Mojca Svetek: Why there are no progressive women in leading positions, and why there should be

It is true that a greater number of women in politics and in leading positions sends a positive message to girls and women, as well as to boys and men, and shows that these domains are not exclusively male – they belong to both genders. We are still limited by the traditional dichotomous view of women as primarily mothers and housewives, who are naturally too emotional and too soft for politics, which is seen as a “male preserve”. References to what is natural are, of course, only a way of justifying and preserving the existing horizontal and vertical segregation of genders. Women who are “too ambitious”, “too dominant” and “too aggressive” quickly find themselves removed from their positions, a process supported by the patriarchal ideology.

In the last couple of months in Slovenia, we witnessed the media lynching of Alenka Bratušek. She became the main source of entertainment for Slovene citizens. She was made fun of, openly or covertly, during entertainment programmes, in columns, on the news and during everyday conversations for her bad English, her style, Juncker’s unconditional support of her candidacy (supposedly based on her gender, even though that was not Juncker’s only or even the most important reason), for being too aggressive and too ambitious. Considerably less time was dedicated to actual content. And therein lies the problem. The media and the public treated Alenka Bratušek differently than her male colleagues. This does not mean that the criticisms of her politics were unjustified, but it seems as if her gender was an excuse for the ridicule to go that much further.

We need to realise that formal, normative rights (such as the right of women to compete for positions in politics or on governing boards) are a necessary, but not sufficient condition for actual equal opportunities for women. To make these opportunities really accessible to women, we need to demolish those social structures that prevent their political participation, such as insufficiently institutionalised care (including child protection and care, staff canteens, care for the elderly, etc.), which mostly falls to women. As a consequence, women have problems with “juggling career and family”. In a capitalist society, women can solve these problems if they have enough money, which allows them to employ women (and men) from lower social classes, who are paid miserably to take over the devalued “women’s tasks” (as maids, nannies, cooks, etc.). Of course, this solution does not improve the position of women in general, but only of the privileged few. The main thing that needs to be done away with is the accompanying patriarchal ideology concerning the nature of women (and men), which suggests what are the “appropriate” gender roles. These have become (with the help of various “scientific” explanations to lend them the illusion of objectivity) completely taken for granted, which allows them to support more efficiently the capitalist mode of production. When a woman, in accordance with her supposed nature, reproduces and maintains (takes care of) the workforce for free, this cost is not paid by the capitalist, but by the household. Since reproduction is seen as a fulfilment of women’s natural function, it is given no special value and is considered as an unlimited resource. It is also important for capitalism that women take care of the appropriate socialisation of future workers through appropriate, gendered education. They must also play the role of a shock-absorber for (their husbands’) worries and doubts caused by social uncertainty and exclusion from the decision-making processes at work, by letting the men make decisions at home. Patriarchal ideology actively justifies and enforces the reproduction of women’s roles, and thus directly supports capitalism.

The greater representation of women in leading social positions has the potential to influence the gender power imbalance. However, individual women in high places are no guarantee that this will actually happen. Let us consider the examples of two European female politicians, who both managed three mandates at the top of the political hierarchy: Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel.

Margaret Thatcher (photo via Wikimedia)
Margaret Thatcher (photo via Wikimedia)

For both of them, the path to the top was far from easy due to the current patriarchal ideology (for example, their male colleagues did not believe that they had the necessary skills and characteristics to successfully lead a country). And in the course of their mandates (which were very different), neither of them fought against these ideologies. Neither Thatcher nor Merkel declared themselves to be feminists, though there is no doubt that their gender affected their careers. While Thatcher directly expressed her (negative) opinion on feminism and did not hesitate to use her gender as a marketing strategy when necessary, Merkel actively avoids commenting on anything concerning gender or feminism. As a consequence, gender-related questions in German politics receive no recognition and remain unresolved. The social democrats (SPD) criticise Merkel for doing nothing to reduce the wage inequality gap between men and women in Germany, which is the third largest in Europe, right after Estonia and Austria (where the gap was around 22.5% over the last eight years). In addition, Merkel’s party (CDU) opposed the introduction of 40% gender quotas for leading positions in companies (in the end, it negotiated for 30% gender quotas on the supervisory boards of the companies on stock markets) and has the lowest percentage of women in parliament.

However, most concerning is the question that arises at this point: What would happen if Thatcher and Merkel declared themselves to be feminists and dedicated their mandates to eliminating gender inequality? Would they be forced out of politics? Does long-lasting success in politics for women really mean that they have to promise, explicitly or implicitly, not to try and change the male-oriented nature of politics, not to threaten the patriarchate? Is that the only way for them to be welcomed at least to some extent?

Women in politics and in decision-making positions are necessary. It is dangerous for women not to participate in the public debate on their health, bodies and lives and not to engage in the shaping of society. It is absolutely impossible to build a fair society without the participation of women in decision-making and without the realisation that their involvement is necessary. However, having women in leading positions is no guarantee of an improved position for women as long as they need to (or feel like they need to) at least partially sacrifice the “women’s issue” in order to remain in that position. And the “women’s issue” will be sacrificed again and again until society becomes aware of the workings and effects of the patriarchate and starts demanding an end to patriarchal pressure. And by society, we mean women and men.


Mojca Svetek (Photo: personal collection)
Mojca Svetek (Photo: personal collection)

Author: Mojca Svetek, psychology student and representative of the Department of Psychology in the Student Organisation, member of progressive student and feminist groups and initiator of a pro-feminist work group within the student organisation Iskra. Her interests include the psychology of social gender, feminist theory, the naturalisation and (re)production of the gender hierarchy, and the effects of socio-economic status on outcomes in life. She is also the author of a Wiki article about women in leading positions.


Title photo: Angela Merkel. Via Wikipedia.


Translated by: Taja Gorjan.

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