When I was in the fourth grade, I was running for the president of in the student union. In the final round, there were only two candidates left: me and a boy. When I had the final interview, the teacher said, “I think it might be more appropriate for a boy to be the president.”
That was almost 15 years ago. Sexism was deeply embedded. At the time, there were few female leaders in my country, China, and people associated leadership with being male.
Later, I went to a girls’ high school, which is the only all-girls school in my city. This was a formative experience for me. There, I learned about the value of egalitarianism and independence. I also witnessed first-hand that females can perform just as well as males, or even better. My high school provided excellent growing soil for girls, helping the seed of ambition grow. I was grateful to my high school because it taught me that females could dare to become the president of whatever they want. Our school was also visited by then-First Lady Hillary Clinton, and Mrs. Clinton encouraged us to think bravely and act boldly. This inspired me to reach higher, as well.
Nowadays, it is not rare to see women act as Presidents or Prime Ministers. In fact, 38% of countries have had a female head of state, including Britain, Germany, Nepal, Liberia, and Bangladesh.
Women have a proven track of record of excellent leadership. For example, research has shown that in India, the number of drinking water projects in women-led areas was 62% higher than in those with men-led councils. Similarly, a direct positive causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found in Norway.
Not only do women attach more emphasis on social sectors (such as education, children and health), but also they perform better in political negotiations. Studies have shown that women are more inclined toward “collaboration across ideological lines.” Take the United States as an example: congresswomen co-sponsor more bills than men and can recruit more co-sponsors than men, on average. Moreover, women are 31% better at advancing bills further in the legislative process than men.
However, although the number of women leaders around the world has grown, they’re still a small group. A wide gap remains between women and men on economic participation and political empowerment. Despite some improvements, leadership positions across the board are still held by men, and the economic gender gap is widening, thanks to outdated sexist attitudes and entrenched male chauvinism. According to the 2016 global gender gap report, an average gap of 31.7% remains to be closed worldwide in order to achieve universal gender parity. There appears to be a bottleneck in increasing female leadership. UN Women reported that only 22.8% of all national parliamentarians were women as of June 2016, a slow increase from 11.3% in 1995. On the Forbes list of The World’s Most Powerful People, only 6 of 74 are women.
There are several factors hindering the cultivation of female leaders. To begin with, we cannot ignore sexual harassment in politics. In the article French female ministers decry sexual harassment reported by the BBC, it mentions that women leaders are likely receiving the wrong kind of scrutiny and criticism for their work. For instance, critics often focus on trivialities like a woman’s appearance and clothes instead of on her leadership qualities. Even worse, women can also hurt other women. Women in power can be just as contemptible as men towards their female peers. Additionally, traditional cultural values, glass ceilings in the workplace, and low political participation among women also curb the growth of female leadership.
The good news is that more and more women are eyeing government seats. It is reported that Trump’s election pushed more women to consider running for office. Although we face many obstacles and there is still a long way to go before we reach gender equality, we should never cease our efforts. We must continue to formulate sound policies and robust institutional mechanisms to boost women’s participation in politics. Through our work, we will see an increasing number of female leaders in the near future.
From my perspective, the most far-reaching influence on female leadership is education. Education helps normalize the idea of women leading and changes people’s perceptions. We can teach the future generations that there is no specific formula of what women should or should not do. Children can grow up with the opinion that having a female president is normal. Perhaps even more importantly, the female leaders of today act as the beacons of hope for the female leaders of tomorrow, helping them navigate the difficult paths in their lives.
Back in the fourth grade, I was upset about what happened, and simply accepted the teacher’s decision. However, I would bet that female students today would be shocked by a teacher choosing the student union leader based on gender. They wouldn’t stand for it.
Now in graduate school, I have seen an African-American president in US and more high-level female officials in China. I also hope to see a female president in the future. I know that we are making progress and I am confident that we can speed up this progress to encourage even greater numbers of women to take up leadership roles.