Are powerful women the answer to inequality?

  • December 11th, 2017
  • Blog

Earlier this year, the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE) released its 2017 Gender Equality Index. One of its more interesting findings (and there were many, as GenPol’s Antonia Sudkämper noted in her recent blog) was that in nearly all Member States, “the main driver of progress was improved balance in decision making”. In short: getting more women into power is important to improving women’s lives.

Why does having female decision-makers matter? Because women are hurt when we are not on an equal footing with men in the debating chamber, the meeting room, or the boardroom. Men are making decisions about women’s bodies, about our access to welfare, about whether we can have children, about whether we can not have children, about medical research that solely concerns us, about the media that we consume. Giving men decision making power over women feeds patriarchal structures. The extreme consequences of these structures are discrimination and violence against women: crimes of sexual violence stem from a person’s determination to exercise power over another and society currently dictates that one group (men) have more power than another (women). This unequal distribution of power needs addressing urgently.

The EIGE Index suggests that one solution is to ensure that more women are involved in all manner of decision-making processes. Approached logically, if more women occupy political posts, then legislation which adversely affects women is less likely to be passed. If more mothers are in management positions, then the companies they influence are more likely to have parental leave and childcare policies favourable to women. If more women are driving the content of our mainstream media outlets, then we are more likely to hear diverse perspectives in our news analysis. The importance of representation is well documented, and powerful women are essential to creating societies that serve the interests of women, as well as men.

EIGE reports that the gender gap in employment is most pronounced across the EU in heterosexual partnerships. This is in part because women still bear the brunt of caregiving responsibilities in society at large and thus are often the partner, in a heterosexual couple, to pull back professionally and take up the caregiving mantle. Would an increase of women in middle and senior management change this, by advocating for solutions for those women who wish to simultaneously become parents and pursue professional advancement? History tells us that it is certainly not men who will mobilise to pursue necessary workplace changes such as proper parental leave, adequate childcare, and teleworking facilities.

Even when women are present in the workforce, we need to consider where those women are. In the UK, women make up over 40% of those who work in the media, according to EIGE. These women, however, are mainly concentrated in lower grade positions, with lower pay and little influence (we saw this year just how stark that inequality is with the BBC pay scandal). Indeed, across Europe 67% of journalism graduates are women, yet just 14% of media CEOs are women. This means that crucial national conversations about politics, business, technology, and culture are shaped by men (the consequences of which are here clearly outlined).

Rank dynamics shine a further spotlight on the influence of men and their opinions in our lives. Men are higher up in the patriarchal rank: theirs are the voices of authority and responsibility, and it is the norm to prioritise their voices and to trust their expertise and testimony above women’s. This perception can only change if women’s voices are heard across public life, which can be achieved through elevating women to decision-making and influential roles.

All of the above, however, require powerful women to work in the interests of other women. Having women CEOs, politicians, and leading civil society actors will not make the world a better place for women if access to opportunity does not trickle down the hierarchy. Poland and Germany, for example, are both countries led by women and yet they rank below the average score for EU Member States in the EIGE Index. Indeed, in all six categories used to assess equality (Work, Money, Power, Time, Knowledge, and Health) Poland ranks below the EU average, as does Germany in three of those categories. Evidently one woman in a prominent political position cannot fix a country’s gender inequality problems, but women in power have the opportunity (and, I would argue, the responsibility) to empower other women and to set the direction for feminist policy reform across many areas of society. The Ivanka Trumps of this world tilt the gender balance scales simply by being women in power, but their presence alone does not help women as a social category, particularly those who are not white and upper-middle class. Given the stark inequalities women still face as an oppressed class of people today, and the intersecting oppressions faced by women of colour, lower-class women, and homo- or bisexual women, those with access to positions of power need to use their privilege to improve the lot of all women if patriarchal power structures are ever to be dismantled.

Women from diverse backgrounds need access to power en masse in order to move towards equality. As Věra Jourová, European Commissioner for Justice, Consumers and Gender Equality, notes, this is not about making women more like men, but “about creating an environment where both sexes can have equal choices and fully participate in social, work and family life.”

When women are not in power we cannot shape our own lives or the national narratives which govern us. The EIGE Index and its findings are pertinent, but we must also work to ensure that women who want to help women are given access to opportunity, and that all women can gain decision-making power so that all women benefit from the resulting progress

Nathalie Greenfield
Research Associate

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