A female political leader of America represents an undeniable milestone. While it has the potential to set an example for many young girls all over the world, it does not necessarily bring about a real step towards gender equality. To play the ‘woman card’, as Hillary Clinton has been accused of doing by many of her detractors, is a double-edged sword that can raise more than a few eyebrows. Female leaders are growing in numbers. However, this does not mean that all are choosing to focus on women’s issues. A tendency to reduce the gender gap can be seen in the political programmes of some male leaders, such as Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who formed his country’s first gender-balanced cabinet in 2015.
Hillary Clinton publicly acknowledged she is a feminist during an interview with the creator of TV series Girls Lena Dunham earlier this year. The former Secretary of State might not be the most popular Democratic candidate in history. Scandals continue to affect her credibility. Her choice to advocate women’s rights may be an inner calling, but could also be a smart political move. If Clinton becomes the first female US president, she has said she will be working to close the gender pay gap through the Paycheck Fairness Act, to ensure paid leaves and to protect women’s access to public health and abortion by supporting organisations such as Planned Parenthood.
The world’s most powerful woman, according to Forbes, is Angela Merkel. Merkel has never made women’s rights one of her priorities. Merkel has said that she did not class herself as a feminist when asked in 2013. The pragmatic German Chancellor has focused on other issues, such as maintaining a strong domestic economy in a time of financial crisis across Europe. Nonetheless, she has recently started taking an interest in gender equality in the workplace, while continuing to assure social stability. One step towards equality came with the 2015 legislation that required major companies to allocate 30% of seats on non-executive boards to women, in order to fight under-representation.
In 1979, Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first female Prime Minister and led the country through a turbulent period. After the EU Referendum, the Conservative party once again turned to a woman, choosing Theresa May to take the reins of the country after the EU Referendum. Prior to becoming Prime Minister, May co-founded ‘Women2Win’, a group within the Conservative Party, which promotes the greater participation of women in politics. As Prime Minister, May has the important task of monitoring the Brexit process. British women enjoy a comparatively narrow gender gap thanks to EU laws, but the departure from the European Union could result in a fiasco for equality.
‘Ready, female, President’. This is how Park Geun-hye promoted herself during 2012 South Korean presidential campaign. As with the majority of Asian female leaders, Park was born into the political world as the daughter of former President Park Chung-hee. Therefore Park had an early interest in politics. After the death of her parents, she devoted 30 years to perfecting her political skills and became the leader of the centre-right party. South Korea performs poorly on the Gender Inequality Index and Park showed no intentions of further shrinking the gender gap during her first term. It was only later that she became greatly concerned with the provision of support for childcare and equal wages.
When first in office, Nicola Sturgeon said she hoped her appointment would help young women to realise that “no glass ceiling should ever stop you from achieving your dreams”. As First Minister, Sturgeon has made inequality one of the government’s priorities. In 2014, Sturgeon assembled a cabinet with an equal gender balance and in 2016, approved a project to help women return to work after maternity leave. Sturgeon also encourages businesses to sign the Scottish Business Pledge, which promotes family-friendly workplace policies and gender balance. The political environment in which Sturgeon operates is somewhat unique, with three out of five main Scottish parties headed up by women.
As a divorced mother of three, tortured and exiled during the Chilean dictatorship; Michelle Bachelet has been a force for change in the conservative world of Chilean politics. After serving as the country’s first female Defence Minister, she became the first female president in 2005. During her presidency, she dramatically increased free childcare, appointed a gender-balanced cabinet, and established shelters for victims of domestic violence. Bachelet then went on to head UN Women and promote gender equality globally. When she returned to power in 2014, Bachelet caused controversy in the overwhelmingly Catholic country by challenging the abortion laws, which are among the strictest in the world.
Aung San Suu Kyi represents the most powerful contemporary symbol of the courage of women. The Head of State of the fledgling democracy of Myanmar dedicated her life to the pursuit of democracy in her country. She often criticised male domination, pointing out in her famous quotation: “In societies where men are truly confident of their own worth, women are not merely tolerated but valued”. Nevertheless, it is very difficult for a country like Myanmar to establish strong policies for gender equality. Classed as having “low human development” by the United Nations Development Programme, the democratization of Myanmar is very complicated because the government needs to first bring an end to what is, according to CNN, the “world’s longest running civil war”.
Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has often been referred to as the “other Iron Lady”. She has been the President of Liberia since 2006, Africa’s first female leader and the world’s first black female president. Johnson Sirleaf has proved to be an inspiration for other African female leaders by working to adhere to the Millennium Development Goals. She chairs the meetings of GlobalPOWER Network Africa, urging others to find strategies to end child marriage and to ensure fairer sexual and reproductive health and women’s rights.
Coming from different backgrounds, these leaders are helping to increase the image of politically and socially engaged women. They prove that dealing with gender issues can take many different forms, while also highlighting the discrepancy between the so-called “first-world feminism” of Western societies and women’s issues in developing countries. Gender equality might not be achieved by one individual in a single term as leader. However, should Clinton be elected as the first female president of the world’s most powerful nation, she would be ideally placed to make meaningful progress towards this goal.