Women still struggle to achieve positions of power

April 11, 2013 | Times & Transcript

(This post originally appeared in the Times & Transcript on April 11, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.)

The topic of women in positions of influence — meaning positions of power and leadership — is having a much-needed moment in the spotlight.

Mid-March, Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg released Lean In, her book on women’s leadership in government and the workplace and she is now touring the publicity circuit. Last Friday, Minister for the Status of Women Rona Ambrose announced a powerhouse national advisory council dedicated to promoting the participation of women on public and private corporate boards. Earlier this week, Margaret Thatcher, the UK’s only female prime minister to date, died.

Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Ambrose’s recent efforts explore the fact that women continue to be under represented in positions of power and leadership, with each woman focusing on a different context. Mrs. Thatcher’s continued ownership of the title of sole female UK prime minister — nearly a quarter century after the end of her leadership of Britain’s Conservative Party — illustrates this under representation in a clear way.

For all the gains women have made, we remain under represented in positions of power and leadership. It’s not just that we don’t have 50/50 representation with men in government bodies and on boards. In most cases, we don’t even have enough representation to comprise a critical mass, a concept that holds that a demographic needs 30 per cent representation within a group in order to affect the decisions of a group or shift attitudes, consensus, etc. For instance, women would need to comprise 30 per cent of the New Brunswick legislature in order to have an appreciable impact as women; currently, they make up 15 per cent.

It’s fantastic that Ms. Sandberg and Ms. Ambrose recognize the importance of women’s representation in positions of power and leadership and that they’re using the platforms their positions afford them to spread the word and create change. They’re not calling for a revolution to overthrow the patriarchy, but at least they’re doing something within their sphere of influence: getting more women into positions of influence.

It’s important that we get more women into positions of influence so that girls and other women see such positions being occupied by women. Women and girls need to see examples of women in positions of power and leadership if they are to aspire to such positions themselves. In 2011, Miss Representation, an American documentary on how mainstream media portrayals of women contributed to the lack of women in positions of influence, coined the phrase “You can’t be what you can’t see” to encapsulate this truth.

While it’s important that we see women in positions of influence, it’s also vital that women in such positions do more for women than simply serve as an example of achievement. They have to work to ensure that women’s voices are heard, that decision-making bodies are taking the experiences, perspectives, and needs of women into account.

Women face unique barriers and challenges that stem from continued gender inequality in society, meaning that decisions will often affect us differently than men, and those barriers and challenges often go unconsidered in decision-making processes if women aren’t in the room. Women with power need to use their positions to speak up for women — especially the most vulnerable among us — and to elevate women as a class.

Otherwise, we end up with only part of what we need from a woman in power: a symbol with no follow-through on her potential to drive progress for other women.

To illustrate this point, we return to Margaret Thatcher.

She was important for women, symbolically. Her three-term leadership of the ruling Conservative party demonstrated that a woman could head a country like the UK. Mrs. Thatcher’s value for many women, however, ended there.

During her 11 years in power, Mrs. Thatcher only brought one woman into her cabinet, declined to invest in affordable childcare, criticized working mothers for raising a babyish generation and froze child benefits. At one point, her cutting of a program offering free milk to schoolchildren earned her the nickname “Maggie Thatcher, Milk Snatcher.”

Mrs. Thatcher also roundly criticized the women’s movement and insisted she had not benefited from it. “The feminists hate me, don’t they? And I don’t blame them. For I hate feminism. It is poison,” Mrs. Thatcher supposedly said to an advisor. She commented publicly, “The battle for women’s rights has largely been won. The days when they were demanded and discussed in strident tones should be gone forever.“ She stated, “I owe nothing to women’s lib.”

Despite her claims, Mrs. Thatcher undeniably benefited from the work that her much loathed ‘women’s libbers’ had done. She benefited from the work of feminism and then threw the movement under the bus; she benefited from the work of women before her who agitated for social change, and then did nothing to build on their good work.

As we watch this movement to improve women’s representation in positions of influence, we would do well to remember the legacy of Margaret Thatcher. We can’t trust that simply having women in positions of influence is enough; we need those women who do have power and leadership to understand that women’s inequality persists and that they are in a position to create important change. Women’s equality isn’t going to be achieved through some kind of trickle-down effect, but by all women, no matter their position, acknowledging that inequality persists and leveraging what power they can to challenge it.

Read More »