The number of female politicians is growing
In October 2021, Najla Bouden took office as Prime Minister of Tunisia, and she became the very first female prime minister of the Arab world. From Singapore to Slovakia, Tanzania to Kosovo, a growing number of women are taking office as Head of their State. However, the political sphere is still overwhelmingly masculine and the traditional notion that politics is a man’s job is hard to change. Female leaders often face an additional set of challenges because, in societies that still associate authority with manhood, what happens when a woman leads? Must she lead “like a man”? Or has our notion of power finally changed to include traditionally feminine traits as well?
Firstly, let’s talk about gender: Gender norms are a set of social expectations of men, women, and other genders. They vary in nature and magnitude with cultural contexts, time periods and social groups. For centuries, women in most cultures were seen as nurturing, emotional, and as followers rather than leaders. Men, on the other hand, were viewed as rational, strong leaders. Often, individuals who take on characteristics of the other gender were looked down upon: A display of intense emotion would be a sign of weakness in a man, but of sensitivity in a woman. An assertive speech delivered by a man will be deemed “bossy” when coming from a woman. Importantly, authority and power were traditionally seen as masculine traits.
Dressing for the job
Where power belonged to men, embracing masculine attributes seemed a logical approach for female leaders. A strikingly visual example of this is the 1980s trend of “power dressing”. In their effort to gain power in male-dominated professional and political environments, women dressed in clothing adapted from men’s professional garments. With oversized cuts and padded shoulders, a masculine silhouette was a way to convey authority and be taken seriously. To this day, women leaders often get a disproportionate amount of attention paid to the way they dress. Julia Gillard, Australian Prime minister, famously deplored that too much time is spent talking about how women in politics look, rather than what they do or say. Even more concerning is how likely female political leaders are to be subject to online abuse, particularly sexualised abuse. In this context, appearance is therefore not only a question of esthetic preference, but also of political authority and personal safety.
An impossible balance
Additionally, the actions and words of female politicians are often met with a specific set of expectations. As former Nigerian finance minister Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala explains: “to be viewed as a leader, they [women] have to stay balanced on a tightrope between strength and empathy”. Female leaders must face the seemingly impossible task of being tough enough so that they are taken seriously, but gentle enough so that they meet the feminine societal standards. A tiring balancing act which makes achieving political goals all the more difficult.
The “Iron” lady
First elected in 1979, Margaret Thatcher was the first female British prime minister and the second in European history. A highly polarising figure, she is remembered for her authoritative and uncompromising leadership style. She was called the “Iron lady” by a Soviet journalist, a nickname meant to be derogative and used briefly after by Soviet officials. Outwitting the Soviet propaganda, Thatcher quickly adopted the name herself during her first election campaign. It followed her throughout her career and is still used today to describe strong-willed female politicians. Thatcher’s politics attracted a great deal of criticism for her highly conservative ideology, and it is worth noting her "iron" leadership style was the polar opposite to a gentle, empathetic, and therefore stereotypically feminine leader. If her actions were led by conviction and the political context of the time, her gender might have played a part in both her leadership and its public reception. Women in power are often faced with a double standard, where being perceived as tough is expected from a male politician, but often looked down upon for a female politician: Why is Iron Lady a derogatory term when Iron Man is a superhero?
Female leadership in times of crisis
Now that a growing number of women are joining politics and taking on leadership roles in the professional sphere, we might be seeing a shift. More and more, women are praised for their leadership style, embracing traits such as decisiveness, empathy and compassion alike. And with Africa's first female president, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, being a Harvard graduate and Europe's economic heavyweight, Germany, having been led by a female physicist for 16 years, the times of attributing rational thinking exclusively to men should be confined to the past. The Covid-19 pandemic has sparked a promising discussion about female leadership as studies show female-led countries did systematically and significantly better at handling the first months of the pandemic than their male-led peers. Taking the threat seriously quicker than their male counterparts, female politicians put in place decisive policies and inclusive responses that saved many lives. Some believe their success at handling the crisis was due to feminine “protective characteristics”, such empathy and compassion, to which the population responded better than the military analogies used by leaders such as Emmanuel Macron (France) or Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa (Portugal). However, while such an argument can be well-intended to advance much-needed gender diversity in the political sphere, it might not be the most useful one. We must remember that the notion of women being empathetic and men being authoritative are social norms, not built-in qualities that each only belong to one half of the population.
Norms shift and evolve with society. Maybe the growing importance of female politicians offers us a chance to reevaluate what political power should look like. Rather than ruling female leaders as inherently more or less gifted, we should envisage what politics as a whole would be like when we value empathy as much as we do decisiveness, compassion as much as grit, and patience as much as determination, regardless of whether those characteristics are portrayed by a man or a woman in power.
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