FRANKFURT, Germany — On April 6, 2021, Charles Michel, president of the European Council, caused an uproar on social media by taking the only chair in a meeting with the Turkish president, Recep Erdoğan, leaving Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, to sit on a sofa nearby. Accompanied by the hashtags #Sofagate and #GiveHerASeat, countless messages on Twitter and Facebook called for Michel’s resignation, appalled by what was interpreted as a flagrant demonstration of how patriarchal attitudes continue to dominate politics. The incident brings to the forefront the importance of supporting gender equality and promoting women in leadership as expressed in the 2021 Girls LEAD Act.
Global Gender Equality
Even in a year that saw Kamala Harris become the first female vice president of the U.S. and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala become the first director-general of the World Trade Organization (WTO), gender equality remains an aspiration rather than a reality. Von der Leyen herself laments that the event “showed how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals.”
On March 8, 2021, Sens. Susan Collins (R-ME) and Ben Cardin (D-MD) as well as Reps. David Trone and Cathy McMorris Rodgers reintroduced the bipartisan Girls LEAD Act to Congress. The bill aims to promote the participation of women in leadership positions through U.S. foreign aid. As the EU’s “full chair” crisis reveals, the need for such a program is significant, even in more economically developed countries.
Women in Leadership: The Numbers
In EU countries, only three in every 10 members of parliament are women. Furthermore, out of all managerial positions in the EU, women fill only 37%. On executive boards, women comprise less than 30% of all board members. Women who have senior executive roles are an even smaller minority, fulfilling only 18% of these leadership positions in the EU.
Although the reasons for this gender gap are manifold and difficult to pin down, the European Commission has suggested that traditional gender roles and stereotypes, lack of support for balancing work and family responsibilities (for both men and women) and “political and corporate cultures” are to blame.
The situation in the U.S. is similar. Women constitute 47% of the workforce but only 40% of all managers. Moreover, the vast majority of women in managerial positions are not women of color. Roughly only one in 10 women who are managers are also a person of color. In politics, 27% of all members of Congress are women, the highest percentage in U.S. history, but still not a considerably high ratio.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), COVID-19 has increased the global number of girls aged between 6 and 17 who are not enrolled in school by almost 743 million. This number is more than twice the population of the U.S. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, this number stood at approximately 132 million.
Without education, it is difficult for adolescents to participate in the civic discourse of their communities and countries. For girls, this problem compounds other cultural barriers they may have to overcome in order to become political or social leaders.
The Girls LEAD Act
The Girls LEAD Act aims to mitigate these concerns through a three-pronged approach. The proposed legislation calls on the Department of State and USAID to develop a comprehensive strategy for advancing the participation of adolescent girls in democracy, human rights and governance. On top of this, the Girls LEAD Act would increase the focus on and funding for programs that nurture the civic participation of adolescent girls. Lastly, the Girls LEAD Act would require Congress to hear joint annual reports on the progress and status of girls in civic engagement and leadership positions.
Identical versions of the Girls LEAD Act have been introduced to Congress twice since 2019 (S.2766 and H.R. 6626). The current third version (S.634) underscores the persistence of the need to address the global issue of gender equality. The bill currently has five cosponsors (3D, 2R) and the support of many non-governmental organizations, including ChildFund International, Save the Children and The Borgen Project.
Women lack representation in leadership positions in both the most impoverished countries and the most wealthy countries. While there is no quick fix to uproot historically entrenched gender norms, changing the narrative of women in leadership and providing girls with the resources to lead can empower a generation of female leaders that are shackled by circumstance.
– Alexander Vanezis