It was a tough and discouraging year, 2020, for women around the world as they prepare for the 12-day annual session of the Commission on the Status of Women. It begins at the United Nations — mostly virtually — on March 15. Last year, it was canceled, though a large UN forum commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action was held online in the fall.
The agenda for this year’s meeting, built around the timeworn, all-purpose slogan of “empowerment,” might reflect a little more-needed optimism, some feminists say. Many women who hold power are being praised for their skills in handling crises.
Indeed, it began to dawn on researchers in the early stages of the horrific Covid-19 pandemic that women were standing out for their leadership under pressure in political and economic decision-making.
Forbes, a bastion of private-sector capitalism, was among the first to suggest a trend. In April 2020, it published an essay online titled “What Do Countries With the Best Coronavirus Responses Have in Common? Women Leaders.”
At the end of 2020, the Harvard Business Review released a similar assessment based on four months of research. “Women were rated more positively on 13 of the 19 competencies in our assessment that comprise overall leadership effectiveness,” the Harvard review said. “Men were rated more positively on one competency — technical/professional expertise — but the difference was not statistically significant.” Women rated higher everywhere else: on human-relations skills, such as inspiring and motivating a workforce; on communicating “powerfully”; and on achieving better collaboration and teamwork.
No one is denying that women being locked down at home were suffering job losses, rising domestic violence and painfully complex household pressures: organizing day care for young children and home-schooling older ones while worrying about what to make for supper if food stocks were running low. The situation for women in poor societies, dependent on small incomes from the informal sector, was worse.
In national political terms, the Forbes article argued, governments led by women were quick and effective in reacting to the pandemic and curbed the spread of the virus from the start. Testing and quarantining were vigorously employed and monitored.
The author of the article, Avivah Wittenberg-Cox, the chief executive of an international gender-balance consultancy called 20-first, pointed to seven successful democratic countries with female heads of government. Their leaders were Mette Frederiksen of Denmark, Sanna Marin of Finland, Angela Merkel of Germany, Katrin Jakobsdottir of Iceland, Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand, Erna Solberg of Norway and Tsai Ing-wen of Taiwan. (Recently, Prime Minister Ardern imposed a 72-hour total lockdown of the city of Auckland, after only three cases of a virus variant were found.)
Ardern, who is 40, and Jakobsdottir, Iceland’s prime minister, 45, are among a growing number of younger women changing the profile of national leadership. Finland’s Prime Minister Marin, at 35, is the youngest of the group. But age is not the only factor. The ability to offer a human touch to all citizens has marked their careers and those of some older women too.
“Generally, the empathy and care which all of these female leaders have communicated seem to come from an alternate universe than the one we have gotten used to,” Wittenberg-Cox wrote. She noted how Prime Minister Solberg of Norway held a televised news conference strictly for children, with no adults allowed, so that she could hear questions about the pandemic from the very young and assure them that it was O.K. to feel scared.
“How many other, simple humane innovations would more female leadership unleash?” Wittenberg-Cox asked in her article.
A year ago, Jakobsdottir — known for her political focus on systemic economic gender inequalities, violence against women and the dangers of climate change — was appointed chair of the Council of Women World Leaders, an organization of presidents and prime ministers, past and present, with more than 80 members. The group is an affiliate of the United Nations Foundation in Washington, where it has an office.
The secretary-general of the Council is Laura Liswood, a lawyer experienced in private and public sectors, an author on issues of diversity and a former managing director for global leadership and diversity at Goldman Sachs. Currently, she is on the board of the World Economic Forum, where she has watched the number of women participating on gender topics on forum panels rise over two decades from marginal numbers to 20 percent.
In an interview with PassBlue, Liswood, who is 70, discussed the changes she has seen in national leadership of women over recent decades.
“I would say there has been an evolution,” she said, recalling that the world’s first female prime minister was Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka in 1960, and the first democratically elected female president was Vigdis Finnbogadottir of Iceland in 1980.
“Within that time period, probably a third of the women were what you would call ‘legacy leaders,'” Liswood said. “Husbands or fathers had been assassinated, or women followed in the footsteps of their husbands or fathers. It was a dynastic kind of thing.”
“Women are coming more and more to the fore without that sort of framework,” she said, adding that parliamentary systems of government, where women serving as ministers while also as members of parliament can rise to the top — as prime minister — easier than in presidential systems.
“Women will have a tendency to get into positions of leadership because they want to change things,” she said. “They have a passion to push something.”
“In many countries there is a flourishing of women’s organizations that support women running for office,” she added. “That’s a phenomenon that continues to grow. Younger women are beginning to have a voice. They have social media — although there are a lot of issues with social media. Women getting trolled and things like that. Some advance. Some backlash.”
Worldwide, women are advancing in government, not only in the global North, Liswood said, noting Africa as an example. “There are a substantial number of women in African countries who are very, very powerful — extraordinary leaders. Often starting at the grass-roots level . . . women have emerged as prime ministers of their countries.” Among them are Rose Christiane Raponda of Gabon and Victoire Tomegah Dogbé of Togo.
But there are cautionary tales.
In September 2020, the Council on Foreign Relations in New York City listed 22 names on its women-in-power index. Since then, three men have been elected or appointed to top national positions to succeed them — in Belgium, Bolivia and Switzerland — reducing the number of women on the list to 19.
The Harvard Review suggested that the glass ceiling has been joined by a “glass cliff” of uncertain long-term impact, according to the writers of the article, Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman.
“The ‘glass cliff’ describes the idea that when a company is in trouble, a female leader is put in charge to save it,” the authors write. “When women are finally given a chance to prove themselves in a senior position, they are handed something that is already broken and where the chances of failure are high.”
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.