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Sunday, September 19, 2021
NEW DELHI, India, Jun 7 2021 (IPS) - What is the first thing that comes to your mind when you read the words, women and power? The accepted wisdom is that women can be powerful, but not without the constant reference to their gender – which is often based on a set of unconscious biases towards them. Is she competent enough, effective, articulate without being too assertive or too aggressive. Is she a straightjacket, is she too emotional, will her family life impact her work or vice versa. Is she smart enough to camouflage her intelligence, is she ready for a key position, is it worth making her powerful?
Across the world we do see powerful women, but ‘women in power’, remain significantly underrepresented across a variety of professional fields, in business, academic, politics and media. The goal is to challenge the perception of fixed gender roles, which is often internalized.
“We need more women in power,” says Dr. Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, 6th and First Female President of Mauritius and Biodiversity Scientist in an interview given to me.
“We need women in political positions because when an important decision is taken it is usually bent towards better equity in the family and society. This can happen when women are there and that’s why we make a case for women to be in that position of power,” says Dr. Gurib-Fakim.
During the recent Covid-19 crisis, multiple reports and studies stated that women were doing a better job in running their country through the crisis, including the number of cases and deaths, which were systematically better in countries led by women.
The United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) calls for women’s equal participation and leadership in political and public life which it states as an essential to achieving the SDG goals by 2030.
However, according to this report by UN Women, women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 22 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader. Just 10 countries have a woman Head of State, and 13 countries have a woman Head of Government. Data from 133 countries shows that women constitute 2.18 million (36 percent) of elected members in local deliberative bodies. “At the current rate of progress, gender parity in national legislative bodies will not be achieved before 2063,” the report states.
It has been 26 years since the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995, called the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action. 189 governments committed to the most progressive blueprint ever for advancing women’s rights, including women in power and decision-making, women and the economy and women and poverty.
UN Secretary-General António Guterres said: “Progress towards equal power and equal rights for women remains elusive.” Women need to have a more prominent role, in power and decision-making, states this report by the United Nations.
In one of my earlier pieces for IPS News, I wrote, power is the ability to influence the behaviour of others to get what you want. Power distribution is usually visible in most societies when there is a clear and obvious division between the roles of the men and expectations from women.
The power construct is often created keeping the roles of the men in mind, and not women. Studies have shown and proven the potential of women and their leadership style, yet despite that women are still minority groups when it comes to holding powerful positions. Men are often hired or placed in top positions based on their potential, and women based on a check list. Constituents don’t trust female politicians that are too “ambitious,” and powerful women are “unlikeable,” a few explanations for the astounding gender gap we see in politics.
This study by the Council on Foreign Relations states that “holding political office is just the first step to wielding political power, in many countries, institutional structures and political systems still limit women’s ability to influence policy. Being the first woman elected to a leadership position often means navigating previously male-dominated structures, which can translate into political caution rather than policy change. Regardless of outcome, as the number of women leaders increases, more women will likely be inspired to become politically engaged.”
Looking into women’s participation in political and public life – there are multiple barriers that hold them back, including cultural biases and traditional gender stereotypes. Gender inequality lives and breathes in the 21st century, and needs to be addressed in order to get more women in politics or in positions of power.
“The political arena is very brutal and women, very often, don’t have self-confidence. Society puts a lot of pressure on women and they tend to conform. By conforming, they do themselves a very big injustice and do not take the risk,” says Dr. Gurib-Fakim.
Dr. Gurib-Fakim has been amongst the few Muslim women who shattered multiple glass ceilings and challenged stereotypes by becoming the first woman to serve as president of Mauritius and one of only four women presidents in Africa. Along with this, Dr. Ameenah is also a scientist who has been a dedicated advocate for engaging women and girls in STEM innovation.
Nothing is more powerful than your influence when it is led by purpose. As seen in the case of Dr. Ameenah, it takes a lot of grit, resilience, courage and responsibility to be a ‘woman in power’. “We don’t provide sufficient role models for women who have made it as an entrepreneur, scientist, even as a Nobel prize winner. There are a lot of stereotypes that need to be addressed.”
“For me, the journey all the way through the Statehouse was a message to that girl growing up in my village. That she can wake up one day and say I too can make it because someone else has done it through hard work and through taking risks. Women have to dream big and they have to sustain the vision, goal and passion,” said Dr. Gurib-Fakim.
The author is a journalist and filmmaker based out of New Delhi. She hosts a weekly online show called The Sania Farooqui Show where Muslim women from around the world are invited to share their views.
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