In a year of political upheaval, at least one trend is broadly encouraging: that is, the steady increase of female political leaders.
In the UK alone, today women are at the helm of the central government and all but one of the devolved administrations.
The instalment of Nicola Sturgeon as SNP leader and First Minister of Scotland in 2014 was followed by Arlene Foster’s ascension to DUP leader in late 2015, and First Minister in January this year. In July we saw Theresa May’s somewhat swift and unexpected promotion to Prime Minister.
Plaid Cymru in Wales, the Scottish branches of the Labour and Conservative parties, and our own Alliance Party in Northern Ireland are now all led by women.
This echoes a European-wide metamorphosis: German Chancellor Angela Merkel is no longer the only female face amongst a sea of grey suits and grey hair. Besides Theresa May, she is flanked by the female Prime Ministers of Denmark, Norway and Poland.
Dr Julie Gottlieb advances the idea “that women are being catapulted into leadership roles to clean up the mess created by men”; this bears some logic given the timing of this surge in female leaders.
Nonetheless, it is dangerous to view things so simplistically; besides, what constitutes ‘cleaning up the mess’ is a matter of opinion. The United States has just narrowly missed out on having the first woman in the White House. Hillary Clinton was arguably their most qualified presidential candidate in modern times and was ironically beaten by a shameless misogynist who far too many people see as the strongman who will clean things up.
Meanwhile France may also be close to electing its first female President. However, Marine Le Pen carries such a far-right, protectionist agenda that she would smash more than just the glass ceiling; she could completely rip up the European project.
It is also important to stress that this veneer of female leadership masks a different reality in which female participation in politics is still staggeringly scant. According to UN Women, as of June 2016, only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women.
Such is their rarity, that female political leaders are constantly subjected to comparisons, merely by virtue of sharing a gender, and often nothing else! Although Theresa May and Margaret Thatcher do have more than their gender in common, they have been compared much more minutely than any two male conservative leaders.
Women in power also fall prey to rigorous scrutiny by the mainstream media on issues which would never feature with their male counterparts, and which are entirely unrelated to their work, such as their appearance, their marital status and whether or not they have children. More sinister is the all-too-common online heckling of female politicians drummed up on social media which often extends to death threats.
Of course, having women at the forefront of public life does not eradicate these problems, nor does it mean that women’s issues are automatically championed.
Thatcher once declared ‘I hate feminism,’ and today we have leaders like Arlene Foster who is, if anything, anti-feminist given her refusal to budge in any meaningful way on the DUP’s stance on reproductive rights, to provide but one example.
On the whole, policy specifics are crucial to help bridge the gender gap in politics, yet, setting substance aside, ambitious, resolute female politicians like Foster can at least serve as an inspiration to other women to step up to the mark and fight our corner.
More women in politics can only be a good thing. Not only would it mean more accurate and effective representation of the electorate, women politicians tend to be stylistically different from male colleagues. A more collaborative and empathetic approach could move us away from the public schoolboy mud-slinging which dominates places like Westminster, and to some extent may answer the current overwhelming demand for change in the air.