Throughout October, my cohort of American Marshall Memorial fellows encountered world leaders throughout Europe and observed their various leadership styles. These leaders embodied a sense of pride and dedication to the work they do every day. Of particular interest for me was the rise of women leaders in these countries and what America could learn from trends abroad in support of women and their impact on societal norms and beliefs.
Meeting women leaders in Belgium, Sweden, Spain, Serbia, and Germany offered an interesting glimpse into these societies and the beliefs they hold regarding women in leadership roles. The observation consisted of women in elective office, serving within non-governmental organizations, and civic engagement organizations. These women influenced my experience, as I traveled across the continent, shaping my perceptions of everything from the dialogues the cohort engaged in about emerging policy issues, to the broader question of work/life balance.
As we traveled through the different regions of Europe, each country we experienced seemed to be at a different phase of the overall project of advancing gender equity. Each country offered varied representation of women in leadership roles across the public and the private sectors. Sweden is an example. Recent data shows that Sweden ranks fourth globally in female representation in parliament. In Sweden, women represent 45% of their parliament. Spain, Belgium, Serbia and Germany all rank among the top 30 countries with more than 30% of the members of parliament being women. The United States (U.S.) data presents a stark contrast to European Parliaments with only 18.3% (98) members of the U.S. Congress and Senate being women.
Recognizing that these countries are at different phases of getting more women into elective office, it is evident that the voices and concerns of women have been heard –or are beginning to gain traction as a result of these female leaders being bold and building consensus amongst their male colleagues. In the early 1970’s, Sweden recognized that they were lacking in gender equity within their political system. The Liberal Party was the first to institute a voluntary quota of 40% and the other parties followed suit. The general policy impact on gender equity could definitely be attributed to the high number of women policy makers in Sweden.
In the Balkan region, Serbia is noted for making significant advances as a result of a legislated quota implemented in 2011. With a highly educated and skilled population of women, Serbia was well positioned to embrace the idea of gender equity within parliament. Additionally, the European Union urged Serbia to revisit its electoral laws to better represent women in politics. It will be interesting to observe Serbia over the next few years to assess the progress on this subject of equity.
These observations beg the question: why does America fall so far behind on this issue of equity for women in elected office? Could we transform our society as a result of this type of shift in electoral politics? We have national, statewide, and local programs that train and prepare women to increase their civic participation and yet we rank as one of the lowest countries for electing women into office. Foreign countries definitely have other priorities but they chose to focus on getting women into politics; evidently the U.S. must do better.