Why Can't the World Majority Have it Its Way?
Here are some ideas on how us women can fix our representation problem
As a government affairs professional, I’m used to assessing and trying to predict influence and power. I’m especially accustomed to analyzing the interests of the various groups at play on a particular issue. Generally speaking, of course, the larger a group, the greater its political weight. That is, however, when groups are aligned and organized behind an issue of interest. One such major issue is women’s advancement and the inadequate share of space and voice. The data makes matters even more frustrating.
At the end of 2019, there were only ten female heads of state and 13 female heads of government worldwide. According to UN Women, in 2020, only 24.9% of the world’s parliamentarian seats are held by women. In 2019, out of the 500 chief executives leading the highest-grossing businesses, just under 7 percent are women. That is 33 CEOs. Ten years ago, there were 12. Did you know that Katheryn Bigelow is the only woman to have even won an Oscar for Best Movie Director? And that only five female chefs in the world hold 3 Michelin stars? The list goes on…
According to the World Bank’s data in 2019, 49.5% of the world population is female. The fact of the matter is, most citizens are women. So, why is it that female rights and share of voice are more similar to those of a minority? In 2016, 53% of American women voted for Donald Trump, a candidate with openly anti-women views, and competing against a female candidate. In the Italian parliamentary election of March 2018, more women voted for Lega Nord even than men (17.6% of women compared to 17.1% of men). These contemporary versions of populist leaders and movements gauge their consensus based on openly exclusionary agendas that fly directly in the face of pluralism, emancipation, and greater inclusion of women in decision-making.
The notion of “women’s interests”
I am familiar with the arguments explaining why women may choose to elect, in politics and in other contexts, anti-feminist figures or ideas. These arguments revolve around the famous female mistrust towards other women, or the fact that by supporting male candidates, women are prioritizing the economic interests of their households or that of their work life.
There is a body of literature showing that women are less inclined to put themselves forward for posts of increasing responsibilities, believe less in themselves, and often think that it’s better to be helping a powerful man rather than be the powerful woman. In the workplace, women are afraid to be labeled “pushy” or “bitchy”.
Innumerable are the times I have been (and still am) confronted with women that believe more in men than women, that think that “the world belongs to men”, who educate their daughters not to be too ambitious and to be conscious of their supposed “relative weakness”. Having been raised in Southern Italy I used to think that the situation would be much better elsewhere. It is not. This gets to a point where sometimes it’s hard to argue against those who claim that our lack of representation is our fault!
The result is, sadly, a ton of missed opportunities to expand women’s influence. This is as real as it is counterintuitive. No human being should want to be secondary to another, let alone be irrelevant or ignored.
Another argument I often hear is that women are not all the same; they are not all pro-abortion or interested in family or children-friendly policies. Data show that greater female representation does lead to these issues being given more attention and resources but, to me, it is not the main reason for wanting more female influence. Generally speaking, women operate differently than men, even when their agendas are similar. In my experience, I have found that women are more courageous, pragmatic, more focused on the “greater good”, more inclined to understand and account for complexities and interactions. They tend to establish fairer processes, which has huge implications on how decisions are taken, and the resulting decision’s quality.
Strive for individual behavioral changes rather than over-interventionist programs
OECD analyses have shown that laws governing marriage, divorce, inheritance, land rights, and labor markets can determine whether women can make economic decisions in their own name, can own or inherit property and assets, can freely travel to the workplace, and so forth. In some parts of the world, a lot of work is still needed to reflect equality in legislation. But wherever this is already the case, including Europe, inequality still persists. Increased attention on the subject has put pressure on private companies that have started to put in place all sorts of diversity programs, usually focusing on gender — certainly, a good step. But it is clearly an insufficient one. So long as women do not fully assume the goal of expanding their influence and will not behave accordingly, their role in decision-making will continue to be too easily dismissed.
Changing our behavior could lead us much, much further than implementing regulations or bottom-down initiatives. Here are some of my ideas on what we could do, practically:
1. Make explicit that we are seeking more influence and, yes, more power. There is still resistance in women to acknowledge that they want more power. Whether we work in a corporation, an NGO, or a public organization, decision-making must reflect our views and this can only be done by us.
2. Put ourselves forward for posts of greater responsibilities — seats on critical committees, project leadership roles etc. Resist the temptation to stay in the back — or on the sidelines. The simple fact is that we are largely underrepresented, and the only way out is to increase representation.
3. Gather other women around the goal of having more women in power. Unless we are united behind a clearly articulated agenda; we can be easily ignored. There is power in unity.
4. Use every opportunity to help other women. I often help other women over men if the qualifications are equivalent. I make that clear from the beginning. There’s nothing wrong with that.
5. Believe in ourselves, our competencies, and our ability to play the power game. This is a game that, just like any other game, can be learned.
6. Stop being overly judgmental towards other women. Women do not need to be perfect in order to deserve a prominent space. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I believe that an indicator of increasing equality is if there are also some incompetent women who hold high-level positions.
7. Inculcate young women with self-esteem and with, preferably, an endless confidence in themselves. This applies to your daughters, nieces, collaborators, friends, and anyone asking for your advice. Speak highly of women in front of other men.
There is no time like the present
Female candidates in politics, corporations, any other organizational context should, in principle, be able to count on the support of women (and women-supporting men) unless there is anything in their agenda that truly goes against one’s own views. Sadly, I hear “I don’t like her” more often than “I disagree with her strategy for xyz reason”. As award-winning journalist Caitlin Moscatello’s put it in her article in TIME, voting (or choosing) a woman because she’s a woman is as good a reason as any.
I am in my 40s, and, I admit, I was not always as self-conscious as I am now. I was lucky enough to enjoy the support of my parents, my mentors, and my friends throughout my whole life. But the deepest force has always come from within. It is the voice that tells you that you can do anything you want in life. The inner voice that Michelle Obama so well describes in her book Becoming. It is that sense of (non-arrogant) entitlement that gave me the strength to fight so many acts of injustice, both big and small. In later years I developed more self-love, and an even greater belief in myself. But, honestly, that process should have started even earlier.
The time is now. Really. At the next opportunity, let’s do something right for our category.
Let’s build equal teams in our workplace. Let’s volunteer for a bigger project. Let’s help a female friend that has an abusive boyfriend. Let’s vote for a female political candidate. Or let’s be bold, let’s be that candidate.