A few weeks ago an evocative meme was making the social media rounds: a picture of the leaders of Germany, New Zealand, Belgium, Finland, Iceland and Denmark with the caption “COVID-19 is everywhere but countries with heads of state managing the crisis better seem to have something in common…” Of course the answer was that they were all women. The narrative is that from Angela Merkel of Germany to Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand to Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan (as well as the leaders of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, and Norway), it does appear that countries who have female leaders at the helm are proving to be faring better during the pandemic thanks to their effective handling of the response to the COVID-19 crisis.
It’s important to underscore this story because it counteracts a long-held false narrative that somehow women aren’t as well suited or prepared to be leaders—and that leadership in general, particularly as heads of state, is the more natural realm of men. This false notion can lead to many misconceptions with damaging outcomes. For example, it fosters a self-perpetuating belief that somehow women candidates aren’t electable or may be a political risk, which may be part of the reason we have yet to elect a female president here in the United States.
Women are still so vastly underrepresented in all levels and sectors of leadership here in the US and around the world. According to Axios, at the start of this year, only 15 of the 193 United Nations countries were led by women, and that has now dropped to 13. Women currently make up only 23.7% of the US Congress and only 5.8 % of Fortune 500 CEOs—and these numbers fall even lower when it comes to women of color.
The efficacy of female leaders handling this pandemic, and what we can learn from what leadership qualities and skills women bring to leadership, are lessons worth noting as we seek to rebuild our country, economy, and address the many problems we face as a nation and world. We need women leaders, and leaders of all genders can learn the traits these women model as we create new updated paradigms of leadership.
While Marianne is right to encourage readers to learn about how these women are leading it's also very important to consider the recruitment norms and voting systems used around the globe that are electing more women to office and helping to normalize women's power. The strong correlation between the use of quotas and proportional representation and women's electoral success in the majority of nations that rank above the United States in women's representation grounds RepresentWomen's advocacy for electoral reforms in the US.
Scholars have traditionally described democracy as something that unfolded in three distinct global waves. The so-called first wave of democracy—from the mid-nineteenth century to the years immediately following World War I—occurred when countries ended voting restrictions that affected lower-class men. Countries removed property and literacy restrictions on voting, but these changes only benefited men, and sometimes only men from the country’s majority racial, ethnic, or religious group. After World War II, a second wave of democracy followed, which featured decolonization in Africa and Asia, as well as the expansion of women’s suffrage. When the Soviet Union fell in 1989, it fueled a third wave of democratization, which engulfed not just Eastern Europe but also Latin America, as the region shed its military dictators and ended its civil wars. These changes were so dramatic that public intellectual Francis Fukuyama proclaimed the end of history: democracy was now the only game in town.
Setting aside the question of whether the wave analogy best captures historical and political trends, it is indisputable that marking democratic progress in this fashion bears little connection to women’s rights. As political scientist Pamela Paxton notes, the dates of democratic transitions would look very different “if one simply substitutes the requirement of female suffrage for male suffrage.” Countries such as the United States and France were celebrated for becoming democracies even before the first wave, but they didn’t enfranchise women until 1920 and 1944, respectively.
And this scholarly trend of ignoring women’s place in democracy continues. As recently as 2016, a retrospective on the third wave of democratization in the Annual Review of Political Science examined the role of civil society in supporting democratic institutions and asked whether societies with deep ethnic or religious divides could sustain their newfound trust in competitive elections—but never mentioned women or gender equality at all.
At the same time, women’s and feminist movements have worked tirelessly to point out—with increasing urgency—that the franchise alone has not improved women’s lives or status. Historically, the easiest route for women to gain elected office was to be appointed by a man, particularly to fill the seat of a departing or deceased husband, father, or brother. By the mid-twentieth century, women began seeking election in their own right, often encountering formidable barriers such as financial obstacles, gender stereotypes, and outright intimidation and violence.
Melanne Verveer as the first U.S. Ambassador-at-Large for Global Women’s Issues in 2009, there was no equivalent post anywhere in the world. The role was established “to raise the importance of women’s perspectives and participation in all areas of our foreign policy engagement,” Verveer told us. “The Administration noted that this was in the interests of U.S. national security and [...] that we can’t possibly begin to solve our pressing foreign policy challenges—from growing economies and advancing peace and security to addressing climate change and more—without women’s full participation and engagement.”
