Penetrating the Labyrinths – Women are slowly gaining top positions
This is a guest post by Torild Skard, Senior Researcher, Norway. Her most recent book is Women of power – Half a century of female presidents and prime ministers worldwide, published by Policy Press.
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’.
From 1960 until the end of 2010, a total of 73 women have held the position of president or prime minister in 53 countries. In 2010 there were 18 women in these positions – or 6 per cent of the world’s top leaders. This is more than before, but there is certainly a long way to go to attain gender balance.
All over the world national political institutions are dominated by men. Everywhere, politics is considered a male domain. How did 73 women manage to rise to the top, and what happened when they got to power? These are themes of my new book “Women of power”, the first to give a comprehensive overview of national women leaders in the period since World War II.
Women in Power
From 1960, a total of 32 women became presidents and 41 prime ministers around the world.
Many countries, in fact most of them in 2010, had only one politically elected top leader, whether a president or a prime minister. Some countries had a strong president who combined the position of head of state and government. In countries with a parliamentary system the prime minister was head of government and there was an appointed head of state (monarch or Governor General) with mainly a ceremonial role. Other countries elected both a president and a prime minister, who then were respectively head of state and government with a somewhat variable distribution of power.
Of the women top leaders two-thirds, 50 (68 per cent), rose to the top in countries with both a president and a prime minister. This is a clear overrepresentation. There were two top positions to compete for, so the chances of success could be greater, and it was perhaps reassuring that something as unusual as a woman top leader necessarily had to collaborate closely with a male colleague. Women obtained roles both as president and prime minister, and it was particularly in industrialized countries, Asia and partly Africa south of the Sahara, that they were part of a ‘top leader pair’.
Only 23 women (32 per cent) acquired top positions alone, and of these only 15 became strong executive presidents. They lived in Asia and Latin America. The others (8) were executive prime ministers, mostly in Western countries. Thus, it was extremely rare that women held political leadership positions with the most executive power and greatest autonomy.
The titles ‘president’ and ‘prime minister’ cover varying realities. In some countries the president is usually the country’s most powerful person, and the prime minister – if the role exists at all – functions mostly as an advisor. In a parliamentary system the roles are reversed. There the president – if the role exists – usually performs ceremonial duties, while the prime minister has executive power. In dual systems executive power is more or less evenly divided between the president and prime minister.
At the beginning of the 2000s, democratic countries with a strong president were more common than parliamentary systems around the world, but women more often rose to the top in countries with parliamentary systems. However, the difference was not great. 24 women (33 per cent) became national leaders in countries with a strong president and 28 (38 per cent) in parliamentary systems. Only a few, 10 (14 per cent), were leaders in dual systems. These systems were not very common, though. 11 (15 per cent) came to power in authoritarian or transitional regimes. There were most women leaders in presidential systems in Latin America and Sub-Saharan Africa and in parliamentary systems in Western and Eastern industrialized countries and Asia.
But women did not necessarily hold the most powerful positions in these different countries.
In countries with a strong president, 17 women were presidents and 7 prime ministers, while 7 were presidents and 21 were prime ministers in parliamentary systems. Apart from the three presidents of Switzerland, where there is a collective leadership, 35 women (48 per cent) held executive positions with considerable power, while 17 (23 per cent) held mainly ceremonial or positions with limited power, while 10 (14 per cent) shared power more or less evenly with a president or prime minister in dual systems. In authoritarian or transitional regimes 5 women had relatively strong positions, while 6 were clearly limited.
Why do women rise to the top in some countries but not others?
Rich Countries in the Forefront
In 1945, the United Nations emphasised that women and men should have equal rights. In the following years, the number of nation states increased dramatically and economic and technological developments gave women and men across the globe greater income, more education and better health. Living standards were highest in industrial countries and about 40 per cent of such countries had one or more women as heads of state or government. In developing countries this was the case for only about 20 per cent of countries. Thus conditions in industrial countries were more favourable for female leadership. People’s health, education and income were important, though they were not necessarily the only factors of importance.
It has been an advantage for women in politics that the number of democracies increased. Democracy is based on the principle that people are equal, and it is the people, not a limited elite, that should govern. This entails that women should participate in decision-making bodies.
In non-democratic systems women generally did not become national leaders. Only two women were prime ministers in authoritarian countries (Elisabeth Domitien in CAR 1975 and Milka Planinc in Yugoslavia 1982), while nine women rose to power in turbulent transitions where democratic systems were not in place or did not work, and/or where there were uprisings or civil war (Isabel Perón in Argentina 1974, Lidia Güeiler in Bolivia 1979, Sabine Bergmann-Pohl in GDR, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot in Haiti and Kazimiera Prunskiene in Lithuania 1990, Sylvie Kinigi in Rwanda and Agatha Uwilingiyimana in Burundi 1993, Ruth Perry in Liberia 1996 and Roza Otunbayeva in Kyrgyzstan 2010).
