Mum, Can a Man be President?

Miren Gutiérrez // Published January 8, 2008 in Inter Press Service
ROME, Jan 9 (IPS) - "Do you think a man could ever be president?" the little boy in Ireland asks his mother. All his life he has only seen women presidents, currently Mary McAleese.

Joanne Sandler, deputy executive director for programmes at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), tells this little anecdote to show that in some places it can be routine for women to be found in leadership roles.

"In places like Ireland and Finland it is becoming less extraordinary to see a woman in power," says Sandler. And it is this kind of female power that could bring more women into leadership, she says.

"When you see women in positions of power, in ministries, obviously the self-image of girls changes, and they envision themselves in those places. But that kind of change will take a very long time, though it has started," she adds.

The change does not necessarily correspond to a nation's level of economic development.

Italy ranks 84 in the latest Gender Gap Index (GGI) of the World Economic Forum, where the number one marks the smallest gap. That places it behind Bolivia (80), Peru (75) or Armenia (70), even though it is among the world’s biggest economies.

Panama is number 38 among 128 countries surveyed, while Liberia with Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf as president is not ranked. Sri Lanka is ranked 15, the United States 31, Argentina 33, Mongolia 62, Indonesia 81, Nicaragua 90 and Bangladesh 100. The Philippines fares extraordinarily well at number six, after Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland and New Zealand. Pakistan ranks 126, with the biggest gap only after Yemen (128) and Chad (127).

Like national wealth, personal wealth is not an essential pre-requisite. "There is not a relationship between more money and less gender discrimination," says Sandler. "Money and power have an influence in those women achieving power. But money alone doesn't explain it.

"Look at the elections in Liberia. A woman who has education, a former employee of the World Bank and the U.N., with an impressive resume, against a man who had no high school education, a soccer player (George Weah). Imagine the opposite: against a man with Johnson-Sirleaf's background, would a woman with Weah's credentials be a serious contender? To be a contender for high level political office, women have to bring a lot of extra qualities in order to get into the race. They need the same things as a man, plus others."

Ayesha Kajee, researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs and board member of Transparency International's South Africa chapter, says "money is most certainly a partial equaliser for women, in terms of access -- access to education, capital, property and opportunity. But even amongst wealthy elites, men tend to wield considerably more power than women. Thus, wealth does not guarantee equity between men and women."

Supposedly developed societies which continue to operate under highly patriarchal and authoritarian family and leadership structures can on the other hand "institute policies that result in institutionalised and societal antipathy towards empowering women," Kajee says. "Women themselves in these societies are often tacitly complicit in the latter, because they have been socialised to think that access to power is undesirable, unfeminine or irreligious."

"There is a relationship (between gender and development), but change happens for many different reasons," says Sandler. "We observed in the 2002 edition of the Progress of the World's Women, looking at political participation, that as you empower women, you can for example legislate a quota without so much cost, that positive action is not so costly.

"If you look at those countries that have achieved or surpassed the 30 percent representation in parliament, they all have some sort of positive action. In that regard it is not a north-south issue or a question of level of development; it is about political will, and it can be independent of human development." That would explain why countries like the Philippines rank so high in the GGI.

It is some systems that favour gender empowerment more than others that can make a difference, says Kajee. "In purely electoral terms, PR (proportional representation) systems have been much more successful than FTPT (first-past-the-post or simple majority vote) systems in encouraging and opening up access to women's political participation.

"Countries that are economically underdeveloped but have prioritised girl child education or access to market opportunities for women, or that have legislative or traditional norms that encourage women to grasp opportunities, may be reaping the benefits of such policies in increased female leadership in political and corporate life," she says.

How transformational these women have been depends on many other factors.

"With more women entering politics, what we are now seeing is the complexity of how gender intersects with class, family, power, money," Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women's Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the U.S. told IPS in an interview. "The more women there are, the more gender plays a role; but not necessarily by itself."

The tipping point could be what Bunch and Sandler refer to as "critical mass", variously estimated to range from 10 to 35 percent of women in legislative institutions before major amendments in policy priorities can be introduced.

In January 2007, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU, an international organisation of parliaments) there were more women presiding officers of parliaments than ever before: 35 out of a total 262. Women speakers were elected for the first time in Gambia, Israel, Swaziland, Turkmenistan and the U.S.

"Four countries maintained or surpassed a critical mass of 30 percent parliamentary representation by women after elections in 2006," the IPU report says. "Sweden elected the highest number of women ever to its parliament; women now hold 47.3 percent of parliamentary seats there -- the second highest percentage in the world after Rwanda, where women occupy 48.8 percent of seats in the Lower House." In terms of political participation, this means more women candidates and women voters, Sandler says. "Also, supporting women's capacity to run for office. One of the main obstacles is the violence that women candidates face. Not only physical violence, but also how they are addressed, how they are reported on, which emanates from gender discrimination. And it is not confined to Africa."

Women leaders are under a different kind of scrutiny, she says. "They are still a novelty because it is so unusual...But there is great expectation from Johnson-Sirleaf and (Chilean President Michelle) Bachelet, by women and by others. Do they receive a greater level of scrutiny than others? Is it fair?"

* The second of a three-part report on women in leadership by IPS Editor-in-Chief Miren Gutiérrez.

** Thanks to Caroline Keller in Rome for the charts. (END/2008)