Petra Pakozdi

European Affairs Analyst

Would this have happened if I had worn a suit and a tie? An History of Women Leadership in the EU

‘It happened because I am a woman’- the words of Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission after meeting with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan on the 6th of April. She is known to be the first female president of the commission, which is a major breakthrough towards equal leadership and gender equality. However, President Erdogan clearly expressed his views on this matter by denying preparing a chair for President Leyen at her visit in Ankara to fight for women’s rights issues. Surprisingly, women’s position generally in life and in the workplace is still question in the 21st century in- and outside of Europe. Fortunately, there are many institutions, public figures and leaders supporting this equal-right movement by promoting female representation in both the public and the private sector. For instance, in the European Union there are many amazing women leading companies, countries and institutions of the EU towards greater equality. For this reason, it is essential to recognize these powerful people.

Within the EU member states approximately 22% of the country-leaders are female. This means that out of the 27 countries, there are 6 where women rule the country at the moment. Many of these got into this leading position just recently, except Germany’s director Angela Merkel who is the chancellor since 2005. She is usually described as the de facto leader of the European Union and has been nominated several times as the most powerful female leader, the ‘leader of the free world’. However, as she decided to end her career as Germany’s leader, the two major people competing for her role can be: Merkel’s own party the CDU’s new leader Armin Laschet and the Green’s candidate Annalena Baerbock. This year’s Bundestag election may determine which country will occupy the de facto leader role of the EU left by Merkel.

In the last two years new competitive female leaders got into the political arena of the EU. Starting at North, Sanna Marin won the position of the Prime Minister of Finland in 2019, by which she became the world’s youngest female state leader at the age of 34. Currently she is leading a five-party cabinet whose majority of ministers are also women. Her success is a major development for the whole world to boost diversity and inclusivity as she comes from a rainbow family and is the first person to attend university in her family. With the five-party cabinet’s prosperous work and cooperation they represent how essential it is to support each other’s success. In this area there have been extensive breakthroughs towards female representation in executive positions as Kersti Kaljulaid became the first female head of state in Estonia.

It is delightful to see a female leader who is opened towards social issues such as LGBTQ rights and believes in strong civil society.

In 2019 Denmark elected its second female and youngest Prime Minister, Mette Frederiksen. During her campaign, she seemed to hold anti-immigration views, while changing her position to accept more foreign labour to the country. Frederiksen refused to sell Greenland to Mr Trump in 2019, by which she gained international attention. She was always a critical thinker that the EU could feel in 2020 when she expressed concerns towards the EU’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the slow pace of vaccine rollouts.

Unfortunately, just one member state in Eastern Europe is lead by a female president: Slovakia with Zuzana Čaputová since 2019. She belongs to the first generation of female leaders as Slovakia’s first female president and youngest leader. President Čaputová may be an innovator for Eastern European politics as she believes in independent institutions headed by impartial professionals. Besides this, she would like to increase equality for every citizen, including LGBTQ+ people and focuses on environmental issues. Last but not least in 2020 Katerina Sakellaropoulou was elected as the first female president of Greece. Although the Greek top judge was selected for a highly ceremonial role, these are the first steps that can bring Eastern Europe towards a more equal region.

How does the EU stand in this situation? What about EU female leaders? From this perspective 2019 was the year of progress towards equal female representation in executive roles. In this year both Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission and Christine Lagarde, the President of the European Central Bank have been elected. Von der Leyen served in Angela Merkel’s cabinet from 2005 to 2019 holding various main positions. Next to Merkel, she served as Federal Minister including Family Affairs and Youth, Labour and Social Affairs. Besides, her most recent position was Minister of Defence while she worked hardly on international crises, also facing President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in the Kurdish- Turkish conflict. While being the President of the EC she supports equal adoption rights for same-sex couples, European integration and equal female board-member representation. It is needless to say that with the current COVID-19 pandemic, she plays a key role in the EU countries’ pandemic handling, green economic recovery and vaccine rollouts.

The President of the ECB Christine Lagarde also has substantial professional career and experience. As being an outstanding expert in her field, she served as Managing Director and Chair of the IMF and held various ministerial positions in France. As the Eurozone is standing on weak legs, her decisions are key towards the green economic recovery after the pandemic.

‘It happened because I am a woman’. Surprisingly, this phrase is usually thought to be negative. The reasons for this, is historical patriarchal environment and the treatment of women as underprivileged objects. However, the 21st century gives us some hope that the meaning of this phrase will attach positive feelings and successful outcomes. The women leaders the world currently has are working towards larger female representation, greater equality. To progress and success together people has to know who are these female leaders around us, what they have achieved and how people can help them.

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