Women in power – the limits of representation

28th Feb, 2014

At Trajectory, our focus this week has been on gender equality (the subject of our Trends Breakfast on Thursday), which has coincided nicely with Angela Merkel’s visit to the UK. Merkel, or course, was recently re-elected as German Chancellor, and has a claim to being the most powerful woman on the planet.

It is only a few decades since the first woman was elected as leader of a nation (without being related to or married to a male leader), and in this basic realm of representation, genuine progress has been made. There are currently 15 female presidents or prime ministers around the world – 15 more than there were a few decades ago.

However, more progress is necessary. Just 23% of UK MPs are female – which compares unfavourably not just to other European nations such as Sweden (45%), but also to Afghanistan (27%) and Iraq (25%). It is cast in a starker light when we see that Saudi Arabia – a country which allows women to neither vote nor drive – is just 3% shy of the UK.

The experience of women in public office – not something that can be easily metered out in statistics – is also some way from the positive stories surrounding representation. Around the world female politicians such as Julia Gillard, Rachida Dati and Cecile Kyenge have faced discrimination because of their gender. Indeed, in the UK we are seeing significant numbers of new female MPs leaving parliament after just one term due to the negative experiences they have had.

But does representation lead to greater equality overall? Leaders such as Merkel demonstrate that certain barriers have been overcome – but this is not the case for everyone. Germany’s pay gap is among the very largest in Europe at 22% – despite having a female leader. Sweden’s pay gap is also large – despite having a near-even gender split in parliament.

At home, however, values are changing positively and perhaps fundamentally (in the UK, at least). Household chores, cooking and childcare are increasingly likely to be done by men (although still dominated by women) and basic changes in fertility rates and life expectancy mean that a far lower proportion of the average woman’s life is dominated by childcare. In the UK we look forward with interest to the introduction of shared parental leave in 2015.

It is perhaps impossible to quantify or measure the impact that high level political representation has on equality in society – but there is certainly enough evidence to suggest that the existence of a handful of powerful women (in politics or in business)  is no evidence of gender equality elsewhere.



More information on the issues discussed in this blog can be found in the presentation from our recent Trends Breakfast, available to download for free here.