Many Americans are currently imagining a country with a female president. Throughout 2016, we heard time and time again that it was time for a female leader. And now, some claim that the election results shed light on an overall inability or unreadiness on part of the United States in electing a female president.
Stemming from this discussion and inspired by a New York Times article regarding gender equality in Angela Merkel’s Germany, I have decided to take a look at the countries in which females occupy leadership positions and what that means for the overall status of women in the workforce. What does having a female leader in office mean for gender equality in employment in those countries? Does having a female president or prime minister equate with progressive roles of women in the private sector?
According to a group of German girls who have lived most of their lives under the leadership of a female chancellor (in office since 2005), the answer is no. The New York Times piece suggests Merkel’s leadership produces a far more progressive image of Germany abroad than is the case within its borders. The article delves into research that shows Merkel’s leadership is misleading; as a report shows 93% of all executive board members in Germany’s 160 publicly traded companies are men.
This information suggests that even in a country like Germany, long dominated by the figure of a female leader, gender inequality in employment persists. In fact, German women are still paid 21% less than men.
In order to understand where the world stands on gender equality, I have consulted The Global Gender Gap report of 2016, which is produced yearly by the World Economic Forum. The report assesses the gender equality gap existing in each country and subsequently assigns each country a score; taking into consideration many indicators such as the number of women participating in the labour force, the ratio of wage equality between women and men, and the representation of women within company hierarchy. According to this report, as is confirmed in another study produced by Glassdoor Economic Research, Nordic European countries are ranked the highest for equal gender employment opportunities.
With Iceland, Finland, Norway and Sweden accounting for top 4 in the world respectively, the question of whether female representation in politics equates with female progress in the private sector can be better approached. Amongst these four countries, known for their progress in both policy concerning gender equality and the subsequent status of women in their society, only Sweden is lead by a female prime minister since 2013, namely Erna Solberg.
In Norway, the female Norwegian experience is incredibly positive, with high participation in the workforce having a decisive effect on the country’s overall performance. In an interview given to the OECD Observer, Norway’s Minister of Finance Sigbjørn Johnsen explains that the increase in female participation in the workforce took place at a time in which there was a rise in demand for labor. However, it was possible because of a number of parental provision policies implemented by the state such as subsidized day-care centres for children, which allowed the increase in female participation.
Prime Minister Solberg has been a leading voice for the empowerment of women and girls and the importance of gender equality and female representation in politics to achieve sustainable development. In a speech given at the Women In Parliament summer summit in 2014, Solberg spoke about Norway’s commitment to invest in young girl’s education, which she claims is the most powerful investment for development, “when you educate a girl, you educate a nation”, Solberg said.
Although Norway is lead by a female representative who is a leading voice advocating for gender equality, this doesn’t seem to be a necessary requirement for a country to have a successful representation of women in the workplace. Looking at countries with prominent female figures, such as Germany and the United Kingdom for example, reinforces this point. Like Germany, the UK also has some progress to be made in the realm of gender equality, as it is ranked 20th out of 144 countries in the aforementioned Global Gender Gap Report. As is emphasized in an article published in The Guardian by Angela Monaghan, the UK has “one of the worst records for gender equality at work”, particularly due to the lack in services to aid working mothers.
Given that neither Germany nor the UK exemplify countries with a successful gender balance in the workforce, it is worth evaluating the figures of their two strong female leaders. Interestingly, Merkel and May are both candidates pertaining to conservative parties and appealing to conservative platforms, often described as “cold” and “aggressive” female figures, apparently less relatable to the stereotypical qualities attributed to women of softness and vulnerability. Perhaps this hawkish attitude is what has allowed them to successfully climb the political ladder within their countries. Perhaps this is the attitude that women in politics have to abide to in order to win, making themselves appear more masculine.
Angela Merkel has spent most of her political career under emphasizing her gender, which has lead to many accusing her of prioritizing other provisions over gender equality. In an article titled “The World’s Most Powerful Woman Won’t Call Herself a Feminist”, Susan Chira writes about her tendency to deviate attention from her gender and adopt more of a gender-neutral attitude. The same was said of Prime Minister May, with a myriad of headlines focusing on the significance of her sex as she secured her position as prime minister following the Brexit vote. Discussion regarding these two female leaders’ positions as advocates for gender equality is further discussed in a piece published by Politico, titled “Theresa May: Female but not feminist”, which draws upon similar conclusions.
Having looked at two of the most prominent female national leaders of the present moment and having established that neither of them is a particular advocate for gender equality in employment, it seems that having a female leader is not directly correlated with having progressive female roles domestically. In fact, the policies undertaken by most Nordic European countries that lead the way for gender equality in the workforce were mostly taken under the leadership of male politicians. In conclusion, it appears that having a female leader doesn’t necessary mean progress for women in a given nation. It appears to me that what we need is higher representation of women in politics, but especially female politicians that understand gender equality as an issue that must be prioritized; society as a whole will benefit as a result.
- Ludovica Grieco