The great majority of women presidents and prime ministers obtained their positions in countries characterized as ‘democracies’. There were 62 women leaders in 48 countries. Most women leaders (23) rose to the top in liberal democracies in Western industrial countries, while some (10) did so in emerging democracies in Eastern industrial countries. Moreover, they were scattered over different regions. In Latin-America 8 rose to power in liberal democracies and 5 in emerging, in Asia 6 in liberal democracies and 5 in emerging and in Africa south of Sahara only 5 in emerging democracies.
If a democratic system is necessary for women’s political participation, it does not follow that it is sufficient. After World War II, Western industrial countries mostly had liberal democracies with political rights for women. But the systems were based on long-lasting male dominance, and women were not mobilized and welcomed in political institutions.
An international women’s movement arose during the 19th century in industrial countries and their colonies, among others in Sri Lanka and India where Bandaranaike and Indira Gandhi became prime ministers. Inspired by a new wave of feminism in the 1970s, more women started to participate in formal politics. Parties and governments were put under pressure to let women in, and especially from 1975 the United Nations and the international women’s movement supported each other mutually. The women’s movements presented demands and formulated policies, while the UN promoted change, collected data, organized debates and set standards. In many countries political institutions became more open for women, women’s influence increased and woman friendly decisions were made. Generally, the number of women increased in parliaments and governments.
When they rose to the top, at least half of the women national leaders benefitted, directly or indirectly, from women activists requiring more women in leading positions. This was the case also for Golda Meir and Margaret Thatcher, though they were seen as very critical to feminism. In Israel, women activists got gender equality as part of a socialist Zionist ideology, so Prime Minister Ben Gurion felt it was necessary to have at least one woman in the government. In the UK, pressure on the Conservative Party was created not only by the women’s movement, but also by the competing Labour Party, that took Barbara Castle into the cabinet as the first woman. Then the Conservative Party leader Edward Heath included Thatcher in his inner circle of men. At the time Meir and Thatcher were of the few women available who were qualified for a top position in politics.
In all regions the women top leaders had varied economic and social background. But regardless of their parents’ occupations and economy the daughters went to school and became an exceptionally well-qualified group. Practically all went not only to primary and secondary school, but also to higher education at college and university. They very often studied law, economics and political science in addition to other subjects.
Most of the women top leaders had far more education than the average person in the population. Many had long professional careers before they became political leaders, and thirty achieved very high positions. Reneta Indzhova in Bulgaria, for example, was head of an agency, Vaira Vike-Freiberga in Latvia was head of an institute, Ertha Pascal-Trouillot in Haiti was a supreme court judge, Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese in Ireland were university professors, Luisa Diogo in Mozambique was a director, Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua edited a newspaper, Maria Pintasilgo in Portugal was an ambassador and Chandrika Kumaratunga from Sri Lanka a researcher. It was unusual that men got high-level jobs, and even more that women got them. But more women top leaders had such positions than their male predecessors. More than men, women had to have high status to succeed.
At the same time as the women had employment, nearly all of them married and three quarters had children to take care of. Most had one, two or three, but Sylvie Kinigi in Burundi, Cory Aquino in The Philippines and Agatha Uwilingiyimana in Rwanda had four each and Ruth Perry in Liberia seven.
It has almost become a standard expression that a ‘glass ceiling’ blocks women’s way to leadership. But the study of women top politicians shows that the image of a glass ceiling is not only too simple, but also misleading. It gives the impression that there is only a single barrier, not that women encounter obstacles all the way, and it says nothing about what it takes to reach the ceiling. The metaphor also gives the idea that one can break the barrier with a blow, once and for all. But in fact, complex interactions between different factors make it possible or impossible for women to reach the top. Various barriers must be overcome, perhaps one barrier several times in different ways, and when one is overcome there are new obstacles.
Most men also have to go through a labyrinth to advance to the top in politics. But labyrinths for men are usually simpler than those women have to go through, with fewer dead ends, nooks, crannies and barriers and more support. Women most often start with a handicap and encounter more resistance of different kinds due directly or indirectly to their gender.
Tough Party Ladders
Most women presidents and prime ministers achieved political power through political parties. In addition to their professional careers they were active party members, climbed upwards in the party hierarchy and acquired various positions: executive board members, party leaders or deputies, Members of Parliament, Speakers, ministers, vice presidents or deputy prime ministers. It was neither fast nor easy. Although the vast majority of top women leaders acquired extensive political experience, the political credentials of male top leaders were generally greater. The women who nevertheless came to power, benefitted among others from support from a male mentor and their appeal to women voters, from unexpected events (such as the death of a prominent leader or disagreement among the male candidates) and times of crisis (such as armed conflict, transition from authoritarian to democratic rule and economic depression with unemployment and social unrest).
