Women and men in the world of international politics

Is the world ready for a female UN Secretary General? While reading today’s article in the Guardian*, “Will Helen Clark be the first woman to run the UN?”, I am pondering that very question.

Clark highlights the need to recognise the double standard imposed on male and female politicians, wherein men in politics are seen as ‘strong’ while women are seen as ‘tough.’ Indeed, stories of unequal treatment of female and male politicians abound – whether from the USA, Australia or Germany. And it is worrying that a Media Guide for Gender-Neutral Coverage of Women Candidates and Politicians needs to spell out, “If you wouldn’t talk about a male candidate’s eye colour, make-up, haircut, singleness, child care, or lack of children, then don’t talk about a female candidate’s.” Actually, it’s troubling that we even need a media guide for gender-neutral coverage! A study by the same group discovered found that media coverage (whether positive, negative or neutral) about female candidates’ appearance had a direct and negative impact on their success in the polls.

But even if, with the help of the Media Guide and creative apps like Jailbreak the Patriarchy, we achieve gender-neutral language in the media, a systemic barrier still exists for women in politics who also want to have children. In case you haven’t noticed, these same barriers don’t exist for male political leaders. In addition to stunting the political careers of women, however, such barriers also call into question the value that we put on fatherhood. Former Australian senator, Natasha Stott Despoja, says that her male colleagues were never even asked about how they juggle family and a political career: “It genuinely drives me nuts when we debate ‘can women have it all’, because we don’t even consider that phrase when we talk about men…Perhaps a better way of looking at it is ‘no-one can have it all, all the time’, and we all make trade-offs and decisions and choices, and I’m a big one for respecting those choices.” I don’t know about you, but if I was a male politician, I’d be out there fighting for my right to be an active and present father.

But, surely, you might say, the UN doesn’t discriminate on the basis of race for its leadership, so why would it discriminate on gender? Although all forms of oppression are interrelated and overlapping, as Gloria Steinem argues, “sexism is still confused with nature, as racism used to be.” The perception that women are ‘naturally’ soft, emotional and caring, while men are ‘naturally’ strong and objective decision-makers is, I fear, still so deeply ingrained in many societies that I wonder if I will live to see a female UN Secretary General who is judged by her leadership, not by her skirt length or her mothering skills.

As Clark explains, resolving the gender inequities in politics requires fundamental changes in our societies: “It really points to the need for a lot more discussion of families and of the role of boys and girls, women and men, so that the boys grow up with an expectation to be an equal in the household…It shouldn’t just depend on a group of exceptionally ambitious women. We need it to be in the culture of our societies, institutionalising it in the normal scheme of things.”

What do you think? Take part in the poll and add your thoughts in the comments.

Special thanks to reader, Kristal B., for recommending this article.

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