Female Leaders and Foreign Policy

Foreign Policy and Women

What are the prospects of women leaders in foreign policy roles? How women leaders pursue policy objectives with minimal aggression and more efficiency? Here’s an explainer

In 1916 when Jeannette Rankin became the first elected female to the House of Representatives, her vote in opposition to the United States entering the Second World War and declaring a fight-back against Japan after the attack on Pearl Harbor, was baffling to the aggressive instincts of the American patriarchal culture. The world would have been different if she had been heard. Prime Minister of Israel Golda Meir in 1973 stated: “all of us have learnt the lesson that war solves no problems, that it has the same results for both sides”. 

These words of wisdom could have made a big difference to the world. Hillary Clinton once said, “If I had been President in October of 2002, I would have never asked for authority to divert our attention from Afghanistan to Iraq, and I certainly would never have started this war”. 

That would have changed the course of history. 

Cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker’s book ,The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, argues that female leaders are better because they cannot see their sons and daughters wounded. Likewise, Francis Fukuyama notes that violence in human society is perpetrated by men, who due to biologically rooted behaviour will support increased defence spending and involvement in the war. 

In stark contrast, J. Ann Tickner claims that the association of women with peace damages their credibility in hard politics and makes men the more rational gender, best suited to aggressively pursue the pressing agendas of world politics.

Current Status

The world has witnessed bold and outspoken women in political executive roles. Jeanne Kirkpatrick, the first American woman to serve as US ambassador to the United Nations (1981), was far from the soft feminine traits associated with women and supported authoritarian regimes. National Security Advisor (2000) and US Secretary of State (2005-2009), Condoleezza Rice held office in one of the most stressful periods in the history of the United States. 

India’s Indira Gandhi (1966-1977) and Britain’s Margret Thatcher (1979-1990) are illustrations of uncompromising women prime ministers. German politician Angela Merkel has been topping the list of Forbes 100 Most Powerful Women in the World for quite some time. Prime Minister of Norway, Erna Solberg (2013-present) is nicknamed Iron Solberg for her tough handling of the asylum cases. Embarking on socialist reform programme, Sirimavo Bandaranaike announced her leadership of Sri Lanka and became the first woman prime minister in the world (1960). 

Her daughter, Chandrika Kumaratunga became the President of Sri Lanka (1994-2005) and displayed boldness when tackling the LTTE. Sheikh Hasina, one of the longest-serving Prime Ministers of Bangladesh (2009-present) is applauded for her country’s economic success. These women exemplify pragmatic state-heads.

However, the proportion of female leadership in foreign policy is dismal. Out of the 193 countries of the world, only 19 countries have ever allowed the functioning of a woman as a Head of State. Countries, such as Afghanistan, Algeria, Bahrain, Bhutan, Colombia, China, Gambia, Malaysia, Spain, Yemen, Japan and many more have never accepted a female state head. 12 countries out of the 193 countries have never had any female representation in the Cabinet. 

China has never had a female as its Premier and the US never had a woman President. India has had two female Prime Ministers, but it was occupied by the same lady – Indira Gandhi. Thus, the status of under-representation of women in senior foreign policy positions needs no embellishment and is not constricted to a certain kind of political system.

Despite the movements promoting gender parity, there is scope to conduct research upon the existence of stereotypes in foreign policy positions. It is important to understand why those stereotypes are preferred over competency for senior foreign policy posts.

What’s gone wrong?

One of the major reasons for the low number of women in high posts is the lack of support from men. Women have struggled with amassing support for their project idea and they do not get credit in a board room full of men. The working condition requirements and provisions too differ between genders. To further goals like strategising relations in the office, connecting issues with policy, building a network of a coalition of women government and non-government organisations, women mediators and negotiators prove vital.

Lack of support also refers to non-prioritisation of gender parity in the ministries. No country in the world has reached gender parity in the share of women in their county’s legislatures to date. Yet, there are encouraging examples of gender balancing and resurrection of the issue of lack of women in political executive roles. Canada announced a 50:50 split between men and women in its cabinet and Rwanda constitutionally mandated that 30 per cent of all government decision making bodies must be reserved for women.

Meanwhile, Nordic countries have proven to be forward thinkers with women accounting for 43 per cent of the parliamentary members. The highest figure has been exemplified by Sweden with women occupying 47 per cent of legislative seats.

Moreover, Sweden adopted a radical foreign policy in 2014 – Feminist Foreign Policy. Iceland is famous for electing the world’s first female president named Vigdis Finnbogadottir in 1980 and electing world’s first female gay prime minister – Johanna Siguroardottir. By appointing Sanna Marin as the prime minister, Finland is famous for having the world’s youngest prime minister.

Gender gap

It is unfortunate that though there are countries following a dictum by considering female participation essential for national security and economic development, there are also some areas where women are not allowed to own land, open bank accounts, or take up jobs; are discriminated in the labour market, and are married at a young age. 

The World Economic Forum’s report, Global Gender Gap, declares that the earnings of Indian females are one-fifth of male income. Female representation in India is only 14.4 per cent of the parliament and 23 per cent of the cabinet. Pakistani women occupy only 5 per cent of the senior foreign policy roles dominated by army generals and conservative male politicians.

Another factor inhibiting the lack of women leadership is interest in politics. Women must be encouraged to engage with the political system by fighting for places within the government institutions, military and civilian mission. They must attain positions as policymakers, corporate managers, top officials of unions, political parties, special-interest groups, non-profit organizations, etc. 

Secondly, interest also means diverting attention to emulate the examples set by the successful countries. Both men and women must be interested to examine the prototype created by Sweden and explore the conditions available in their respective countries to make it possible.

And lastly, literacy amongst women plays a pivotal role to not just develop personal excellence but literacy indicators determine how many women are interested or ignorant about politics. The number of women enrolling in subjects like political science, international politics, history, etc., and pursuing higher education or professional aspirations is worth a notice. The statistics will obviously be dismally low and that needs to be changed.

Scope for improvement

Despite studies that prove a woman’s mantle in the field of international relations, it is unfortunate that there is still scope for improvement. There is still much refinement needed to create working conditions that fulfil the needs of men and women. The stereotypes have got the better of rationality. In other words, diversification of international relations awaits an enlightened policy that preserves principles of ethics and equality.

Aditi Paul is a Research Associate with NIICE

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