I am woman, see me err

Sheila Rampersad’s column for Trinidad and Tobago’s Express tackles the issue of women’s leadership roles.

During one of the Government’s many blunders, a few months ago, a young man selling pepper sauce at the Queen’s Park Savannah approached me for a sale. I declined, the heavy yellow suggesting too much mustard, and he proceeded to make casual conversation that quickly turned political. To fix everything, he had concluded, Kamla needed a hard slap.

Whereas, in unique Trinidadian metaphor, we may have sometimes joked that Patrick Manning deserved a good clout, this young man was not joking, and his recommendation of literal gender violence to solve the nation’s problems was spooky.

Female leadership in the world is statistically small, although no longer an absolute novelty. A recent count online generated a list of 91 woman political and quasi-political leaders in the world from the late 19th century to the present. Among them are empresses, queens, governors, premiers, prime ministers, presidents, rulers, chiefs and paramount chiefs.

It is, however, a complex issue. Latin America, for all its embedded machismo, leads the world in its number of woman presidents and prime ministers, a reality that contrasts with the 29 per cent of Latin American women who marry before age 18. Brazil, for example, where only 39 per cent of women work outside the home, recently elected its first woman president. This incidentally, is unlike the United States, where over 70 per cent of women work outside the home, the average age for a woman’s first marriage is 26, and which leads the way in many indicators of gender equity but is yet to elect a woman head of state. In fact, in 2006 the US ranked 66th in political representation of women.

Argentina’s President, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, is a polished speaker, known for her strong personality and, according to the New York Times, a distinguished human rights record. This, however, did not prevent the Falkland Islands weekly, The Penguin, from calling her a bitch in a February 2012 issue. Clearly a reductive gendered insult in the context of a revived bad odour between Britain and Argentina over ownership of Las Malvinas, or so you would think. But it’s more complicated than that.

The editor of The Penguin is also a woman, Lisa Watson, who described usage of the word as “dry humour”. And just as she utilised the word to describe the President, angry Argentineans responded in kind, calling Watson a prostitute and a decadent whore.

In Europe, German Chancellor Angela Merkel “…has proven that women can possess what they are still so rarely allowed to act out in the public sphere: excellent leadership skills. She has contributed fundamentally to the recognition of women as leaders and decision-makers in Germany. We are not known for playing a leading part in the modernisation of gender roles, so the Merkel-effect is certainly appreciated”, writes Ukrike Helwerth in the UK Guardian.

Yet, Helwerth argues convincingly, gender is absent from Merkel’s political agenda. She analyses that the Chancellor’s programmes have offered little to improve the childcare system, adjust parental leave allowances and reach out to men as fathers and carers.

“What about the gender pay gap in Germany, with women earning on average 23 per cent less than men? What about a minimum wage? What about the abolition of an anachronistic tax system giving privileges to married couples as long as one of the two (usually the husband) has a high income and the other one (usually the wife) earns little or nothing? The ‘housewife-marriage’, the gendered division of labour, was perpetuated by such a policy.

“For decades, women’s organisations were not the only ones protesting against this tax system. Yet Merkel and her government did not tackle these issues,” she writes, concluding that being a woman is not a political programme.

Here, the prime ministership of Kamla Persad-Bisessar is as much a novelty to the population as it is to her; to male members of her inner circle, the Prime Minister’s gender is often a fetish. Add to that decidedly poor governance and ubiquitous racial sentiment, and both population and Prime Minister, it seems, become confused and start juggling gender in awkward “I am woman” moments.

As Helwerth wrote, being woman is not a political programme. It comes with political purchase—which this Government optimises—and there are real challenges to women in high political office which ought not to be understated, but gender is not a handicap, a woman leader is not a more expensive option than a male leader, and the rarity of femininity in the Prime Minister’s office and residence is not a carte blanche excuse for procedural mishandlings and poor governance.

The Prime Minister is entitled to a personal assistant, and entitled to have her sister fill that role. The problem is that her sister is off the books; the Prime Minister’s response about special needs at once sidesteps the real issue and portrays womanhood as an expensive handicap.

Female political leadership comes with customised assessment criteria. Expectations include greater accountability and a corresponding decrease in corruption (Swanee Hunt, director of the Kennedy School’s Women and Public Policy Programme, points out that “the higher the percentage of women in parliaments, for example, the less corruption there is, and the more money that goes to health and education”); more consultative decision making; less confrontational style of leadership; greater attention to the needs of vulnerable groups in the society; and a heightened legislative sensitivity to children in particular.

Rather than shoes and clothes, hairdressers and personal assistants, these are the criteria which will ultimately measure this Prime Minister’s success or failure. As it is, neither she nor the public seems clear on where gender discrimination ends and poor governance begins.

For the original report go to http://www.trinidadexpress.com/commentaries/I_am_woman__see_me_err-145020825.html

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