, etc.
Women in power EU project
The EU recognises that “empowering women’s participation and leadership in the decision-making process will strengthen trust and commitment in democratic life, a more equal and inclusive society and the perception of European citizenship.” One of their projects, Women in Power, offers tools to support equality and gender balance in European boards of directors. To promote the advancement of women, the project helps them to improve managerial skills and competencies. ‘Women in Power’ also wants to facilitate participation and access to education through free online training in several languages.
Women of Europe Awards
The Women of Europe Awards, launched in 2016, aim to highlight the contribution of women in promoting and advancing European issues. The objective is to increase the involvement of women in debates about Europe and its future. Unfortunately, the role of women in the European political sphere still remains largely unrecognised. The awards aim to highlight, acknowledge and showcase females who inspire initiatives. It is vital to give a voice to women across Europe who defend European values such as democracy, inclusion and diversity.
The Awards are handed out in five different categories:
- Woman in Power | showing extraordinary political leadership in Europe
- Woman in Action | undertaking extraordinary actions at the grassroots level in Europe
- Woman in Business | advancing European integration with entrepreneurial spirit
- Young Woman of Europe | for young women (aged 15 to 30) actively strengthening the voice of young women in Europe
- Woman in Media (a new category this year) | outstanding women in media who possess a powerful voice, actively bringing attention to European issues
In 2020, the Women in Power candidates were:
Terry Reintke, Member of the European Parliament, who is a known Anglophile, and who is planning to stand for election next year to the leader of the Group of the Greens/European Free Alliance
Sviatlana Tikhanovskaya, Belarusian Opposition Leader and Human Rights Activist
Khamshajiny (Kamzy) Gunaratnam, the Deputy Mayor of Oslo
This year’s winner in category one, Women in Power, is Kaja Kallas, the Prime Minister of Estonia. When receiving the award, she said:
“I’m very grateful for the Woman of Europe award, it really means a lot to me. I wish everyone wisdom and resilience. Working together towards an equal society is a long-term goal, but let us keep in mind that everything that is done or not done for equality changes people’s lives and can change history for future generations.”Kaja Kallas, Prime Minister of Estonia
Why do we need more women in power?
Women in power may do things differently, bringing real-world experience, empathy and compassion to their analysis of problems. Whether that is called emotional intelligence or not isn’t particularly important. What matters is their tendency to reflect on what is in the interest of the common good. To prioritise it even over the narrow, particularistic tendencies that mark out our, albeit aberrant, regime from those of our near neighbours.
Looking at just a handful of women leaders and politicians, including in the Anglo-Saxon world, the way they frame problems is striking. From the first New Zealand woman PM – Helen Clark – now a member of the Council of Elders, of which former Irish President Mary Robinson was chair, to Jacinda Ardern, Caroline Lucas, Yvette Cooper, Gina Miller, Greta Thunberg, Sophie t’Veld, Simone Weil and a host of others, concern with the common good shines through. This is not about posing and posture, aka performative politics. It is about recognising common responsibility for the world around us; awareness and conviction that we have choices and the right to choose the common good over selfishness. Why do it? Because that benefits us all, and our children and grandchildren.
That is what all of us want and aspire to – in short, we deserve political leaders who make that our shared priority.