In Asia and Latin America several women based their careers on family relations, aiming to take over the position of a deceased father or husband. Chandrika Kumaratunga in Sri Lanka 1994 and Cristina Fernández in Argentine 2007 took over while their relatives (mother and husband respectively) still were alive. In addition, some women came to power as ‘outsiders’, due to their special occupational status or participation in organisations outside the political parties. Vigdis Finnbogadottir, for example, was director of Reykjavik theatre in Iceland and a well-known personality from TV, while Claudette Werleigh in Haiti was secretary general of the Catholic development organization Caritas.
Parliaments are central bodies in a democratic system. In addition to being important decision-making forums, they provide arenas for training and influence and form recruitment bases for national leaders. However, with the partial exception of the Nordic countries, the representation of women in parliament in the 1980s and 1990s was generally below ten per cent. It was only after the new millennium that the proportions on the average began to rise. But by 2010 there were still not more than 19 per cent women in parliament globally.
Countries with women top leaders generally had relatively high percentages of women in parliament. In these countries women’s rights were relatively strong and living conditions good. But there was no systematic relationship whereby a country had a woman national leader as the result of a certain representation of women in parliament, or that a top woman leader automatically led to an increase in the number of women MPs. For a woman to become a top leader many factors had to fit together, and even if they could have a positive effect, there was no automatic ‘trickle up’ or ‘trickle down’ between the national leader and parliament. Most of the female heads of state or government were therefore more or less solitary swallows as women in their role as leaders.
Openings or Obstacles
Recruitment to different political positions took place in different ways. There were usually direct elections to parliament, but the recruitment of women was hampered by little goodwill in the parties, few women candidates and unfavourable electoral systems.
The electoral system is a key factor. Majority vote in single-member
constituencies and proportional representation on the basis of party lists have been the most widespread systems, majority vote being most prevalent by the turn of the millennium. But proportional representation has generally been more favourable for women. Among the women national leaders considerably more rose to the top in countries using proportional representation (42 women or 58 per cent) than those using majority vote (15 or 21 per cent). The rest had other arrangements (5), were in a difficult situation of transition or did not have elections (11). Majority vote could thus inhibit not only women’s access to parliament, but also further advancement, particularly in parliamentary systems where top leaders had to pass by parliament.
Do women make a difference?
The women in question 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 and becoming the first among equals, without being engaged in ‘women’s issues’, whatever they might be. Examples are Margaret Thatcher in the UK elected in 1979, Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua 1990, Tansu Çiller in Turkey 1993 and Megawati in Indonesia 2001. Nearly half of the women tried to compromise, however, looking after both men’s and women’s interests. These include among others Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in Argentina 2007, Sheikh Hasina in Bangladesh 1996, Angela Merkel in Germany 2005, Indira Gandhi in India 1966, Mary McAleese in Ireland 1997, Zinaida Greceanii in Moldova 2008 and Luisa Diogo in Mozambique 2004. And one third, among them Gro Harlem Brundtland in Norway 1981, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan 1988, Helen Clark in New Zealand 1999 and Michelle Bachelet in Chile 2006, challenged male domination and explicitly promoted women friendly or feminist policies. So, some of the top women leaders did more, some less, but the vast majority did something to improve the status of women. It made a difference that a woman rose to the top instead of a man.
Towards the future
Overall, a small, but growing number of women have become heads of state and government in the world during recent decades. There is still a long way to go to obtain gender parity in the leadership of nations. It will take over two hundred years to get 50/50 men and women in the world’s governing bodies if the pace is as slow as hitherto.
To strengthen gender equality, a woman friendly democratization process must continue. In research and efforts to develop ‘democracy’ and ‘good governance’ the role of women and gender equality must have a central place. Woman friendly democratization is a complex process that requires institutional changes:
– To ensure that women can promote their interests on equal terms with men, focus must be put on the political culture and the political parties: recruitment to the parties, internal processes, elections and decision-making, training and policy development, financing of political activities and forms of political competition. Here the mass media play an important role.
– Parliament and government must become more representative. In many countries, the electoral system must be changed, and ‘critical measures’ such as quotas must be adopted to increase the recruitment of women.
– Further, ‘good governance’ must mean democratic governance with emphasis on participation, human rights and social justice. If women are to participate on a par with men, the status of caring work must be increased and men must assume their share.
– Finally, there must be an efficient state that can safeguard the interests of the community, protect human rights and promote social equality.
The women national leaders who met at the UN on 19 September 2011 underlined the following:
“Women’s political participation and decision-making across the world is fundamental to democracy and essential to the achievement of sustainable development and peace in all contexts – during peace through conflict and post-conflict and during political transitions.”
With more women as presidents and prime ministers with the support of women activists and men who promote equality, these aspirations are more likely to be met.
Torild Skard is a Senior Researcher in Women’s Studies at the Norwegian Institute of International Affairs in Oslo, specialising in women in politics. A pioneer in the women’s movement nationally and internationally, she was formerly a MP and the first woman President of the Norwegian Upper House. She has also been Director for the Status of Women in UNESCO Paris, Regional Director in UNICEF West- and Central Africa and Director General in the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. She has written numerous books and articles on women’s issues, particularly women in politics and travels widely studying and promoting the status of women.