Jennifer Curtin: Women still have a long way to go

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Women leaders including Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark, Julia Gillard, Cristina Fernandez, Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner have faced challenges. Photos / AP
Women leaders including Margaret Thatcher, Helen Clark, Julia Gillard, Cristina Fernandez, Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner have faced challenges. Photos / AP

Today is International Women's Day. A day first declared in 1911 and designed to draw attention to the claims of women around the world for economic independence and political equality.

While women in New Zealand had achieved the right to vote in 1893, many in Europe were still fighting for their political rights in 1911. And in New Zealand, women could not stand for election to Parliament until 1919.

But all this is history.

The women's liberation movement has been and gone, and women appear to have cracked the glass ceilings in politics and business.

The New Zealand Census of Women's Participation highlights our successes: we have had two women governors-general, two women prime ministers and 43 per cent of our NZSX top 100 companies include women as directors.

And yet, all is not yet equal in the world of politics and business.

Women make up around 13 per cent of national leaders, they constitute 19.5 per cent of elected politicians globally, and within New Zealand, women made up only 9.3 per cent of all directors in 2010.

And when women do make it, there often remains an undercurrent of hostility and a hint of sexism - that somehow public leadership is still best left to men. Only two weeks ago Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's leadership was challenged by former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd.

Gillard won the vote convincingly, beating Rudd a second time (party support for her was so strong in June 2010 that Rudd did not force a vote, and she went on to win against Opposition Leader Tony Abbott in the 2011 election).

The leadership challenge was not the problem, but the public commentary she faced in the lead-up to the vote suggests not all are comfortable with women leaders.

Gillard has been slated for being childless, ("deliberately barren" is what one senator called her), subject to calls of "Ditch the Witch" or labelled "a menopausal monster" by talk show hosts.

No other Australian Prime Minister has been subject to such vitriolic and personal criticism.

The focus on the personal is not unique to Australia: President Cristina Fernandez of Argentina is criticised for being too beautiful and is sometimes described as shrill. Helen Clark was no stranger to personal attacks, and after Margaret Thatcher was ousted as Prime Minister, there were many who stated that her leadership was indicative of why women shouldn't be given the top job.

Male leaders face criticism, but it is seldom as personal - or as gendered.

As columnist Anne Summers wrote in Australia recently - there is no male equivalent to the "b" word.

A recent book by Rainbow Murray examines the media coverage of aspiring women political leaders and highlights that gender still matters in such contests - and is more likely to impact negatively on women compared with their male counterparts.

So why is it that despite the progress we have made, women are considered less legitimate as leaders? Is it that we assume leadership is for men, and only exceptional women can compare with ordinary men in such roles?

One view is that women are often selected to positions of leadership, in both business and politics, during times of crisis. According to Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam, it is not a glass ceiling that these women face, but rather a "glass cliff" because women more often than men are given leadership positions that have an increased risk of failure.

In their examination of the top 100 companies on the London Stock Exchange and patterns of share price performance before and after the appointment of new board members, they found that in a time of financial downturn, companies that appointed a woman to their board had experienced consistently poorer performance in the 5 months preceding the appointment compared to companies that had appointed only men to their boards.

These women took on leadership roles that were more precarious making them vulnerable to higher risk of blame for negative outcomes.

A consistent finding in this research is that women are selected for corporate leadership positions ahead of equally qualified men when (and only when) there is a high risk of organisational (and leader) failure.

Arguably, we see something similar within the realm of politics.

Julia Gillard was supported by her party in taking the leadership when it was clear from the opinion polls that the Labor Party would not win with Rudd as leader. Carmen Lawrence and Joan Kirner, Australian state premiers in the 1990s and Kim Campbell, Prime Minister of Canada in 1993, were selected in similar situations.

In New Zealand, we see the smaller parties with women co-leaders, but the leadership of the major parties is once again a male domain.

Women remain less likely to be selected for winnable electorate seats or placed high or in equal numbers to their male counterparts on the party lists.

The early suffragists would no doubt be proud of how far women have come but there is still some way to go.

Gender quotas are unlikely to prove palatable, meaning we are still dependent on shifts in popular opinion and those in power opening the doors to capable women, and supporting them as leaders in both good times and bad.

Dr Jennifer Curtin teaches politics and public policy at the University of Auckland.

- NZ Herald

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