When Satsuki Katayama was appointed as the sole female minister in Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s new cabinet in 2018, she immediately came face-to-face with the practical obstacles facing women in leadership positions.
Just before the declaration ceremony to mark the new government, Katayama was informed she was not dressed correctly for the occasion. Imperial Palace dress code stipulates that women must wear long dresses. So while the men spent the time before the ceremony relaxing and schmoozing with their fellow parliamentarians, Katayama hastily rushed out to find a more suitable outfit – just because she is a woman.
It is easy to dismiss such incidents as small annoyances, but when they occur on a daily basis they act as roadblocks and barriers to women assuming leadership positions. While women have made strides, particularly in advanced capitalist societies, this is still a new game for them – especially women of colour.
This week, US Democratic party presidential candidate Joe Biden announced that Senator Kamala Harris would be his running mate and future vice president if he wins the vote this November. This is frontier stuff – it is the first time a woman of colour has been given such a position on a major party ticket in the US. To some, this highlights how patriarchal the system remains as she had to have it bestowed upon her by a man – Biden. It remains to be seen if this is a real marker for progress, or a tokenistic effort on the part of the Democrats.
The fact is that the obstacles preventing most women from reaching positions of power remain firmly in place.
Dress codes, such as the one encountered by Katayama, are not the only thing to hamper women in parliaments around the world. Between 2004 and 2014, Silvana Koch-Mehrin served as a German Member of the European Parliament in Brussels. During that time, she became pregnant, gave birth and discovered that there were no facilities for women to care for babies, such as private areas where they might breastfeed or change nappies.
Unless they were happy to do these things on full display in meetings or in the chamber, women would be unable to carry out their parliamentary duties shortly after giving birth. “It was one of those requirements which are just not on the horizons of men,” she says now. “I could have just used my office to breastfeed but it is a parliament with many people working there, not just MEPs. Not all of them have private offices.”
Thanks in part to her own campaign, these facilities have since been installed for women in the European Parliament, where female participation has slowly but steadily risen every year since its first elections in 1979.
During her time as a politician and in parliaments around the world, Koch-Mehrin observed many direct and indirect obstacles to true equal participation. The Italian Parliament, for example, only recently removed the privilege for male parliamentarians to receive free haircuts. “It is a small symbolic element,” she says. But it sums up some of the inequalities that women face. While men got their hair cut on the spot during working hours, women had to take time out of their parliamentary duties to visit a hair salon – a distraction from their work and, therefore, a disadvantage.
As a result of what she learned during her time as a female parliamentarian, Koch-Mehrin now heads up the Reykjavik-based Women Political Leaders (WPL) global network of female politicians. The independent organisation has a mission to increase the number and influence of women in political leadership positions, and over the past decade, its research has highlighted the many non-legal barriers women still face.
“It is quite astonishing to see that more than 100 years after women were first given the right to vote (in Iceland), the first-ever elected woman president is still alive,” says Koch-Mehrin.
She is speaking of Vigdis Finnbogadottir who won the 1980 Icelandic presidential election and became the longest-serving elected female head of state in history, with nearly 16 years in office.
Iceland is far from the norm, of course. Despite some countries having had female heads of state before Finnbogadottir came to office, and since, the number of nations that have broken through the gender barrier to elect a woman leader is markedly low. The US, for one, is still struggling to get there.
“It is still a new phenomenon in political systems which have been set up and tailored to the needs of men for hundreds of years,” says Koch-Mehrin. “Women are still the ‘new’ group trying to get in.”
Women of colour
The climb to the top is even more fraught for women of colour, even in political systems which have made traction in the effort to ease the passage of women generally.
In strongly multicultural societies such as the US and the United Kingdom, the evidence of this is especially marked. Take, for example, the racial and misogynistic abuse suffered by female politicians of colour in the UK.
Diane Abbott is a former shadow Home Secretary in the UK. According to research by Amnesty International, she received nearly half – 45 percent – of all the abusive tweets sent to female MPs in the run-up to the general election in June 2017.
Women of colour, and Black women in particular, have to work twice as hard to show they are qualified.
