To many, the female leader evokes an image of development and progression – an understandable conception when considering the wealth of nations still yet to witness one. Only 70 of the 193 member states of the UN have ever been led by a woman, and 13 of those leaders held office for less than a year. But does the gender of a nation’s leader really reflect or impact its political and societal culture?
There are certainly reasons to celebrate women being elevated to governmental positions. Studies have shown that women lead more compassionately and empathetically, and many argue the exposure of girls and young women to powerful women has helped normalise female leadership and inspire continuation of the trend.
However, the female leader, like all leaders, must be scrutinised in her commitment to and her effect upon both women’s and human rights. With regards to women’s rights, the first elevation of a woman can appear to signify the shattering of the glass ceiling, initiating a collective pat on the back and a relaxation of work towards equality. However, the initial breakthrough of a woman into governance often fails to pave the way for other women to follow; it is not uncommon that nations have had one, and only one, female leader. Indeed, the UK’s first female Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, is famed for allegedly pulling the ladder up behind her, infamously promoting only one woman, her friend and confidante Baroness Young, to her cabinet in the eleven years she was in office.
Photo credit: Fawcett Society
Furthermore, female leaders are often incorrectly and harmfully assumed to automatically favour feminist agendas and the promotion of sexual equality. To continue the example of Thatcher, despite her appointment owing much to the female activists who went before her, Thatcher disparaged femininity, and her policies often failed to incorporate the needs of women or the financially disadvantaged who lacked the agency to ascend in a similar manner.
Fast forward a quarter of a century and the second woman to lead the UK, Theresa May, presents an even more complex relationship with women’s rights. May co-founded Women2win in 2005, an initiative aimed at the election of more female conservative MPs, and repeatedly criticised the incumbent Labour party’s failure to implement policies for contending with the gender pay gap. Despite her advocacy for gender equality earlier in her career, since the beginning of the current conservative leadership in 2010 and, in particular, since her own premiership in 2016, May has failed to bring to action the feminist values she purports to hold.
She has achieved little of significance with regards to women’s rights. 86% of government cuts have fallen on the shoulders of women, immigration policy has seen women deported or placed in detention centres where they are vulnerable to assault, and, following May’s disastrous second election, the government entered into an alliance with Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, which continues to hold outdated stances on issues such as abortion and LGBT marriage. Although May labels herself a feminist, analysis of her action, or lack thereof, suggests that these values resonated more strongly with her in the years before she was given the power to effect positive change for women, drawing into question the progress often assumed to be delivered in tandem with female leaders.
Photo credit: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland
In addition to assumptions regarding the influence of female leaders on women’s issues, their assumed effect upon human rights issues also needs to be called into question. Examples of female leaders neglecting to prioritise human rights extend globally; Aung San Suu Kyi, State Counsellor of Myanmar, was last week stripped of Amnesty International’s Ambassador of Conscience Award. This followed her failure to intervene in the military crackdown, which has caused 800,000 Rohingya Muslims to flee to surrounding countries in an act of mass ethnic cleansing. Sheikh Hasina, whose tenure as Prime Minister of Bangladesh has seen numerous alleged human rights violations, is currently persecuting Muhammad Yunus, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and strong advocate for women’s rights, out of fear of his political potential. Both of these women have prioritised their own political circumstances above the protection of human rights.
Arguably, the policies followed by a female leader tend to be overlooked or minimised simply due to expectations and assumptions based on their gender. Representations of female leaders in the media are often focussed less upon their policies than upon superficialities and gossip; they are consistently appraised on the basis of and through the lens of their gender. In March 2017, The Daily Mail infamously published a front page declaring ‘Never mind Brexit, who won legs-it!’ accompanied by a picture of Prime Minister May and First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon, two of the most powerful people in British politics. Within the newspaper were further derogatory appraisals of the leaders’ bodies and outfits, as well as quotes such as ‘finest weapons at their command? Those pins!’
Across the globe, Julia Gillard, the first female Prime Minister of Australia, admitted that she had thought that, following a short adjustment period, the public’s preoccupation with her gender would subside. However, Gillard received sexist abuse throughout her term in office, with the opposition’s campaign consistently targeting her gender and slogans such as ‘ditch the witch’ frequenting newspapers and political rallies. The media called her by her first name, whilst her male peers were referenced by their surname, and articles and broadcasts judged her based on her clothing, body, and tone of voice, assessing her political ability with an inordinately harsh scrutiny. In short, her term was viewed through her gender: she was a woman first, and a leader second. As elucidated by the case of Australia, while a nation having a female leader is admittedly a step forward symbolically, it by no means points to the eradication of sexism at a societal level.
So, a woman in power is assumed to be something to celebrate – and in many cases this is true. However, it is insufficient to label a female leader an unequivocal victory for women; it is still only an elite few who are accepted into what remains predominantly a man’s world, the door closed behind them. We must realise that a female leader does not necessarily go hand-in-hand with progressive politics. A leader’s commitment to upholding the human rights of the disadvantaged should be scrutinised by all, no matter their gender, as Amnesty have done through their appraisal of Suu Kyi as the recipient of their Ambassador award. Male and female leaders should be held to the same standards, but, equally, should be treated with the same level of respect; we must hold women accountable for their governmental decisions, not how well or poorly their suits accent their figure.
Symbolism is indeed vital and female representation plays a key role in the progression of women’s rights. But the female leader must be willing to use her influence and authority to actively engage with the movement and facilitate the ascendance of more women to power by prioritising the human rights of every single citizen.