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Women in Action — Highlights From The 2020 Reykjavik Women Leaders Forum 

Women Leaders call for urgent actions on gender balance, health protection, and building power and confidence together.


Since 2018, women leaders from around the world have gathered in the Harpa, one of the shining beacons of Reykjavik, to discuss how to advance gender equality and improve the number of women in leadership positions.

The arctically hipster capital of Iceland was not chosen by hazard. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2020 Global Gender Gap Report, Iceland leads the world in terms of gender equality. Having introduced women’s suffrage in 1915, it was the first country in the world to elect a female President, Vigdís Finnbogatóttir (also a single mother) in 1980 and has since elected two other women to prime minister’s office, including the current one, Katrin Jakobsdottir. Measures that are thought to have played a major role in making this tiny country a global role model include universal affordable childcare and non-transferable parental leave for both women and men.

While the heart of the Forum operations was maintained in the Harpa, this year its proceedings happened entirely online, after Jakobsdottir insisted that it should go on. “People say that we have a crisis, and we don’t have the time to deal with gender equality. And I respond, it’s always the right time to talk about gender equality” she said.

The Forum is hosted by the government and parliament of Iceland alongside Women Political Leaders (WPL), a Brussels-based think tank founded and headed by former Vice-President of the European Parliament who was ranked one of 100 most influential persons on gender equality, Silvana Koch-Mehrin. Last week Koch-Mehrin gave a brave interview to Der Spiegel about her experience with breast cancer.

Regular Forum speakers have included Angela Merkel (absent this year), Melinda Gates, Hillary Clinton, José Manuel Barroso, and Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

Perception of women as suitable for power-roles still lags behind.

The Forum presented the latest data from the Reykjavik Index for Leadership, a study that was run across the G7 countries which measured how women and men rate themselves and each other in terms of their suitability for leadership. A score of 100 would indicate full equality. A score of less than 100 shows that prejudice still exists in society that holds against female leadership. Canada, the best in class, only scores 77. In Italy, the lowest-scoring country in this group, only 47% of the population (women and men) would be very comfortable having a woman as head of government. Which indicates that not just men but also women give a lower score to women compared to men. Perhaps even more worryingly, the findings across the G7 group have not improved since the year before. Forum Board Chairwoman Kristjansdottir summarized it bluntly: “If we are honest with ourselves about the perception of leadership, the perception of power, research shows 80% of people see white, middle-aged men.”

Some of the elements behind perception-related finding may very well be the same that halt women to reach leadership roles. So, what are they? In Hillary Clinton’s words, it is “The norms that are still so prevalent, that still hold women back — these norms work to make women feel they are not good enough, not smart enough.” “Focusing on those norms,” she added “pulling them out into the bright sunlight, (…) so that people can actually come to terms with them, is critical.”

Also critical is the ability of women to be there for each other: “We need women who are very committed to increasing space for women,” said Clinton, echoed by similar comments from other women leaders such as Thoraya Obaid, former United Nations Under-Secretary General and named by Forbes among the world’s 50 Most Powerful Arab Women.

Politics is still a hostile environment for women.

One measure of equality is a larger female presence within parliaments and governments. With women in 2019 holding 25.2% of parliamentary (lower house) seats and 21.2% of ministerial positions worldwide, the WEF Gender Gap Report estimates that, at the current pace, it will take 95 years to close the gender gap in political representation. Only 20 heads of state or government posts are currently occupied by women, which accounts for less than 11% of all of them. 70% of nations have never been led by a woman.

These numbers are already frightening in themselves, but “they are not the only thing that count” warns Lenita Freidenvall from Stockholm University. “Women need to be able to serve in public office under the same conditions as men, and politics seems to be quite a hostile environment for women everywhere.”

Work conducted by the Inter-Parliamentary Union shows that being parliamentarians places women at risk of various forms of violence and harassment. The media often perpetuate the problem by stereotyping women members of parliaments (MPs), especially by objectifying and sexualizing them as well as over-emotionalizing their comments and behavior. Social media often creates a ripple effect around such behavior, which then creates a disproportionate impact. The latest IPU study on the subject shows that over 80% of women MPs polled had experienced some form of psychological violence, and that 20% of them have been sexually harassed.

Sviatlana Tsikhanouskaya, leader of democratic Belarus and one of the Forum’s speakers, knows a thing or two about how dangerous politics can be. Recently put-on Russia’s wanted-list for her opposition to current-President Alexander Lukashenko, Sviatlana shook the audience when she said “It is difficult to be a leader in democratic Belarus. It was not a conscious choice to take on this role, but I stepped up. I always thought I was weak, but women underestimate themselves.” Not everyone is as explicit as Lukashenko in declaring that women should not run countries, but according to former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard “People still respond adversely to ambitious women, because they see them as too self-seeking.”

Not surprisingly, Kamala Harris’ appointment as the first-ever female Vice-President of the United States was enthusiastically referenced by a number of speakers. But, as a Swedish parliamentarian warned, “Changes in other countries do not necessarily make the difference. You need to cultivate your pool of female politicians locally”.

COVID hit women disproportionately, but is also an opportunity to “build back better”.

Expectedly, the COVID crisis was covered in numerous aspects, all with a common starting point: the pandemic is a harsh reminder of the inequalities that still exist in the world.

COVID has revealed the disproportionate burden of care-work carried by women serving an economy that fails to value it. International health economist Felicia Knaul calls unpaid caregiving “a significant hidden subsidy for health and social care systems that continues to be unrecognized, unaccounted for, unregulated, and disproportionately the responsibility of women.”

“COVID has exposed all the cracks of our society,” adds world-renowned philanthropist Melinda Gates. “Women have kept the world together through childcare, healthcare and leadership. But how much say will they have in shaping the world after the pandemic?” She said that one of the good things about the pandemic is that it put unpaid labor in front of everyone’s eyes, and now it can no longer be ignored. “Global leaders see it. Everyone sees it. We can look at this moment and say that these gender issues are the crucial issues.”

“Women make up over 70% of the world’s health workforce, but men continue to dominate leadership roles in global health,” confirms WHO DG Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “If there ever was a time when we truly we needed to step up the progress for women in leadership in global health, this is it” — he said.

So, why do we need women leadership?

Over the past several months, leaders such as Angela Merkel, Sanna Marin, Jacinda Arden, and Tsai Ing-wen have been celebrated in the media as examples of positive responses to the pandemic. Addressing the Reykjavik Forum, twice-elected Norwegian Prime Minister Erna Solberg said that “we should not draw hasty conclusions,” adding though that “democratic countries where women are able to reach top positions in society are also the countries that are best equipped to handle crises such as Covid-19.” Solberg is also a co-chair of the UN Secretary General’s Advocacy group for Sustainable Development Goals and a champion of multilateral cooperation. She is someone who pretty much embodies the qualities of female leadership that former President of Ireland Mary Robinson describes — “problem-solving, collaborative, listening, bringing people along through trust; a leadership of serving others.”

The Reykjavik Women Leaders Forum has been called the World Economic Forum Davos of women leaders. Although what sets it apart from the WEF’s Annual Meeting is the ego-free style of most speakers, the attention to the more vulnerable populations, the emphasis on cooperation, and the simplicity and sobriety of many of these high-level women.

The Forum is a call for half of the population to be proportionately represented in country’s institutions and wherever decisions are made. It has been said that when you achieve gender equality, there are no losers, there are only winners. Looking at the competence, agendas, and style of these women leaders, it’s hard to disagree.

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