Great Britain, the cradle of parliamentary democracy, has been celebrating 100 years of women having the right to vote. Prior to the First World War, the suffragette movement led the battle for political rights. Yet in some quarters these female activists were regarded as radical extremists – even terrorists. Although voting rights initially were only extended to female property owners over the age of 30, female pioneers were quick to capitalize on this victory to pursue change in other fields.
When half of the electorate is female, politicians have a tremendous incentive to champion pro-women policies, including workplace rights such as maternity leave and anti-discrimination legislation. Nevertheless, a century later major employers are still violating the law by failing to guarantee equal pay. That most British of institutions, the BBC, is currently tying itself up in knots justifying why its most talented female employees are paid far less than men.
The high proportion of women juggling part-time work with family responsibilities is a major factor in forcing females to endure lower pay and precarious terms of employment. A campaign among leading UK companies with the goal of ensuring that 30 percent of senior executives are women is laudable, but illustrates how male-dominated the top echelons of business continue to be.
As women move toward 50 percent representation in some parliaments (Sweden, Rwanda, Finland, Senegal and Bolivia score highly), this has transformed the legislative agenda there. Nevertheless, only 10 percent of nations exceed 30 percent female representation in parliament. Liberal and left-leaning parties tend to boast more women MPs, meaning that female electoral success is often a catalyst for progressive policies that maximize the well-being of all citizens.
With Angela Merkel confirmed to serve another term as Germany’s chancellor, there are currently more than 20 female world leaders. As a journalist I am fortunate to have interviewed a respectable number of pioneering women, including Britain’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher; Gro Harlem Brundtland, who served three terms as Norway’s prime minister and was director-general of the World Health Organization; former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi; and Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan. The latter two were assassinated, paying the ultimate price for leading the way.
While we can take a moment on International Women’s Day to celebrate the gains that have been made and honor those who achieved them, there is still a long way to go on the road to true gender equality.
A common denominator among the hundreds of female politicians I have interviewed is an appreciation of the obstacles they have overcome, motivating them to prove themselves 10 times more competent than male colleagues. I recall Gandhi telling me that women often make better leaders because as childbearers they can tolerate more difficulties and have greater attention to detail. Women tend to approach problems patiently and rationally, conscientiously pondering the consequences of their decisions for the most vulnerable in society. Smaller and less-fragile egos help avoid ill-considered conflicts and confrontations.
In the Arab world, female MPs in Tunisia and Sudan exceed 30 percent representation in their parliaments, while Algeria, the UAE and the Palestinians also have commendable records. Bahrain is one of several nations where plenty of women are appointed to the Shura Council and top posts, but high-caliber female parliamentary candidates struggle to get elected by a relatively more conservative public.
The number of working women in Muslim-majority nations has surged by more than a third to 155 million in just a decade, offering inspirational role models for the next generation to build on. Tech-savvy and entrepreneurial Arab women are outnumbering and outperforming male colleagues in leading science and technology universities, before going on to enrich the private sector’s lifeblood.
In the past decade we have seen a transformation in the political rights of Saudi women. Surprising numbers of female candidates enjoyed success in recent municipal elections, while the Shura Council’s 20 percent female membership narrowly exceeds that of the US Congress. A Saudi woman, Tamadur Al-Ramah, was recently appointed deputy labor minister. However, aspirations to reform or abolish the guardianship laws – a prerequisite for full female autonomy – have yet to be followed through.
Having spent the past couple of years interviewing hundreds of Saudi women for a book, this issue is close to my heart. I share their excitement at a succession of recent breakthroughs. The right to drive is just one of these achievements, as floods of highly-educated females struggle to enter the jobs market. I am humbled by their passion and desire to serve their nation.
However, a major obstacle is often women’s own lack of self-belief. They must first enjoy confidence in their own capabilities before seizing their destinies with both hands. I have sought to live by a maxim exemplified by my mother: When we present a strong, inspiring and positive role model to our offspring, we instill the self-belief that they are capable of whatever they set out to achieve. If we fail to impart to both our sons and daughters a sense of mutual respect and equal expectations, then the same old prejudices, chauvinism and inferiorities will perpetuate themselves. I am deeply proud and moved today to see my own daughters setting an outstanding example for yet another generation.
However, ambitious women still encounter the glass ceiling of institutional inertia, as the “old boys’ clubs” governing our male-dominated world pull every trick in the book to resist the collapse of the patriarchy. Men should not fear female advancement, because everyone benefits from the attributes and insights women bring to the workplace, making society more productive and prosperous. It is no accident that accelerated economic development in the most advanced nations has been closely correlated with the rapid entry of women to the jobs market.
Allowing women to achieve their deserved place in society is thus not exclusively a “women’s” issue, but a goal that the whole of society has a stake in actively pursuing. Previous achievements were won through courageous individuals – male and female – fighting every step of the way. Likewise, further progress is predicated on our willingness to make sacrifices to stand up against abuse, discrimination, inequalities and institutional obstacles.
Yet this is a fight that promises innumerable gains for humanity. The future belongs to both women and men on a level playing field – and all our lives will be infinitely more rewarding as a consequence of this.
- Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.