Farida Jalalzai – Gender, Presidencies, and Prime Ministerships in Europe

Farida Jalalzai is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis

Farida Jalazai

Women presidents and prime ministers are increasingly capturing the public’s imagination. We are especially intrigued by the fact that a woman has never been president of the U.S. but that women have held presidencies in places where women as a whole seem to enjoy fewer opportunities such as Pakistan and Liberia. In contrast, we might not be surprised that the greatest quantities of women executives have ascended in Europe. When accounting for paths and powers, however, how much progress have women really made in this region? This is the subject of my new article published in the International Political Science Review. “Gender, Presidencies, and Prime Ministerships in Europe: Are Women Gaining Ground?”

We might intuitively expect women in Europe to have made significant strides in executive office holding, given the more favorable political, cultural, and social conditions women face. To be sure, women have gained top executive offices in nearly half of all European countries, indicating that they have made substantial inroads. Perhaps more surprisingly, Europe lacked women presidents and prime ministers until the late 1970s (nearly two decades after Asian women ascended). Based on my analysis of the most up to date numbers (from January 2015) 42 women have gained power as executives in Europe. In fact, European cases account for 43% of the entire sample of women leaders (98 in total worldwide when examining autonomous countries). The data I collected for this article initially only went from 1960 through 2010. At that time, Europe only had 32 women executives. Five years later, this number increased by another 10! Europe also increased its global share of women leaders (from 41% to 43%). It is, therefore, undeniable that women in Europe have made substantial inroads in executive politics, at least when examining quantities alone.

Readers of this blog, however, know full well that not all executives are created equal and that numbers can only tell part of the story. Most European countries are consensus systems. Consensus systems feature more inclusive, negotiated, and conciliated decision making. In contrast, majoritarian ones involve more exclusive, antagonistic, and competitive governance. For the latter, they rely on appointment to gain power and enjoy less autonomy and security in these positions than would a president in a presidential system (like the United States) or semi-presidential one (like France).

Leadership traits in consensus systems correspond to prevailing feminine stereotypes; we should therefore expect more women executives to arise in Europe. Most European states utilize parliamentary systems, where prime ministers govern with cabinets. Positive perceptions of women’s abilities to negotiate and collaborate aid women in their pursuit of executive office. Western European executives lead within more consensus structures than do their Eastern counterparts. Several women, including Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, have entered power as prime ministers of parliamentary systems.

Dual executive arrangements (where both a president and prime ministers hold office) may indicate executive dependence and power fragmentation. Institutional arrangements simultaneously aid women’s incorporation as political leaders, but stymie women’s progress given their more restricted and collectively based authority. Following the transition from Soviet rule, several Eastern European countries invested presidents with powers far surpassing those of prime ministers. Eastern European women, however, fail to obtain dominant presidential posts since their profile involves masculine stereotypes. Substantial portions hold relatively weak authority as prime ministers under more dominant presidents (such as former PM Julia Tymoshenko of the Ukraine). Women face the most durable glass ceilings in obtaining the most dominant presidencies. To date, there has yet to be a dominant female president of a European country in France or in Eastern Europe, where such presidencies are common.

Women have made important strides in attaining executive office in Europe. At the same time, there are clear limitations. Women still are mainly relegated to weaker positions such as more symbolic presidencies or hold prime ministerships in consensus systems. This does not mean that women don’t lead in a diverse array of systems in Europe, some of which affording substantial. One need not be hard pressed to identify that one of the most powerful and visible women in the world is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany who has now held power for ten years. At the same time, Merkel’s case is actually the exception for women and not the rule. The types of positions and executive institutions common in this Europe are also the very ones that correspond with “feminine” stereotypes, which helps explain why more women have gained a foothold here.

Beyond political institutions political pipeline shapes women’s access to executive positions. Women’s rise in legislative institutions in the 1990s may partly explain women’s gains in presidencies and prime ministerships in the 2000s. Women executives often obtain extensive legislative experience before entering office, though they also regularly first access politics through activist movements. Such combined experiences appear unique to women. While activism offers important opportunities to women in Eastern Europe, it may also constitute an additional stage in the path to power that men do not need to encounter.

Women are also more likely to attain office as non-partisans, particularly the office of heads of state (including Iceland’s Former President, Vigdis Finnbogadóttir). Slightly greater numbers of women rise to power on leftist party labels, nearly all from within multi-party systems. Europe’s tendency to utilize multi-party systems likely explains women’s recent advances in their executive aspirations. Despite the increased number of female presidential candidacies, few women successfully win these contests, an illustration of the continued obstacles to their true incorporation.

Many more questions remain and must be conducted in future research. Do women presidents and prime ministers in Europe act on behalf of women’s policy interests and appoint more women to political positions? Do they heighten women’s political interest, engagement, and efficacy? Women often hold weaker and more dispersed authority, but whether this is due to specific gender stereotypes held by party leaders and the public remains unclear and likely requires experimental research. Since women executives disproportionately govern in Europe, further regional analysis would be most helpful in addressing these questions.

Overall, in assessing powers, women in Europe exercise more dispersed and restricted authority than their male counterparts, although important exceptions exist. Regional differences within Europe also surface, further demonstrating women’s uneven advances. Numbers, pathways and political clout shape women’s advancement in this historically male preserve, resulting in mixed progress overall.

Dr. Farida Jalalzai is an Associate Professor and Chair of Political Science at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. Her research focuses on women national leaders. Her first book Shattered, Cracked and Firmly Intact: Women and the Executive Glass Ceiling Worldwide (Oxford University Press 2013) offers a comprehensive analysis of women, gender, and national leadership positions. Currently, she is completing a book manuscript examining female presidents of Latin America including Laura Chinchilla (Costa Rica) Dilma Rousseff (Brazil), Cristina Fernández (Argentina) and Michelle Bachelet (Chile).

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