Subscribe to the latest news from the Nordic Labour Journal by e-mail. The newsletter is issued 9 times a year. Subscription is free of charge.

You are here: Home i In Focus i In focus 2013 i Women in the labyrinths of working life and power i What can we learn from 80 female prime ministers and presidents?
What can we learn from 80 female prime ministers and presidents?

What can we learn from 80 female prime ministers and presidents?

| Text: Björn Lindahl , photo: Sebastian Derungs

A lone female leader’s dilemma is whether she manages to change the system before it changes her. You need a critical mass of 30 to 35 percent female parliamentary representation before you get lasting cultural, political and practical change, writes Torild Skard in her book on female presidents and prime ministers between 1960 and 2000.

Torild Skard has been an MP and Director for Questions relating to the Status of Women at UNESCO. She has coordinated UNICEF’s work for children in 23 African countries and has attended several major UN women’s conferences.

Last year her book ‘Maktens kvinner’ [‘Women of power’] was published, where she writes about the 73 women who have been elected prime minister or president between 1960, when Sirimavo Banandaraike broke the gender barrier in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), until 2000. She details how they reached the top and asks whether these women of power can teach us something.

Since then a further seven female leaders have been elected, so the total number is now 80. The latest addition is South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye who was sworn into office on 25 February this year. 17 women hold one of the two positions of power today, among them Iceland’s Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir  and Helle Thorning-Schmidt in Denmark. The world’s two most powerful women are Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was elected in 2005, and Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff, elected in 2011. 

Torild Skard’s search for common ground shows the first women came to power often as a result of family connections. Sirimavo Banandaraike and Isabel Peron were both widows of politicians, while Indira Ghandi was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first Prime Minister. Élisabeth Domitién became Prime Minister without any family links, but in the Central African Republic - a country run by the megalomaniac Jean-Bédel Bokassa. Out of the first five female pioneers, only Golda Meir in Israel was elected on her own merits.

There are major differences between these and the women who have become leaders in the 90s and later:

“Apart from a portion of luck, the women generally reached the top because of their own skills. It is striking how much competence and assertiveness many of them have,” writes Torild Skard.

Three roads to power

According to researchers like Francine D´Amico there are three ways in which women have reached the pinnacle of power. Torild Skard uses a similar but slightly different definition:

  1. Replacements - women who take over a family member’s position of power.
  2. The insiders - who climb to power in a political party.
  3. The outsiders - who get a position of power because of their work in voluntary organisations, on a grassroots level or because of their profession.

These three roads to power might appear simple, but they are long:

“It has almost become standard language to say women reach a ‘glass ceiling’ blocking the road to leadership,” writes Torild Skard, who criticises the expression because the metaphor implies it is possible to break through that ceiling once and for all.

Labyrinth - not glass ceiling

She thinks labyrinth is a better metaphor:

“Women always face barriers they need to scale in order to move on. They have to take detours, go back and travel down complicated and partly hidden paths.”

This also applies to men, but their labyrinths are often simpler. For a woman so many things have to come together: society must be prepared and the political system must be accessible. Women also need suitable skills and support from their environment. Several outstanding female leaders, like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel, have had male mentors - like Edward Heath and Helmut Kohl - while Brazil’s President Dilma Rouseff was backed up by her predecessor Lula da Silva. Yet the relationship to the male mentor must not be too close, or rumours of a sexual relationship might emerge.

Many women rose to power as a result of coincidences - but political decisions on quotas and gender equality have also made things easier. Gro Harlem Brundtland became a government minister in Norway when a female minister for social affairs died. When one of the male government ministers saw her in a televised debate on abortion, a question close to the young doctor’s heart, he put Brundtland’s name forward. She did not become minister for social affairs but the Environment Minister. A few years later she was elected deputy party leader. When Prime Minister Odvar Nordli stepped down because of ill health and party leader Reiulf Steen lacked the necessary support, she became the natural candidate for the premiership. By herself she decided to take the fight to also become the party leader at the next party congress. 

Different gender and political roles

For male leaders there are no major differences between the role as a man and the role as a politician. In both cases the man is expected to be ambitious, determined, conflict oriented and tough. 

“Based on gender divisions within the workplace, however, women are expected to be cooperative, caring, ready to compromise and peaceful. In politics women are expected to be both ‘women’ and ‘political leaders’, not always an easy combination,” writes Torild Skard. She says the following conditions need to be in place in order to increase the number of women in positions of power:

  • The political culture needs to change to make sure the recruitment to political parties, internal processes, elections and decision processes aren’t to the disadvantage of women.
  • Parliament and government must become more representative. Many election systems allow only one candidate per constituency to win, which makes it harder for women compared to multi-candidate election systems.
  • In many countries feudal power structures, class and caste divides and ethnic gaps need to be overcome before female democratisation can take place.
  • The state must be assertive. Only the state can protect gender equality, protect human rights and further social equality.
Angela Merkel

is Chancellor of Germany and has been named the most powerful woman in the world for a record number of times by Forbes.

Nordic prime ministers and presidents

Vigdís Finnbogadóttir

President, Iceland 1 Aug 1980 - 1 Aug 1996

Gro Harlem Brundtland

Prime Minister, Norway 4 Feb 1981 - 14 Oct 1981; 9 May 1986 - 16 Oct 1989; 3 Nov 1990 - 25 Oct 1996.

Tarja Halonen

President, Finland 1 Mar 2000 - 1 Mar 2012

Anneli Jäätteenmäki

Prime Minister, Finland 17 April 2003 - 18 Jun 2003

Jóhanna Sigurdardóttir 

Prime Minister, Iceland 1 Feb 2009 -

Mari Kiviniemi

Prime Minister, Finland 22 Jun 2010 - 22 Jun 2011 

Helle Thorning-Schmidt

Prime Minister, Denmark 3 Oct 2011 - 

Torild Skard’s book:

Maktens kvinner 

is published by Universitetsforlaget in Norway. 


Receive Nordic Labour Journal's newsletter nine times a year. It's free.

This is themeComment