We Know Women in Leadership are Crucial – Now We Have to Prove It
The United States and the countries of Europe are advanced modern democracies suffering from a problem that undermines their fundamental commitment of equality and justice for all: a lack of women in political decision-making. This GMF Leadership Perspectives call examines the way forward for women in political leadership, discusses the current deficit of female leadership in government, and offers strategies to gain representation that is more equitable in politics on both sides of the Atlantic.
On this call are Assita Kanko, a special senior advisor and elected town councilor in Ixelles, Brussels Capital Region, Belgium; Cynthia Terrell, Washington, DC-based founder of Representation 2020 and Fair Vote; and Oana Țoiu, a former state minister in the Ministry of Labor and Family in Romania and now a general manager for Social Innovation Solutions in Bucharest.
Read below for the call’s key takeaways:
Across all countries, but particularly in the United States, structural challenges presented by voting systems remain a roadblock that keeps women from office. Terrell champions voting reform to replace the American “winner take all” system, which she argues distorts electoral outcomes. She is a key proponent of the Fair Representation Act, a bill currently in U.S. Congress that could generate a 25 percent increase in the number of women in the House of Representatives in the first election cycle after the bill is enacted, the strategy behind which she shares on the call.
Kanko observes that women do not have a clear path to achieving leadership positions in government in Belgium partly because of arcane regulations that buttress a sexist and “insider” political culture. Kanko argues that with help from their networks and mentorship, strong women candidates will be able to compete more fairly.
In Romania, women are doing relatively well, holding key positions such as the mayor’s office in major cities. In recent elections, the argument that a woman should not hold office because she is a woman has rarely been used. Yet in the wake of anti-gay rights propaganda in Romania, women’s traditional roles in the home have been reinforced.
At the local level in U.S. elections, tens of thousands of women have signed up to run for office. However, there are only 12 or 13 competitive open seats in the House of Representatives, where Terrell argues power rests in the United States. The advantages of incumbency, combined with the voting structure, leaves few openings for women candidates, as is reflected in Congress, where women hold a mere 19.4 percent of seats.
Systematic sexism and a media focus on appearance and likeability also works to challenge women seeking leadership positions, which sometimes persists in subtle ways even as women gain ground. Kanko believes that to advance women in leadership we must change how we view women in power. She would not only like to see her male colleges support, network with, and mentor potential female leaders, but also urges women to be “hard on the issues and soft on each other.”
Quota systems move women’s representation forward more credibly than other reforms, and many nations implement quotas. However, the United States remains timid about the language associated with the quota system, Terrell argues.
“Gender targets” increase female leadership using intentional recruiting to create a demand for female candidates. For it to work, parties, political gatekeepers, political action committees, and funders need to use funding to make female candidacy viable. Additionally, legislative norms and practices should be made with the consideration that women often have other duties outside the office.
During Țoiu’s tenure as state minister in Romania, she was able to set a precedent for new mothers in the workplace while nationally using her position to push for harsher punishment for domestic abusers, make changes to family policy, and improve gender equality.
Terrell predicts that in order to reach representational equality, women need to be clear about the importance of women in leadership, measured by concrete metrics related to what works and does not, and find a way to strengthen collaboration. Organizations with a goal of seeing more women in leadership need to share ideas, resources, and responsibility to bring this goal to fruition.
Assita Kanko is a special senior advisor and elected town councilor in the municipality of Ixelles, Brussels Capital Region, Belgium. She has a diverse background working across sectors, including working in finance, serving on boards, and serving in government. Kanko came to Belgium as an immigrant and remains ingrained in talks discussing identity, inclusion, integration, and representation politically. Additionally, she has published two books on the topic and is a well-known commentator in the press.
Cynthia Terrell is the Washington, DC-based founder of Representation 2020 and Fair Vote. Both organizations work to increase representation of women in political leadership roles. Terrell has been a field director and campaign manager for political campaigns including presidential, House and Senate, and local races, and has been published in The Washington Post, The Nation, and The Christian Science Monitor.
Oana Țoiu is a former state minister in the Ministry of Labor and Family in Romania and now works as a general manager for Social Innovation Solutions in Bucharest. An impact-driven entrepreneur, she has worked in the public and private sector to catapult women into leadership positions both in privately-owned business and in government.
GMF’s Leadership Perspectives informs leaders about trends that are changing the nature of transatlantic relations. During each call, members of GMF's Alumni Leadership Council have the unique opportunity to send questions through an instant messaging group and shape content.
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