Come November, three of the five most powerful nations on Earth could be ruled by a woman at the helm. German Chancellor Angela Merkel is already the most powerful leader in Europe.
In the United Kingdom, no sooner had Andrea Leadsom abruptly withdrawn from the Conservative Party leadership race on Monday, the ruling Tories wasted no time in getting Theresa May, the home secretary and sole candidate, elected as their new leader.
Outgoing David Cameron has confirmed that after his weekly “Prime Minister’s Question Time” today, he would make the short journey to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to Queen Elizabeth, thus, paving the way for May to become the next British prime minister, only the second woman to do so.
It has been 37 years since Britain had its first female prime minister in Margaret Thatcher in 1979. Maggie, as she was affectionately known to her admirers, solicited the more fearsome sobriquet of “The Iron Lady”, handbag and all, by her political allies and foes alike.
In comparison, May wasted no time in putting out her markers as a “One Nation Tory”, along the lines of former prime ministers Harold Macmillan and Ted Heath.
She wants to champion ordinary citizens and help them up the mobility ladder. In business, she is keen on binding corporate pay, full disclosure of bonus targets, reining in the ratio between the salaries of chief executive officers and ordinary workers, and workers’ representatives on the boards of companies. This smacks of the German social market economy model, of which Merkel is gatekeeper.
Across the pond, in America, if Democrat Hillary Clinton won the presidential election in November (which she is tipped to), she would become the leader of the Free World and the most powerful politician in the universe. How ironic that her presumptive Republican opponent is a certain Donald Trump, who has, inter alia, been accused of misplaced misogyny, Islamophobia and Hispanophobia.
Only China and Russia among the “Big Five” seem to be firmly ruled by structures and cultural conventions firmly rooted in patriarchy.
Neither Germany, Britain nor the West has pole position when it comes to promoting contemporary women in power. In fact, they are latecomers. The supposedly idyllic alpine haven, Switzerland, for instance, was one of the last countries to allow women to vote in 1971.
The trailblazers for female political leaders were, in fact, two Asian stateswomen. Sirimavo Bandaranaike is the modern world’s first female head of government, serving as prime minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times between 1960 and 2000.
Across the Straits of Ceylon, in India, Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, partition India’s first premier, followed her famous father’s footsteps, serving as leader of the Indian National Congress and prime minister of India, the world’s largest democracy, from 1966 to her 1984 assassination.
This was almost two decades before Thatcher became prime minister in Britain.
A popular stereotype is that women in the Muslim world do not participate in the government or state affairs. The reality, of course, is far more complex because the 57 member countries of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation are diverse politically, economically and socio-culturally.
In the last four decades, five Muslim women have been heads of government or state, including Megawati Sukarnoputri, former president of Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation; Tansu Ciller, former prime minister of Turkey, the 17th largest economy in the world; Sheikh Hasina Wazed and Begum Khaleda Zia, prime ministers of Bangladesh alternately; and the late Benazir Bhutto, who was prime minister of Pakistan.
Similarly, female world leaders have proliferated over the last decades in countries as diverse as the Philippines, Ireland, Latvia, Ukraine, South Korea, New Zealand, Finland, Mozambique, Australia, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Thailand, Denmark and Liberia.
The notable exception is Malaysia, despite the fact that women in Wanita Umno exercise great behind-the-scenes influence. Malaysian women make up more than half of university graduates, and are firmly entrenched in key positions in government, regulation, business, finance, medicine and society.
There are two women who could claim to be the best prime ministers Malaysia never had.
They are “Rapidfire” Tan Sri Rafidah Aziz, the country’s longest-serving international trade and industry minister, who would not hesitate to bring to heel a Malaysian official or envoy if she thought it was justified, and Tan Sri Dr Zeti Akhtar Aziz, the former governor of Bank Negara.
Of course, men such as Tun Musa Hitam, the former deputy to former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, could be tempted to claim the same.
Zeti the politician could have reached the pinnacle, but Dr Mahathir, in his wisdom, saw it fit not to appoint her as finance minister although he was tempted, as he wanted to protect her from the morass of Malaysian politics.
While Zeti’s achievements have been purely based on her merit as a technocrat, she is a keen supporter of dismantling the entry barriers for women in public and commercial life. Once, at a Women in Leadership forum in Kuala Lumpur, Zeti warned that “in this 21st century, it is human capital rather than physical capital that will define performance and progress. Women represent half of the world population and, therefore, half the potential resource that can drive such performance”.
Women and power are as old as history or, as some would say, even creation itself. Creationists, at least, would argue that Eve (Hawa) was the original most-powerful woman. But, as tempting as it may be, I will leave the role of iconic women in power in history to that genre.
So, if the trend of more contemporary women in power continues, does it augur well for global governance — more meaningful “jaw-jaw” as opposed to futile “war-war”?
A World Bank study on “Corruption and Women in Government”, for instance, concluded that higher rates of female participation in government were associated with lower levels of corruption, suggesting that women may have higher ethical standards and were more concerned with the common good.
Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer, an annual survey of more than 60,000 households in 60 countries, has consistently found that women were less likely than men to pay bribes. This may be linked to gender differences in risk-taking behaviours, with women being more averse to taking risks, and if translated to government or corporate leadership, they are less likely to engage in corruption for fear of being caught and losing their jobs.
In reality, human behaviour is vulnerable to a cornucopia of factors, irrespective of gender dynamics. They include family background, upbringing, class, education, access to finance, attachment to value systems and coercion.
In a world overwhelmingly controlled by dominant men and patriarchs — some of them vicious in their misogyny — the lot of women in recent years seems to have regressed, especially in the areas of violence against women; domestic abuse; acid attacks on women, especially in Colombia, the world’s leading acid-attack nation; sex trafficking and slavery; child labour; honour killings; female genital mutilation; and low pay. The list is endless.
It seems that for every step that women progress, they regress two steps through no fault of their own, but more to do with men, some of whom still believe that the Earth is flat and they have a divine right to control the fairer sex. This is more to do with power, insecurity, the fear of rejection and the infantilisation of women based on the rationale that men know what is better for them — in other words, gender supremacy.
It smacks of the mindset of racial supremacy, especially in the southern states of America and in apartheid South Africa, where racial segregation was and still is (as in the current state of race relations in Dallas, Texas) justified on the basis that blacks and non-whites are like infants, and need to be told what to do and how to live.
How accurate, then, is the concept that women inherently possess greater integrity than men?
There are several women in government who have turned out to be just as corrupt and ineffective. Just look at the chaos in Brazil under erstwhile President Dilma Rousseff and the internecine infighting between the two political rivals in Bangladesh.
Perhaps, it is a question of degree, opportunities and circumstances. More importantly, gender equality and empowerment are a human right, and not contained within the “gift” of man!
Mushtak Parker is an independent London-based economist and writer