Written by: Jessie Gan Ze Xin
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed are the writer’s personal observation. While every caution has been taken to provide the most accurate information and honest analysis, please use your discretion before coming to any conclusions.
“If you want something said, ask a man; if you want something done, ask a woman.”
These were the exact words uttered by Margaret Thatcher on May 20, 1965 during her speech at the National Union of Townswomen’s Guild Conference.
I know what you might be thinking, but hold your horses – this article isn’t about a full-fledged battle between the mavericks and the apexes.
So keep your imaginary pitchforks aside and hear me out on this!
Although her comment could very well be perceived as a meaningless sweeping remark as neither gender has a monopoly over any character trait; it is valid to consider the wider impacts of modern women stepping into positions the patriarchy doesn’t necessarily approve of.
In recent years, movements like #MeToo have taken the Internet by storm, and feminism is becoming an increasingly popular buzzword. Women’s rights is a complicated issue: it’s easy to fall on either end of the spectrum; hopping onto the bandwagon and preaching “men are trash”, or complaining that sexism is no longer a real issue. But it’s necessary for people – of any gender – to examine the real TEA (tea here meaning, of course, a more nuanced understanding of the context and history of women’s rights).
The truth is, the golden standard of masculinity is still deeply ingrained among society, the consequences of which permeate nearly every single aspect of everyday life. But progress is being made daily – most prominently in the field of politics.
Generally speaking, women in government are under-represented in most countries worldwide. Women historically have inadequate opportunities in social participation, especially when it comes to policy-making.
However, women are increasingly being elected to become heads of state and government. As of January 2017, the global participation rate of women in national-level parliaments is 23.3%. This is a significant increase in comparison to 2013, when women accounted for 8% of all national leaders and 2% of all presidential posts. Take Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany and Jacinda Ardern, the Prime Minister of New Zealand for example, both of whom climbed up the political ladder based on their eminence.
“Why is this representation necessary?”, you may ask. But the fact is that the better our governments reflect the demographics of our population, the better equipped they are to solve bigger issues on the ground.
Women demonstrate leadership beyond partisan lining by working through parliamentary caucuses even in the most politically combative environments – championing issues of domestic violence, sexual harassment, rape, gender equality, parental leave and childcare, pensions, and electoral reforms. Overall, better decisions and policies can be made when there is increased diversity in the decision-making bodies.
Trailblazing women who have also pushed for child-friendly policies have greater responsiveness towards the needs of citizens, especially under-represented minorities. As women continue to shatter more glass ceilings, the next generation will be empowered to conquer higher summits.
The million-dollar question here is – Why are women still drastically under-represented? What is deterring women from running for office? Perhaps simply, politics isn’t a woman’s cup of tea?
The bias levelled against female leaders stems from the perception that femininity inherently produces weak leadership. In this context, ‘feminine’ and communal traits like intuition and empathy are far less valued in leaders than more ‘masculine’ and agentic traits which include aggression and assertiveness.
The pressure is on for female candidates to enhance their ‘masculinity’ for the sake of garnering support from voters who identify with gender roles. This unconscious perception of ‘gendered’ qualities most likely stems from seeing a dominant representation of men in leadership positions.
Upon browsing the social media pages of prominent female leaders, you will not leave empty-handed without a handful of derogatory comments. Everything from their fashion choices to their private lives are scrutinised by the public and turned into sensationalised clickbait by the media. Their love lives are perhaps highlighted even more than their political stances – something I personally find downright ridiculous.
Perceived as nothing more than a pretty face, they are often labelled as poster girls for the parties they represent. They have to work hard, if not harder than their male colleagues just to prove their point, especially if they’re women of colour.
Clearly, women looking to delve into the ugly world of politics have a higher barrier than most to overcome, always in danger of being labelled either as weak and incompetent, or as bossy and annoying. Women who aspire to be politicians are forced to always be on guard and take proactive steps to alleviate public skepticism.
Perhaps female politicians should take a cue from Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken by charting their own path, instead of traversing the one more travelled.
So, how do we break the chicken and egg cycle?
Quotas can provide the initial push to help women interested in foraying into politics, but this has to be coupled with sufficient training to ensure access to equal opportunity. Quotas can become problematic if the implementation is superficial and allows the mushrooming of cronyism and nepotism. On a balance, the fast-tracked gender quota system is a temporary solution which needs to be balanced with meritocracy.
Article 4 of the United Nations’ Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) recognises the need for special measures – but also that these measures must be temporary and “shall be discontinued when the objectives of equality of opportunity and treatment have been achieved”. Once we have achieved gender parity, there will no longer be a need for quotas.
While this gender parity seems far ahead on the horizon, the sea-change in attitudes towards women’s rights have made monumental strides over the past few decades.
1918 was the game changing year for women’s suffrage as the House of Commons passed the Qualification of Women Act in November, allowing women to stand as MPs in the United Kingdom. New Zealand was the first self-governing country to give women the vote in 1893, despite women’s suffrage in Britain starting in 1866.
Across the Atlantic, 187 female workers at a Ford car factory in Dagenham, East London went on strike for three weeks in protest against their male colleagues who were earning 15 percent more than them. Their demonstration of bravery proved to be instrumental in the passing of the 1970 Equal Pay Act, later amended in 1983, legally requiring women to be paid the same as men for work of equal value.
With the turn of the century, women’s rights has focused on new causes – sexual assault, domestic abuse, childcare, and the implicit biases society forms against women. Now more than ever, boys and girls must be taught that what matters most are the principles they uphold and the actions they take.
Be it skirts, pants or heels, leaders should be assessed based on their merits and not the way they dress. We must always remember that.