Since then, a growing number of nations have taken steps to institutionalize gender equality and women’s empowerment as a policy priority in the areas of diplomacy, defense, aid, and trade. For a few—namely Canada, France, Mexico, and Sweden—this means an explicit feminist foreign policy that places equality at its center. For others, it takes the form of budget targets for foreign aid, ministry-wide strategic guidance, and personnel parity measures. And for some, it involves the appointment of high-level positions focused on women and girls.
Magi Thomley Williams is public relations director for Wind Creek Hospitality and a business trainer. (Photo: Courtesy)
As our island’s first maga’håga, working with a two-thirds majority female Legislature, 19 female directors in my cabinet, and having had a female chief justice of the Supreme Court of Guam swear me into office, it would be simplistic of me to say that women’s fight for equality is over. It may appear that way on the surface.
Women have fought and won many battles for equality since gaining the right to vote 100 years ago. We have proven ourselves, earned respect and succeeded in every profession. We are political leaders, physicians, engineers, lawyers, plumbers, small business owners, corporate presidents, police officers, soldiers, generals, government directors and more. We now have a Guam Women’s Chamber of Commerce with over 230 members that focuses on helping women succeed in business.
Former United Nations Secretary General Kofi Annan got it exactly right when he said, “There is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women.”
Yet we still have work to do, ladies. Statistics from our 2010 census showed that 10 years ago, women held only 23% of the total management positions available in our civilian workforce. I am confident that our 2020 census data will see that number move closer to, or maybe even surpass, the 50% mark.
Our 2010 census data also told us that with regard to salaries of $65,000 or more, males out-earned females by 74% to 26%. In the $50,000 to $64,999 range, males out-earned females by 62% to 38%. So, a decade ago, men were out-earning women in the higher salary ranges by a nearly 3-to-1 ratio. Again, I know these margins will narrow with our 2020 census data.
As the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community gathers virtually to celebrate Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM), it’s important to remember that federal laws prohibited Asian Americans to naturalize until 1952. This fact is important to recognize because the ability to run for office is tied to citizenship.
Asian Americans have been in the United States since the early 1600s and due to the systemic discriminatory barriers placed to keep this constituency in check, its political influence has only recently been harnessed. AAPI women started serving on the federal level in 1965 and serving as Governor in 2011.
Former U.S. Representative Patsy Mink was the first woman of color and the first Asian American woman to be elected to Congress. All of this is significant for a variety of reasons, one of them being that Hawaii became the 50th state, and her first run for Congress was in 1959. Even with a majority AAPI constituency, societal & cultural norms prohibited her from winning her election to Congress until 1965. Former Ambassador Nikki Haley was elected in 2011 as Governor of South Carolina and is the first and only Asian American woman to be elected to that position.
As AAPIs are the fastest growing racial group in the country, it’s essential that this community remain vigilant about voting and achieving representation at a proportional rate to elected office. With a six percent national population and a federal representation of three percent, the AAPI community is below average in the election of our congressional leaders. In the 116th Congress, there is an historic high of twenty AAPI congressional members, ten of them AAPI women, three of them in the United States Senate. Out of the 55 states and territories that comprise the National Governors Association, there is one AAPI woman currently serving as Governor. Although achieving a record, there is much work to be done to elect more AAPI women at the federal and gubernatorial levels.
That's all for this week,
P.S. The countdown to the Seneca Falls Revisited virtual conference continues, read this week's blog by RepresentWomen's Maura Reilly for a reminder about the important work of ERA champion Alice Paul:
Born 37 years after the first Woman’s Rights Convention, held in Seneca Falls in 1848, Alice Paul became a leading advocate for women’s suffrage and the passing of the 19th Amendment. After attending Swarthmore College, co-founded by her grandfather, Paul went abroad and became engaged in the women’s suffrage movement.
Upon returning to the U.S. in 1912, Alice Paul joined the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA). Paul went on to form her own organization the National Woman’s Party which was focused on lobbying Congress for a national amendment rather than the state-by-state campaigns endorsed by NAWSA. With the National Woman’s Party, Paul organized a 1913 protest the day before President Wilson’s inauguration, attended by over 8,000 women. After Wilson’s reticence to support women’s suffrage, Paul continued to organize protests during his presidency, including the “Silent Sentinels.”
The Sentinals included Alice and 1,000 other women who took turns picketing the White House for a year. Eventually many picketers, including Paul, were arrested for “obstructing traffic.” Those arrested were sent to a workhouse prison in Virginia where they faced harsh conditions and organized hunger strikes. News around the suffragists in prison eventually swayed public opinion in their favor and led to President Wilson’s public support of suffrage in 1918.