Julia Gillard’s ascension to the position of Australian Prime Minister last week has generated news stories and comment around the world.
She made it to the top job via an unorthodox route, deposing Kevin Rudd in his first term. Whatever you think of this controversial manoeuvre, Gillard certainly showed her political skill and determination, and importantly, that she is supported and respected among her colleagues.
As Gillard joins the growing number of female world leaders*, many observers have examined again the place of women in politics in contemporary society.
Various commentators have noted that Prime Minister Gillard’s gender does not necessarily mean she will immediately set about redressing pay inequality between sexes and legislating a flexible workplace suited to working parents. An article by Nick O’Malley published in SMH quizzed UNSW academic Sarah Maddison on what it means to have a woman leading the country. She said:
while it never crossed anyone’s mind to ask if Rudd would act in mens’ interest, there is the expectation that Gillard should advocate for women. She argues that if people want to see politicians pursue women’s interests, they should elect feminists. ”I don’t think she will practise politics any differently to her male colleagues and I don’t think that women generally tend to. I think women and men in Australian parliaments are governed far more by their party discipline, their faction, their political ideology, than they are by their gender.”
Irrespective of Gillard’s agenda there are other positive effects from having a female national leader. In the same article, Laura Liswood from the Washington-based Council of Women World Leaders highlights ‘a major benefit to all citizens of countries with women leaders’, what she calls the mirror effect:
Only when women take those roles are all members of society encouraged to engage in civic life. She notes that even though the US is yet to elect a female president, the work of secretaries of state Madeleine Albright, Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton have changed notions of what women can do in that country.
In the Guardian Emine Saner also acknowledges the importance of the values of the individual when assessing the influence a leader’s sex may have on government policy. Saner cites the appointment of Icelandic Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir as an example of a leader with a feminist agenda focusing on women’s issues, such as the sex industry.
In the UK, only four women have been included in the new Liberal-Conservative government ministry. Twenty years after the reign of Margaret Thatcher it is clear that in the UK women are being sidelined in top level politics. On the other side of the chamber, the race for the new Labour leader came close to being all-white and all-male until Diane Abbot, the first black MP when she joined the Commons in 1987, confirmed enough numbers to secure her candidacy for the role. Harriet Harman, currently standing in as leader, is not in the running for Labour leadership, despite having regularly stood in for Gordon Brown during his prime ministership. Harman is a well-known advocate of women’s issues – such as opposing the proposed move to allow rape defendants anonymity during rape trials, and backing a plan that would see half of the places in the next shadow cabinet being reserved for women.
Implementing quotas to guarantee places for women in politics, such as the plan proposed by Harman, is a contentious issue despite the ongoing worldwide trend that sees women consistently occupying dramatically less positions in parliament than men. According to this graphic women constitute 27 per cent of the national parliament in Australia. New Zealand fares better with 33 per cent, while the US comes in with just 16 per cent. One country that defies the trend of male political domination is Rwanda, which with 56 per cent of its parliament made up by women is the global leader in female representation in national politics.
Writing for the Guardian, Mary Fitzgerald overcomes her misgivings about ‘positive discrimination’, such as all-female shortlists and quotas, when considering the situation in Rwanda. In Rwanda, the post-genocide constitution ensures a 30 per cent quota for female MPs, and according to Fitzgerald this
has encouraged many talented women to come forward – people for whom working in government, less than a generation ago, would have unthinkable. Female MPs now make up a record 56% of the Rwandan parliament – a higher proportion than anywhere else in the world – and there are eight female cabinet members. Having met many of these female parliamentarians, “window dressing” is the last description that springs to mind.’
Positive discrimination – suggesting that quotas for women in power will mean that unsuitable or unqualified female candidates will be installed in positions of power – ignores the fact that women are often overlooked for top level positions for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the workplace will have to become more flexible to accommodate working parents – no bad thing. Australian Finance Minister Lindsay Tanner’s resignation this week to spend more time with his family illustrates the difficulty politicians have in balancing a parliamentary career with family life. Perhaps more opportunities will have to be provided to women at grassroots level to allow them to rise on their merits – a positive outcome as well. As the situation in Britain shows, doing nothing means nothing gets done.
*From SMH: “26 female leaders in 23 countries, including three queens, four governors-general, 10 presidents and, as of Thursday, nine prime ministers, according to a researcher referenced by the parliamentary library.”