Our personal and professional paths are unique, so every woman has her own experience, which cannot be easily compared with others. But the common denominator that leaves a woman’s career path fraught with both visible and hidden obstacles is brutally evidenced by the statistics: in politics and business, the share of women in leadership positions is low, too low. Regardless of our good, often better, education, regardless of our good or better results. This is why we still need to deal with the issue of gender quotas, which, in a way, cast a shadow on our mission. And this is why, even after we have succeeded, we unfortunately still need to navigate a world where different rules apply to men and women.
Although I was long loath to believe it, I now have to admit that only changing my career from reporting to politics – stepping from the critical background to the unpredictable foreground – made me fully aware of it. Or, to put it another way, my political ascent shattered my belief that women in leadership positions have equal opportunities to men.
It may seem, from what is said, that opportunities are given to the woman more qualified for the job. In reality, many obstacles remain. I had to put more effort into proving myself and expend more energy and determination to show what I can do. For a long time, the rules in politics have been exclusively shaped by men, and in many ways these rules still seem unbreakable. On many occasions, I have found myself in meetings surrounded only by men. These meetings differ considerably from meetings where the gender ratio is more balanced. The atmosphere alone is completely different. Women simply conduct things differently.
Women are equally good fighters, we are courageous, protective when needs be, we are stubborn, we wish to prove what we can do and that we are right. But with our voices and our femininity, we do not push ourselves to the forefront the same way that men do.
I see time and time again that women make decisions with much more thought and consideration, that we have perhaps been forced by our position to be more meticulous, to perhaps calculate our every step more carefully. In no way am I asserting that men are incapable of empathy; however, during my work I have realised that when dealing with other people’s issues, we are better at putting ourselves in their shoes. The comments by people who write to us MEPs confirm this. I have often been the recipient of comments that only female MEPs had bothered to reply. Or that various events ‘for ordinary people’ in Slovenia had only been attended by women MEPs. On the other hand, various EP delegations, for example, are commonly completely imbalanced gender-wise, which shows that the presence of women is not a given. I have just returned from an official visit to Belgrade, where in a group of 15 MEPs there were only two women. Of course we drew attention to the issue loud and clear. This issue needs to be constantly highlighted.
As I mentioned before, it may seem like successful women get opportunities. This belief is in a way bolstered by the European election, which was a bitter experience for many women. It was for me as well. In 2009 no Slovene political party except for the Christian Social Democrats had the courage to field a woman as their top candidate. Roughly five years later, the situation was similar. Frequently men arrange things simply by bypassing us. Even if our results are better and we have the support of people that surround us, we are, at the last moment, prevented from reaching the very top.
I am not saying that things are not changing for the better; we have female presidents, prime ministers, ministers, MPs – in some countries many more than before – and yet we still have governments that include no women, like the current Greek government. As long as we have to discuss quotas and as long as they remain the only means of achieving gender balance, women will continue to doubt whether we indeed are good enough – and are not given certain positions just to improve the statistics.
I truly hope that, as the society, we can overcome the prejudice against successful women in leadership positions.
Nature gravitates towards balance, as it is healthier and conducive to the course of nature. The genders are simply part of nature. That this is true is again confirmed by statistics: in Scandinavia, companies with women in top positions achieve better results. In the modern, 21st-century Europe, there is no reason not to have more women in leadership positions. They can be successful along with, or despite, being mothers, if suitable conditions are in place.
I sometimes wonder if society and my male colleagues still see exceptional women as the woman in the Billy Joel song from the 80s, Modern Woman. With Italian high heels and style and her own money. And maybe she’s an intellectual. Twenty-first-century women are not modern because of their heels, style or money. We are modern because we know what we are capable of. If we are are also surrounded by the scent of a woman – so much the better.
Author: Tanja Fajon is a Member of the European Parliament, a former news reporter and long-time RTV Slovenia Brussels correspondent, and an advocate for European integration. She sees her work in such a diverse community as the European Union as both a challenge and an opportunity. Outside of work she also celebrates life, human rights and the dignity of everyone everywhere. Can be found on Twitter at @tfajon.
Note: The column is adapted from the speech Tanja Fajon gave at the SpeakUp event (28 March 2015).
Translated by: Peter Mesarič.