• Manisha Balkissoon

Looking At Our Future Selves: A Portrait Of Women On Fire


In 2019, Elle Magazine UK launched their #MoreWomen campaign with a series of photos where

male political leaders were removed from pictures and we were confronted with a lonesome image of Hilary Clinton sitting alone at a board meeting and Angela Merkel standing in a hall by herself. Images can depict an illusion when we look at what we have constructed for ourselves as a global society. Or it can convey an omnipresent truth when we choose to SEE instead of comforting ourselves with a delusion of equality. Some may uphold these pictures as emblems of our progress, others view these images as a harsh reminder that even more progress is to be achieved. Covid-19 has been a test for not only civilians but for political leaders trying to regain a sense of normalcy in our social, political and economic lives. However, countries led by women have experienced more success in lowering infection rates and deaths than those led by men. As young women , this is a momentous time where we see ourselves represented on international platforms by women of different races, cultural heritage and backgrounds demonstrating strength, grace and solidarity that have resulted in their countries being able to see striking results in the fight against Covid-19.



What does it mean to be a woman in a powerful political position?

When the former Australian Prime Minister pre-Covid, Julia Gillard poignantly and unapologetically highlighted the sexism faced by women in Parliament by male opposition members in 2012, no lies were told. Being a woman in the male-dominated arena of politics is daunting. It means that your appearance is given more importance than your education, impact and voice as Hilary Clinton confessed. It means being interrupted during a live national debate like United States Democratic Vice President 20202 Candidate Kamala Harris and having to politely ask her opposing candidate to let her finish. It means maintaining your composure, reason and peace in situations where one’ s natural instinct is to express frustration and dissatisfaction. It means you are constantly confronted with men who refuse to acknowledge you, listen to your opinions, give you the respect deserved even though you have earned that seat at the table as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez confessed. It means having your every move and sentence be a generalisation and a standard for every other woman who succeeds you. It means disregarding the micro-aggressions, sexist statements, actions and norms you have been fed as a staple in your diet from the home, school, media about how you should behave, speak and react or rather not react. It means doing what it takes to be taken seriously, to perhaps feel the dogging need to adopt masculine traits. It means having your political views, opinions and actions for progress receive twice the amount of doubt, insecurity and distrust compared to a male colleague.



What successful leadership during a global pandemic looks like?

When we think of a leader, we envision an agile decision-maker, someone who listens to their

people, experts and key stakeholders. We want an empath, someone with conviction but also one

who is willing to admit their wrongs, learn and take improved actions. These attributes were

exemplified by women leading their nations as they navigated the uncertainty of a pandemic.


CONVICTION

When Silveria Jacob began trending for her warnings ‘Don’t Move. If you don’t have bread, eat

crackers’ , we were in awe of her conviction. Leaders’ words and actions relay to a nation how they

should treat a situation. Leniency and disregard breed complacency but firm, well-supported

warnings engender caution. She said what was needed to be said for her nation to truly internalise the severity of the issue, that lives could be lost. Angela Merkel unapologetically told her country that the virus would infect up to 70% of the population and they should take it seriously. Germany went right into testing surpassing Britain and the US in phases of denial, anger and procrastination. They said what needed to be said and did so in time.


DECISIVENESS

We observed Tsai Ing-Wen, President of Taiwan taking immediate action by introducing 124

measures to prevent the spread without resorting to lockdowns when she observed initial signs of illness in January 2020. This has led to a remarkably low infection and death rate, reportedly only 6 deaths in in April. She has not stopped there as she is readily assisting US and Europe with the provision of face masks. Jacinda Arden kept her eyes open and implemented self-isolation for entrants early in 2020 and banned foreigners completely after. We also observe Denmark’s Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen closing Denmark’s borders on 13 th March, wasting no time which led to them being one of the first country to emerge from lockdown and reopen its schools. These quick decisions compared to the procrastination exhibited by Sweden, US and UK resulted in a 94% national approval rate of how Frederiksen and her government handled the pandemic. This risk averse attitude led to effective risk management measures to be taken with countries like New Zealand going into lockdown as soon as they saw the international spread. Professors Supriya Garikipati and Uma Kambhampti from the Universities of Liverpool and Reading postulate in their paper, ‘Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender Really Matter?’ that these cautious steps could possibly be connected to female leaders being alert and prudent with the reality of the pandemic as opposed to the risk-embracing, crass attitudes of their contemporary male counterparts.


INNOVATION

Since Covid-19 has disrupted and infiltrated every aspect of daily living, imagination is required to

navigate the unfamiliar landscape. These leaders understood that from the get- go their decisions needed to be accompanied with new solutions. Sanna Marin, Finland’s Prime Minister understood the millennial demographic’s propensity to not always read the news so she recruited social media influencers to disperse key, factual information about the virus to the public. Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrin Jakobstdottir supported the development and implementation of a tracking system for the virus leading to higher numbers of people being screened. This led them to not close schools or go into lockdown even in April, the peak of the virus spread.