The Amnesty researcher, Azmina Dhrodia, said that deleted tweets could not be counted in this, so the true extent of the abuse was probably much worse. Even when Abbott was excluded from the total, Black and Asian female MPs were found to receive 35 percent more abusive tweets than their white peers.
Amanda Hunter is head of research at the Barbara Lee Family Foundation in Cambridge, Massachusetts, which campaigns to advance women’s representation in US politics. She says: “In addition to facing gender bias, women of colour have to contend with racial bias on the campaign trail.”
“Women candidates have to prove to voters they are up to the job. Women have to show they can get results, while men can simply release their resume.”
“Women of colour, and Black women in particular, have to work twice as hard to show they are qualified, particularly on issues like economic credentials. Women of colour also seem to face more ‘electability’ doubts than their white male counterparts.”
‘A systemic problem’
It has been 100 years since some women first won the vote and it is approaching 100 years since the first woman was elected to the House of Commons in the United Kingdom. Yet women remain significantly underrepresented there, making up only 32 percent of all MPs.
“While progress has been made, a significant amount of work is still needed to ensure that parliament reflects a diverse range of voices,” says Sam Smethers, CEO of the Fawcett Society, a group which campaigns for women’s greater participation in public and the workplace in the UK.
First, it is not true that legal barriers have been entirely removed for most women in most places, as the 2019 World Bank Business and Law report illustrates.
The report scrutinises laws and regulations which may hinder women entering the workplace or starting businesses in 187 countries around the world, giving each a score out of 100, with the average being 74.71. These regulations range from legal rights to societal regulations, such as women being allowed to leave home without the permission of a male relative. It is clear from this research that the situation is more dire for women in some countries than others.
It is quite amazing to me that only six countries are treating men and women equally in the law.
Until last year, women in Saudi Arabia were subject to the country’s strict guardianship law, which required women to seek permission from a male relative in matters of work, leisure, finances, law and health. This was relaxed last year and women may now obtain a passport and travel without the permission of a male relative, and some workplace discrimination protections have been implemented. Still, Saudi remains at the bottom of the index with a score of just 25.63.
While the playing field remains far from even in sub-Saharan African countries and South-East Asia, these are in fact, where the greatest improvements have taken place over the past 10 years.
Sub-Saharan Africa had the third-highest increase in the average regional score, moving from 64.04 to 69.63 over the decade. South Asia was where the greatest regional rise was observed, moving from 50 to 58.36. This was followed by East Asia and the Pacific, which went from 64.8 to 70.73.
The report stated: “Most top reformers introduced sexual harassment laws or mandated non-discrimination in access to credit. One-third of the top reforming economies removed job restrictions on night work or on certain job types.”
Only six countries – Belgium, Denmark, France, Latvia, Luxembourg and Sweden – score the full 100 marks in the Women, Business and Law Index. None of them scored 100 10 years ago, however, indicating that there has been some progress at least.
France has made the most progress in this time, going from a score of 91.88 in the index in 2009 to 100 in 2019, by implementing domestic violence laws, providing criminal penalties for workplace sexual harassment and introducing paid parental leave.
“It is quite amazing to me that only six countries are treating men and women equally in the law,” says Koch-Mehrin. “It is very much a systemic problem.”
Practical issues like dress codes and a lack of facilities for mothers are elements that impede women.
“The problem is the way the system works,” says Smethers. “If you’ve got a family and kids at school and you are juggling the commute to parliament, then women are less able to nurse a seat.”
Much of this is down to the expectations placed on women by society generally – the phenomenon termed the “Second Shift” in the US and “Wifework” in the UK, after the books by the same names by Arlie Hochschild and Susan Maushart respectively.
Anthony Pahnke, an associate professor in international relations at San Francisco University, where he also focuses on political leaders in the US and Latin America, attributes this as the main issue facing women in advanced capitalist societies.
In the US workforce, women are immigrants. And politics remains a man's realm.
“Since women have entered the workforce, they have ended up having two jobs,” he says. “Women’s roles have changed in the outside world, but they are still seen as being responsible for the home.”
“I always have students who say ‘that’s an old way of thinking’, but it’s not. It shows up all the time in people’s opinions.”
“In the US workforce, women are immigrants. And politics remains a man’s realm.”
