Emilia Belknap, Laura Shaw and Meryl Kenny


‘The secret weapon in the fight against coronavirus is women’, proclaimed The Guardian in April 2020. The paper was not alone in highlighting that many of the countries thought to be initially tackling this global pandemic most effectively – Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Finland, Iceland – were led by women.


The headline attention given to these women, however, belies the underlying fact that globally, women political leaders are few and far between. In general, the rule is ‘the higher the fewer’: over 75% of parliamentarians worldwide are men, but around 90% of countries are led by men. As of 1 January 2020, only twenty countries have women heads of state and/or government.


Why do gender inequalities at the top persist? And (why) does it matter? Our recent article in Political Insight examines these questions in the context of two recent and pivotal leadership contests: the 2020 UK Labour leadership election and the 2020 US Democratic presidential primary.


‘Last (White) Man Standing’


Things looked very different at the start of 2020. In the US, the Democratic Party had fielded its most diverse range of presidential primary candidates in history; including the largest number of women candidates ever. This built on a surge in women’s political mobilisation in the party, with Democratic women running for and getting elected to office across the country in record numbers in 2018 (including a record number of women of colour).


Flashforward to spring 2020 and the picture had changed dramatically. By the time the dust had settled after Super Tuesday, two men were left standing - Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and former Vice President Joe Biden -  both white, male, septuagenarian, career politicians. No woman has ever served as President or Vice President of the United States, and Hillary Clinton remains the only woman to ever be nominated for the presidency by a major US party.


Meanwhile, in the UK, the battle to succeed Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also raised hopes that Labour would finally elect its first woman leader. Four out of five candidates who qualified for the 2020 leadership ballot were women. But by the final ballot, only two remained – Rebecca Long-Bailey and Lisa Nandy – alongside front-runner Sir Keir Starmer. In the end, in an anti-climactic result, only Starmer was left standing, winning the Labour leadership election with 56% of the vote.


Gendered Barriers to Women’s Political Leadership


Was gender a factor in these leadership contests? Our article discusses the metaphors that are used to depict the obstacles different groups of women face in politics – ranging from the ‘glass ceiling’ to the ‘glass cliff’, where women take on the role of the leader during a time of crisis to ‘clean up the mess’. Ideas of who can ‘be’ a leader are also gendered – and intersect with race, class, sexuality, (dis)ability and other structures of power, including some bodies and excluding others. Political leadership contests have historically been – amongst other things – struggles over masculinity; with ‘leadership’ and power often described in masculine terms (strong, assertive, dominant, rational) and associated with masculinized policy concerns (national security, terrorism, war).


When women do decide to run for leadership positions, then, they need to contend with these gendered perceptions about who is fit to lead. In the UK Labour leadership contest, for example, Rebecca Long-Bailey experienced continual criticism that she was being led by male decision-makers – facing criticisms that she was a Corbyn ‘puppet’. This is in addition to the ongoing gendered and racialised abuse, stereotyping and commentary that too often surrounds and targets women politicians, particularly women of colour, involving attacks on their appearance, speech and perceived ‘womanhood’. Whilst women leaders must demonstrate merit, experience and competence, men can exhibit mere potential.


Debates over ‘electability’ were also present in both leadership contests, which are also imbued with gendered connotations. For Labour, some party and press debates focused on whether the priority was to pick a woman, or instead to rebuild a fractured party in a sustained electoral crisis (though, of course, these priorities are not mutually exclusive). In the US, Elizabeth Warren, in particular, faced constant refrains about her electability – notably in a back-and-forth between Warren and Bernie Sanders, where she claimed that Sanders had told her that a woman could not win the presidential election against Donald Trump (Sanders denied this). This, of course, creates a self-fulfilling prophecy for women: if voters decide not to vote for a woman candidate because they think she won’t win, then she won’t win.


Do women voters vote for women leaders? Women are not a single voting block – and their choices are mediated by partisan identity, race, class, education and other factors.  In the 2016 US Presidential election, for example, Hillary Clinton won women’s votes overall, with particularly strong support from women of colour, but did not win a majority of white women voters, who supported Donald Trump. In recent UK elections, meanwhile, recent gender voting gaps have been mediated by age, with Labour winning a majority of younger voters (18-39 years), and younger women, in particular, showing low support for the Conservatives and greater support for Labour – a pattern that seems to have held in the 2019 GE.


Why Does it Matter?


Turbulent times lie ahead, making it all the more crucial that women’s voices are included at the top table. Crisis moments like the COVID pandemic can exacerbate gender and intersectional inequalities: including racial disparities in the impact of COVID-19; the fact that women, and particularly women of colour are disproportionately concentrated in ‘frontline’ health care jobs, as well as public sector jobs most likely to be hit by the accompanying economic recession; increased reports of domestic violence during lockdown; and the fact that existing gender inequalities in the home and the workplace are likely to widen with school/nursery closures and increased care responsibilities.


Yet while having women political leaders can have significant substantive and symbolic effects, it is also important not to fall into essentialist arguments about women leaders being ‘naturally’ more compassionate, collaborative, or cool-headed than men; and to acknowledge that the relationship between women’s political presence and their ability to ‘make a difference’ is complex and contingent.


There are some positive signs that women’s representation remains on the political agenda. In the UK, over 50% of Keir Starmer’s new Labour shadow cabinet are women. In the US, meanwhile, presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden has pledged to select a woman vice-presidential candidate. Which woman will fill that role, of course, matters greatly – in terms of bringing the party together, mobilizing voters, and representing intersectional concerns.


These small steps are welcome, but highlight that there is still a long way to go before we see equal political representation at the top.


For more, read our Political Insight article.


Author biographies

Emilia Belknap is a PhD candidate in Gender & Politics at the University of Edinburgh and Committee Member of the Postgraduate Gender Research Network of Scotland. She tweets @EmiliaBelknap.

Laura Shaw is a PhD candidate at the University of Glasgow and Committee Member of the Postgraduate Gender Research Network of Scotland. She tweets @Laura_Shaw1.

Meryl Kenny is Senior Lecturer in Gender and Politics at the University of Edinburgh. She tweets @merylkenny.


Image credit: CC by Obama White House/Flickr.