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Switzerland leads the way with female politicians

Western countries, including the US, UK and Australia, should look to the alpine nation for an example of best practice when it comes to women in government, writes M.E. Bell.

14 November 2010

Swiss women are rewriting political history. The alpine nation has just created its first majority female cabinet, a historic leap forward given women only got the vote in 1971 and then waited another 13 years to have their first female minister.

Switzerland was one of Europe’s last countries out of the gate in the race to gain female suffrage, but it now joins Norway, Finland and Spain in women holding the majority of cabinet positions.

It makes you wonder how life would be in other countries, such as Australia where I’m based, if we had more women in cabinet then men.

Let’s consider Switzerland’s system of government. Unlike most countries led by presidents or prime ministers, seven politicians from multiple parties govern the Swiss Federal Council. Councillors are selected by a vote in both houses of parliament and major decisions are reached by core consensus.

The country has a rich tradition of grassroots democracy with politicians working at every level of government right down to village affairs. Many politicians work part time, operating with a degree of flexibility where they manage work, raise a family and govern a country.

We’re seeing Switzerland as a wonderful democratic utopia – accounting  for why it is one of the most socially and economically prosperous nations in the world. But is it just a faraway land for many nations that seem to have a long, long, way to go when it comes to men letting go of the reigns of power?

In a perfect pitch to female voters the UK’s Conservative leader David Cameron declared on the election trail, “If elected, by the end of our first Parliament I want a third of all my ministers to be female.”

Yet once elected, Prime Minister Cameron and Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg sold women down the river by designing a cabinet made up almost entirely of white, rich men.

A measly four cabinet roles out of 23 went to women, serving out portfolios such as Wales, Environment, Rural Affairs and Food. It would seem women were snubbed not only by the upper echelons of power but also in the parliament, with females now representing just 25% of the lower chamber and 47% in the upper chamber.

British women may have some way to go before they are on equal footing with their male political associates, let alone making up ‘a third’ of Mr Cameron’s promised cabinet.

At the moment they represent just over 17% of the parliament. But hey. At least a woman scored the ministry for ‘Food.’

Now in America, you could be forgiven for assuming women are all the voters want.

In Team America, women enjoy immense political sunshine with 73 women serving in the US House. It’s a land where candidates have and continue to flourish under the nose of opportunity.

In 2005, we watched Hillary Clinton break free from political conventions and compete for the presidency while Sarah Palin served as John McCain’s running mate.

In a historic first for America, the presidency was suddenly there for a woman’s taking. Another woman also entered the market to become vice-president – even if that woman happened to be Sarah Palin.

As US Secretary of State, Clinton has made incredible advances, making a strategic and decisive contribution to UN Security Council resolutions, particularly when it comes to squeezing North Korea on its nuclear weapons program and solidifying America’s peace-keeping role. It’s these individual achievements, not gender, which connect Clinton to the American public.

Even in the land Down Under, women are leaving an indelible mark on politics. While Australia only has a handful of women in cabinet roles, Julia Gillard made history earlier this year when she became the country’s first female Prime Minister.

More female faces are emerging at a state level, with Kristina Keneally and Anna Bligh taking out the top jobs as New South Wales and Queensland Premiers. On a more superficial level, female leaders still struggle to be taken seriously, critiqued by a catty media that covers their every fall – literally and metaphorically.

It could be our tragic inheritance of British tabloid media that relishes in any opportunity to take digs at everything but a female leader’s policies – from her leopard print shoes to her aerodynamic hair to her ‘bedspread jackets’.

Here, when a woman enters public office, the media and the wider community judges her and this creates the ultimate double bind. If a woman is a head kicker, then she is (to draw on Australian Opposition Leader Tony Abbott’s description of Julia Gillard) “aggressive.” If a female leader appears cold, then she must indeed be cold, clever and calculating.

If a woman cries, she is weak and not cut out for the tough world of political life. When Premier Keneally recently broke down in tears after speaking to members of the Indigenous community her tears apparently had nothing to do with the fact her government was amending the constitution to recognise Indigenous Australians. According to the media, she was feeling the strain of the job.

To make these simple generalisations about the ‘gentle qualities’ a woman brings to a leadership role is misguided. The fact is, women in politics don’t survive on a sugar and spice and all things nice mentality. Just look at Margaret Thatcher who once famously proclaimed that no one was going to “thwart” her “ambitions.”

Women we are very reticent that biology often hinders, not helps us and it’s this sexual inequality that persists not just for female politicians but for women in almost every sector where men are dominating leadership positions across government, corporate sectors and universities.

Should more be done to promote and support female leaders in politics? It’s a hard burden to bear. The good news is, we are making progress and there are more women in politics than ever. Plenty of work, however, still needs to be done.

People will always vote for the best candidates, not their gender and if women are noticeably absent from the party room, then political parties need to be doing more to bring quality women into the tent.

Because in other corners of the world it is becoming increasingly obvious that politics is no longer considered a bastion of male domination.

In fact, when it comes to running a country, women are proving themselves to be every bit as good as men.

M.E. Bell is a freelance writer based in Sydney, Australia.



0 #1 LCaper 2010-11-15 04:48
Great article .... gender should be irrelevant .. but in some cases [like Palin] you bank on nothing more than your gender... she was a pawn to secure the female vote.

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