In 2014, WPL carried out a global study on the non-legal barriers that hamper the careers of women business and political leaders. “We looked at why, despite companies giving the same particular rights to men and women, in the majority of countries we still don’t get the same level of participation. It is the same throughout the world,” Koch-Mehrin says.
“The question is not exclusive to politics at all. It is a combination of having family and work and the assumption that it is for the woman to find the solutions. The question of managing home and work is not asked in any way of men.”
Furthermore, she says, women have to gain the approval of their families before they can even begin to try juggling the two. “Women are still seeking the consent and permission of their families. This is a question men do not have to worry about in most cases.”
In 2018, The Fawcett Society conducted research into how parliamentary candidates are selected by political parties in the UK. “Overwhelmingly across the political parties, we found that those doing the selecting had a very rigid idea of an ideal candidate in their minds – and this was overwhelmingly a white, middle-class man,” says Smethers. “So, when they meet women candidates, they are already not ‘what they had in mind’.”
“We had lots of quotes from women about being asked about their childcare arrangements and who would look after the household. The idea that they might have a spouse who could accommodate that is just not entertained.”
‘Men are just assumed to be qualified’
Social stereotypes, therefore, are very much at play. “Men are just assumed to be qualified,” says Hunter. “Women have to prove they are qualified over and over. So, it is important for them to showcase that they can get results and to highlight their successes.”
“Women have to be over-prepared. There is no room for mistakes.” She believes this is the reason that several countries with women leaders have fared better with the coronavirus pandemic, for example, about which there has been a great deal of media attention. Women simply cannot afford to get it wrong.
In New Zealand, for example, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been praised for her sympathetic communications style and for the fact that the country’s coronavirus peak was in April while there have been only 22 deaths in a population of five million.
“When women run for governor, in addition to running an election campaign, we have to run a campaign of belief. Men don’t have to do that. It is because of the stereotype that women are not as qualified.”
In 2018, WPL launched its Reykjavik Index of G7 and BRIC countries, examining the way that women are viewed and stereotyped when it comes to being chosen as political leaders. “We found the stereotype is strongly that women are less suitable for positions of leadership. It is a combination of this and the unequal starting positions that means we are not there yet,” Koch-Mehrin says.
Research undertaken by the Barbara Lee Family Foundation strongly supports this finding. “When we researched this, the voters we talked to acknowledged that women were being held to a higher level of account,” Hunter says.
For women, ambition is a four-letter word. It is very threatening to some people.
As a result, women candidates tend to hold themselves to a higher account as well. “We researched candidates and found that although men and women reported consuming the same amount of media, women were still three times as likely to say they did not feel informed enough [to make executive leadership decisions about important issues].”
“For women, ambition is a four-letter word. It is very threatening to some people. But women are starting to stand up for each other and for themselves,” she adds.
In his work on political leaders in the US and Latin America, Pahnke has found a common theme – the assumption that women can’t “do” economics.
“There has been a lot of research about the obstacles women face in politics both here and in Latin America that I have studied,” he says. “It seems that when politics becomes economics, women candidates do poorly.
“There is a lot of inequality in the US and also in 2016 [at the time of the last presidential election], trade was a major issue. It was not just the connection between Hillary Clinton and NAFTA, but there was also the gender issue and this idea that women can’t do economics.”
He believes this is one of the reasons Elizabeth Warren’s bid to be the Democratic presidential candidate was unsuccessful.
“There is no issue with Elizabeth Warren’s competence,” he says. “Her camp issued many policy statements on everything from agriculture to banking and asking people for ideas about food and farming. She would have been a great president.
“Take the Medicare For All issue. Bernie [Sanders] gave no answers about this. Warren did give answers and dropped in the ratings, because there is a blindness about women’s ability to manage the economy.”
National politics a step too far
While people are far more accepting of women in local politics, says Smethers, there is also a blindness about their suitability for national leadership.
“The public will vote for them at the local level,” she says. “There is data that shows the public say they want to see women in politics because they feel they will represent them better. But when it is higher up, they are more exposed and, if they don’t look and sound like macho men, they aren’t taken as seriously.”
This is compounded by the fact that women have limited access to finance and networks when it comes to promoting themselves for leadership positions. In the US, for example, the system is deeply patriarchal in the way it operates with family political dynasties and access to wealth, says Hunter.
