Will women leaders cause a shift in the political agenda?

By Per Persson (for Safe Democracy)

Per Persson writes on the recent rise of women to the highest-ranking positions of government and business in Scandinavia. As women begin to assume lofty leadership roles, the question begs to be asked whether they will cause a shift in the political agenda to deal with issues of women and child rights, social inequality, and poverty, or whether they will perform in much the same way as their male counterparts. In Persson‘s opinion, Scandinavia‘s future is in the hands of its rising women.

Per Persson has a B.S. in Business Administration and Political Science from Lund University in Sweden. He is a former consultant at the Swedish Trade Council in Istanbul and Madrid.

SCANDINAVIA HAS A TRADITION OF FEMALE PARTICIPATION in the labour market, politics, and most specifically in parliament. Yet until recently, there has been a remarkable absence of female leaders in the highest positions in politics and business. Now, all that is beginning to change.

In April of 2005, the Social Democratic party in Denmark appointed Mrs. Helle Thorning-Schmidt as their new leader. Members of the party voted on the Internet, attracted by Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s clear and simple message of victory against Anders Fogh (the currrent Prime Minister of Denmark and leader of the Liberal party) in the next elections. She was the first of what would become a wave of women attaining high-ranking positions.

After the failure of the Social Democratic party in the Swedish elections of September 2006, the party’s leader Göran Persson, resigned. Immediately following his resignation speculations began as to who should become the next leader of the Social Democrats. The message from the party was clear: the new leader had to be a woman.

Several names were mentioned including Ulrika Messing, the former minister of infrastructure, and Margot Wallström, Vice-President of the European Commission and Commissioner of Institutional Relations and Communication Strategy. Both refused the offer. Messing did not want to sacrifice her family life for a political bid, and Wallström had no intentions of leaving her job in Brussels to return to Sweden. With two refusals, there was only one option left: the ever-present Mona Sahlin.

Sahlin has been a member of parliament since 1982, and has held 6 different ministry positions since 1990. In 1995, Sahlin was the top candidate for the presidency and was meant to replace former party leader Ingvar Carlsson. But after a scandal, known as the Toblerone Affair, in which Sahlin used her representational credit card to buy a chocolate bar, she withdrew her candidature. This March, when the party elects its new leader, Sahlin will have a second opportunity to prove her capacity to lead.

Tarja Halonen has been Finland’s President since 2000. Unlike the other Scandinavian countries, all of which are monarchies with royalty serving as the head of state, Finland elects a President through direct elections to have legitimacy as the representative of the country. Yet in daily political life, the President is not actively involved in domestic politics: her (and sometimes his) main role is to deal with foreign politics and international relations.

With more women than ever before reaching high positions in politics throughout the world, should we expect a shift in the political agenda of nations? Researchers within feminist theory have signalled that the more women are involved with politics, the more the political agenda will change, focusing more on women’s and children’s rights, the fight against poverty, and the elimination of general inequalities in society.

In 2005 several elite feminists in Sweden founded a party called the Feminist Initiative with the aim of winning seats in the 2006 elections. In spite of massive media publicity, Feminist Initiative performed catastrophically in the elections. The newly founded party was plagued by internal conflicts and an overly theoretical political manifesto that was incomprehensible to the electorate. Many critics also blamed the FI for ignoring all issues not related to feminist topics.

History has shown that women leaders tend to act more or less the same as their male counterparts when serving in high level positions. Margaret Thatcher (known as the Iron Lady) is one well-known example. It will be interesting to see whether Sahlin and Thorning-Schmidt will be able to revitalize social democracy in Scandinavia and emphasize change in the political agenda, or whether they will follow in the footsteps of Margaret Thatcher. Only time will tell.

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