EMPATHY

While leading involves making difficult decisions and delivering mandatory messages to protect your nation, it also involves seeing citizens as human beings enduring an emotionally distraught time. The regulator and decision-maker role must also be accompanied by the human role of empathising with every man, woman and child undergoing such phenomenal change. Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg understood the multifaceted nature of her position and used television broadcasts to speak to children nation-wide. No adults were allowed as she comforted them, answered their questions and reassured them that their feelings of fear and anxiety were valid, understandable and natural . Jacinda Arden understood the need to show solidarity with her countrymen as she posted on her social media her daily routines, time spent with her family and how she too, admittedly, was feeling the dark side of being in quarantine. This point of relatability cemented the trust, love and confidence New Zealanders needed to have in its government during this time.



Why is this time important?

You may argue that we have had in the past, women who have led major movements, political

parties and countries to freedom, new modes of thinking but why have they been allocated a

specific time frame within history? They were singular in their charge and hour of need. What an

incredibly alienating experience for our foremothers to chart the course without having a sister in

arms perhaps going through the same trials and tribulations. But never have we seen women on

multiple political platforms incite this phenomenal change at the same time especially during a

global pandemic.


When headlines appeared after the world noticed the remarkable differences made in countries that were female led, I remember my friend posting some on her Instagram story. She was proud as I was and wanted to share this information with her counterparts. A friend of hers took issue in particular with the headline, ‘Countries led by female leaders are doing better than those led by men…’. It seemed counterproductive to him to highlight ‘FEMALE’ when they should just be seen as leaders. Why not just say these particular countries were able to progress and achieve a lower infection and death rate because of the LEADERS’ capabilities? Why highlight the fact that they were female? It was enough that they were political figures just doing their jobs.


What this friend failed to realise was the historical and socio-cultural impact of the headline. After centuries of internalised misogyny, international condemnation and doubts that plague positions when women seem to be in power, we had although not rare, highlighted instances of women excelling in their capacity as leaders and finally being recognised for their efforts. These headlines will not with one publishing eradicate the patriarchal insecurity that both women and men feel when they see powerful women in positions, but it does make a significant impact. It is no secret that women have to constantly prove themselves and here was an opportunity that women have not only proved themselves as leaders but unapologetically as WOMEN in leadership positions. They rose to the occasion with their intelligence, competence and understanding and just as themselves. Young women could see themselves represented on a global forum by these women who remained true to themselves in the cut-throat, male-dominated political jungle.


Highlighting their gender in no way undercuts the efforts of male leaders and seeks to vilify the

current males in power. Instead it seeks to address a historical injustice in the vilification of the

‘powerful political woman’. The political agility, resoluteness and control demonstrated also debunks myths popularised by media and within the political forums itself about women in leadership roles. Myths about them being too emotional for stressful situations, becoming hysterical, irrational are now becoming obsolete and illogical as we saw the seriousness and capability demonstrated in their quick and well-advised decision making.



A New Type of Leadership

One of the reasons these headlines and the overall sensationalisation of females in these

capacities emerged was because of the stark contrast in leadership styles from males. The USA

President Donald Trump and Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro, Hungary’s Victor Orban, Israel’s

Benjamin Netanyahu, Russia’s Vladimir Putin , India’s Narendra Modi and the Philippines’s Rodrigo

Duterte all adopted aggressive approaches to the virus, often denying its existence, implementing measures too late and refusing themselves to adhere to regulations when they were finally implemented. This ‘hypermasculinity’ and national exceptionalism exhibited was a point of major contention especially when it continuously led to exponentially high infection rates and deaths. Alice Evans, acclaimed sociologist at King’s College London examines the style of leadership that the world is conditioned to view as superior where leaders never submit to other countries, employ belligerent and facetious tactics. However, we can look forward to a reinvention of global leadership. One that is thoughtful, empathetic and risk-averse. This type of caring leadership is being pioneered by women and if we see it being adopted by more leaders, the geopolitical landscape would perhaps be more stable and diplomatic. Women are fashioning a new type of leadership, one that is inclusive, respectful and authentic.


Seeing a plethora of women speaking at political rallies, writing, introducing and debating major

policy changes, legislation and leading nations through crises should not be seen as an anomaly for the future we want to create for our children. While women presently hold 25% of Parliamentary lower-house seats, 21% of ministerial positions according to the World Economic Forum, we must continue striving for more representation. We must continue having difficult conversations with our dubious friends, fighting the micro-aggressions we encounter in our every day lives and in the media until the images of political leaders show us in equal proportion to our male counterparts. There have been a few cherished moments amongst these emotionally, socially and politically turbulent months and women taking the helm in leading has, in my opinion, been the highlight.

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