“A lot of the positions in Congress and the Senate have become family positions … and it is extremely important to have financial support.”
Koch-Mehrin adds: “We well know that women don’t get the same access to and share of donors and finances for campaigns. Political parties give less to women candidates.”
As a result of all these factors, women also face a lot more abuse when they do take public office – yet another deterrent to taking prominent positions in public life. The fact is that large sections of society remain vehemently opposed to women in public life.
According to figures from the United Nations and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), more than 80 percent of women parliamentarians report having been the target of online harassment and abuse. This ranges from quips about their attractiveness all the way to physical violence – sometimes fatal, as in the case of the UK MP Jo Cox who was shot and stabbed to death in 2016 by a far-right activist. In 2018, the Brazilian politician Marielle Franco was murdered in similar circumstances in her car. In that case, the two murder suspects had previously been photographed with the country’s president, Jair Bolsonaro. Both women had endured campaigns of online abuse as well.
“Online harassment and abuse are so bad for women, with death threats and rape threats. This is a massive deterrent to women from taking part in politics,” says Smethers.
“Women have a very tough time in public life. Everything about them is micro-analysed – whether they are married, have children etc – and the scrutiny can be tiring and threatening,” adds Koch-Mehrin.
Such scrutiny is also hugely distracting and time-wasting for women who should be free to direct their attention to their work and candidacies, says Hunter, setting them at yet another disadvantage not faced by their male peers.
“When you look at women senators – this is a very good example of one of the obstacles that women face – they pay a much higher price if they make a mistake.”
Senator Kamala Harris, the California Democrat who announced she was running as a presidential candidate last year – and who is now running for vice president alongside Joe Biden – was roasted after saying in a light-hearted interview that she listened to rap artists like Tupac and Snoop Dogg while she smoked cannabis in college, when in fact, the albums she referred to were released after she had graduated.
“She ended up having to defend that mistake for days afterwards, which distracts from her political aims,” says Hunter. “Men can just laugh off such gaffes, but women have to defend themselves.”
Women are held to standards that men do not have to meet. In 2019, for example, Politico ran an article entitled “Warren battles the ghosts of Hillary” and tweeted it out with the comment: “How does Elizabeth Warren avoid a Clinton redux – written off as too unlikeable before her campaign gets off the ground?”
“Asking whether she was ‘likeable’ enough – there was a huge social media response of outrage driven by women to that,” says Hunter. “Women are totally fed up and just don’t want to put up with this blatant sexism anymore – even just four years after 2016 [when Hillary Clinton lost the presidential vote to Donald Trump].”
Smethers points to the way women are objectified in the media as well. “You get the media talking about [First Minister of Scotland] Nicola Sturgeon’s legs and there is so much about what they wear.”
The result is a very limited existence for women politicians unless they are brave enough to endure the abuse that results from putting their heads above the parapet, even just a little.
But … Margaret Thatcher
Many of those who dismiss the idea that women face tough obstacles to leadership positions point to the one notable exception – Margaret Thatcher, who served as prime minister of the UK from 1979 to 1990.
But, says Smethers and others who have studied her tenure, Thatcher achieved this by emulating a male style of leadership.
“Margaret Thatcher had a very populist quality – council house sales, selling shares in British Gas. People felt they were on a journey of improving their lives. She played to the aspirations of people.”
“But she had to show the men she could cut it. She couldn’t demonstrate any weakness. She was always across all the details – nothing ever got past her. Her power base was about her being the Iron Lady.”
“She didn’t make it easy for women to follow her. She didn’t address the systemic barriers. She just operated within them.”
By contrast, says Koch-Mehrin, Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany, has not merely stepped into the male template for political leaders. Instead of ruling with an iron fist or taking charge with “macho” decisiveness, Merkel has built her position on consensus and acceptance.
“Angela Merkel knows how the system works,” says Koch-Mehrin. “Women tend to have a much shorter time in politics than men because of informal rules and backroom deals. These are not part of the official rule book and they are not available to women.”
“Angela Merkel is different to this. She knows every single person in her party. She has worked with all the international leaders so she is acquainted with the unwritten rules.”
