Author: Annie Lanahan, Laurel Springs High School '24
Presently, the United States ranks 75th globally when it comes to women’s representation in government. Despite evidence that gender-diverse organizations and companies are more creative, innovative, and financially successful, only 23% of House and Senate seats in the U.S. are held by women, and only 6% of fortune 500 CEOs are women. Despite that, various national efforts around the world focused on promoting women into powerful leadership roles have created more opportunities. From training to hiring quotas, different approaches to improve gender representation are helping transform major companies and national organizations globally.
New Zealand’s prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, is an ideal example of a strong political leader. She, as only one of ten female national leaders in the entire world, has led New Zealand to be the only country to successfully eliminate coronavirus from their nation. Soon after New Zealand’s first case in late February of 2020, she closed all international borders and required 14-day quarantines for returning citizens. She instituted a 4-level alert system to monitor the severity of the virus, and after reaching level 4 in late March, PM Ardern mandated a nationwide lockdown. Despite the first U.S. case being almost a month prior to that of New Zealand’s, our government waited until mid-March to lockdown international borders and granted states the ability to determine lockdowns individually, some waiting until April before closing. PM Ardern’s ability to quickly institute a plan of direction and action allowed her country to go from a peak of 929 active cases in April to zero active cases by June 8th.
Jacinda Ardern graduated from the University of Waikato in 2001 and began her political career as a researcher for the former prime minister. She soon moved to London, where she was elected President of the International Union of Socialist Youth, and then unanimously elected as Deputy Leader of the Labor Party in 2017. October of that year, she was sworn in as prime minister. PM Ardern describes herself as a social democrat and progressive. She has focused her efforts so far on housing, child poverty, and social inequality as well as strengthening laws regarding guns and weapons.
Although PM Ardern was able to successfully move up her hierarchy by performing well and being voted into strong political positions, the opportunity to succeed isn’t always attainable for women in society and in the workforce, especially in America. Women are statistically more likely to hold office as a prime minister than as a president. While prime ministers are chosen by ascending the hierarchy and being voted in by the government, presidential elections put candidates in the face of more scrutiny and criticism, and as a result, gender stereotypes and bias. Gender bias is more prominent in countries with presidents and strong militaries, where leaders are expected to act independently, quickly, and decisively - traits commonly associated with masculinity. In contrast, parliamentary governments are based on collaboration and deliberate analysis and negotiation, traits that are treated as more feminine. Parliamentary governments also represent more women with a blood relation or connection to a powerful male father or brother, which doesn’t create an advantage in presidential campaigns.
The gender imbalance in politics is notably greater than it is in health, education, and workforce employment. In the past 50 years, only 67 out of 144 nations have had a female leader, and only 33 of those leaders have held power for at least four years. The world’s leading country in political female representation is Bangladesh, which has had a female leader for 23 of the last 50 years. Bangladesh, as well as countries such as South Africa and Norway, uses a gender quota in parliament to ensure more women are given the opportunity to hold office. Countries like Ireland have invested in political leadership training for female citizens. In the United States, despite women making up 51% of the population, they only make up 20% of the House of Representatives and Senate and 12% of our nation’s governors. Having fewer females in these positions limits the pool of qualified female presidential candidates significantly.
As of today, only 7% of Fortune 500 CEOs are female, and a mere 3 of the 37 females are women of color. 37% of those companies have entirely male leadership teams, and another 21% have only one female. Women who negotiate promotions have proven to be much more likely to be reported as bossy and aggressive. In a Korn Ferry survey of 786 male and female executives, approximately half said that bias against women and insufficient opportunities were the main reasons more women can’t make it to leading management positions. Despite women holding almost half of the entry-level jobs in the United States, they hold only 17% of c-suite and executive-level jobs.
Contrary to the impression displayed by gender representation statistics, diversity has been proven to create more profitable and prosperous companies. A study by the Peterson Institute for International Economics of over 21,000 companies from 91 countries found that having women in c-suite and executive management positions significantly increased net margins and overall financial success. Diverse companies and government organizations have proved to be more creative, collaborative, and innovative. Additionally, having women in leadership roles has shown to decrease hiring bias and discrimination, leading to the hiring of more of the most qualified contenders. Despite all the evidence that a diverse organization is statistically more innovative, forward-thinking, and overall more successful, the overwhelming majority of American politics and corporations are run by men. Although there have been countless female figures throughout history, Prime Minister Ardern being just one example of many influential political leaders, society is far from the achievement of equal gender representation in government and executive leadership.
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Image from Northwestern University