“But she has a very different style to the men in her speeches. She doesn’t shout and take off her jacket to roll up her sleeves. She has a more analytical, less engaging way of speaking. She doesn’t throw her fist on the table.
“Her style is weighing options and building a solid ground of consensus, which takes time. She gets people on board and then makes the decision. She is better at building consensus and collaborating.”
“In the pictures of her at party congress, the media takes note of how many seats away from her people are placed. But she never says it herself.”
“Her personal credibility is that she wants to serve. She lives in a modest apartment and she doesn’t go on billionaires’ yachts. She has a down-to-earth lifestyle unlike many male leaders.”
Rejecting the male template
Is the answer, therefore, for women to stop just trying to emulate men in order to get into positions of power? After all, doing so only results in one-off successes such as Margaret Thatcher, solving none of the obstacles faced generally by women.
This is something which is finally starting to happen, says Hunter. “With millennial women, you can really see a change there. They have been very motivated by the #MeToo movement. Women are stepping up more than ever now.”
Instead of just stepping into a male template, more women are starting to present themselves as full human beings – taking the “360 degrees approach”, as Hunter terms it.
Presidential elections can become referendums on masculinity.
Hunter points to the example of Ayanna Pressley, the US Representative for Massachusetts Seventh Congressional district, and a woman of colour.
“Ayanna Pressley is an example of a 360-degree candidate, as are many of the women who were elected to Congress in her class (post 2016). Instead of trying to fit into an outdated template that was created for a man, women are showing voters the whole of their human experience and how it will influence the way they lead.”
For example, during her campaign, Pressley talked about having to work to pay for college as a way to show voters in her district she understood their financial challenges. She talked about being a survivor of sexual assault, and about having family members in the criminal justice system.
Hunter says another good example of this is Senator Tammy Baldwin who ran an advert during her campaign about her mother’s addiction. Republican Senator Martha McSally is another woman who has talked about being a survivor of sexual assault.
“By showing different sides of their lived experiences, women are demonstrating to voters they are in touch with the everyday challenges Americans face. We know from our research, that this is very important. We saw this during the 2020 cycle when Elizabeth Warren talked about facing pregnancy discrimination, and Senator Harris talked about being bussed to school as a child.”
Smethers adds that women leaders are starting to allow themselves to demonstrate different characteristics from men, such as lack of complacency, which may go some way to explain why some women leaders seem to have managed their countries’ experience of the coronavirus pandemic better than their male peers.
“Male leaders can use a very macho style and a big weakness is complacency. Boris Johnson going out and shaking hands with people at a hospital, for example, shows a very cavalier approach. A lot of our leaders just didn’t take the pandemic seriously enough.”
That is not a mistake most women leaders made – as can be seen by the way the pandemic was managed in New Zealand, Iceland, Germany and San Francisco among other places.
“Second is the quality and style of communications,” says Smethers. “Women tend to be more open, more human and more reassuring. In New Zealand and Germany, you have got a different style of communicating with the country. It just feels like they care more.”
Do some political systems work better for women?
Unsurprisingly, the countries leading the way with women leaders are frequently those which have granted more access to women systemically. “Countries with women at the top have different systems,” says Hunter. “We have found that voters are open to supporting women to be part of a deliberative body. If that deliberative body then puts them into the leadership position and, once voters see them in that position, they are more likely to vote for them again.”
According to Pahnke, parliamentary rather than presidential systems are more likely to facilitate this as well. “Presidential elections can become referendums on masculinity.”
“In Germany and New Zealand, there are more opportunities for voters to express themselves through different party choices – there are more electoral choices,” he says. “For example, in Germany, there is a viable Green Party with parliamentary seats.”
“Parliamentary systems also give rise to leaders who can make compromises because they have to form coalitions by necessity or they can’t run the government.”
“When you have more party choices, parties can focus more on one or two issues which may appeal particularly to women, and therefore to more women candidates.”
We are seeing women engaged and active in a different way - it feels different. It feels like change is more possible than ever.
Similarly, when people are generally more open to progressive ideas, they will be more likely to accept women candidates, says Smethers. “New Zealand is perhaps just more progressive generally. It was one of the first countries to give women the vote and they are much more active on human rights issues. One bit of progressive thinking opens the mind to others.”
Koch-Mehrin believes that systems which have seen higher numbers of women in political power are the ones which have reformed the way they work – such as the changes made in the EU Parliament to accommodate mothers of babies.
But, mostly, it is a matter of building a history of more women in power to create a new “normal” which voters will start to accept without questioning.
“In Finland, for the third time, we see a government that has more women ministers than men. So, it’s no longer big news in Finland.”
“This is a numbers game – just increasing the numbers of women in power is hugely important.”
Similarly, in the EU, the numbers of women in parliament have increased every year since the first elections in 1979 – rising to nearly 40 percent now.
The fact that women have started to come out in much greater support of each other – sparked by the #MeToo campaign – is crucial, says Hunter.
“After 2016, there was the women’s march in 2017 and a record number of women were elected to office in the US. This last round of presidential nominations, we had six women on the presidential slate and much more diversity as well. So, there are people growing up now who won’t remember a time that women weren’t up there on the candidacy lists.
“This cycle has been so different to the run-up to 2016. Voters have been able to see women debating and supporting each other this time around. This is what will build a foundation for people to start to see voting for a woman as no big deal.
“We are seeing women engaged and active in a different way – it feels different. It feels like change is more possible than ever.”
Using quotas – ‘men are not there on merit’
If having more women in power is the key to more women becoming leaders, then, many argue, quotas are an essential tool to achieve this.
The idea of using quotas is hotly contested, however. As a result, WPL does not take a formal stance either way because the members of its network disagree about the usefulness of quotas.
However, Koch-Mehrin says: “My personal view is, yes, we do need quotas in order to normalise the idea of women in power.”
Quotas can, in fact, be used to motivate men to become more active in promoting female candidates, she says. The constitution of the German Green Party, for example, stipulates that there must be equal numbers of men and women candidates, which means that men simply can’t run for office unless they ensure a woman is running as well.
“If a party sets it up as a rule, then it becomes normal,” says Koch-Mehrin.
You have to intervene. Around 80 percent of countries with more than 30 percent women MPs have used intervention to achieve that. If you just wait for it to drip through, it doesn't happen.
In the US, where quotas for women are unpopular, it is clear that women are hampered from achieving the top positions. The Barbara Lee Family Foundation has conducted research which shows that to be a woman president, a woman will need to have a track record of holding mayorships and governorships, Hunter says. But, until parties start actively promoting women to winnable seats, this is unlikely to happen any time soon.
While the post-2016 backlash to the election of Donald Trump saw record numbers of women elected to positions of power in the US – a record-breaking 103 women were elected or re-elected to the House of Representatives – says Pahnke, female representation remains low in the US.
“There has been talk about a surge in numbers, and there has been one, but it is still very low,” he says. “We have 23 percent women in the House of Representatives – that is very low. This is a major issue in the US because there is no institutional support for women candidates.”
“The US is really bad for this. Even where there are quotas for women, they don’t allocate resources to make it work. There is nothing to do that in the US.”
Smethers adds: “Where we improve women’s representation generally, there we get more women leaders.”
“In the UK, the left-wing parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats, are progressive in regards to women’s shortlists. The Conservative Party, however, says they want women to get there on merit. But the men are not there on merit.”
As a result, only 24 percent of Conservative MPs in the UK are women, while 51 percent of Labour MPs and 66 percent of Lib Dem MPs are women.
“Labour has taken 20 years to achieve this, but they have also got better at placing women into electable seats,” says Smethers.
“You have to intervene. Around 80 percent of countries with more than 30 percent women MPs have used intervention to achieve that. If you just wait for it to drip through, it doesn’t happen.”
Indeed, we may be in the centennial year for women’s suffrage in the West, but it took more than 70 years for women to get the vote in the first place. Change is slow and, even if women do become more accepted as potential leaders, it will take time for this to become unexceptional.
When the Barbara Lee Family Foundation researched voters’ attitudes to the suitability of women to hold leadership positions, it found that voters frequently said they would vote for a “qualified” woman. “Men are assumed to be qualified; women are not,” says Hunter.
In a particularly grim moment, Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand, once said that the true measure of equality would arrive when there are as many mediocre women in positions of power as there are mediocre men. What a goal to strive for.