Nancy Astor was the first woman to take a seat in the British parliament in 1919, prompting Churchill to comment that ‘having a woman in Parliament was like having one intrude on him in the bathroom’. We have come a long way since, and today there are 148 female MPs in the British parliament, about a fifth of the total number of members.
Nevertheless politics remains very much male-dominated, and one needs to look no further than the results of last year’s European Parliament election to get a sense of the extent to which men continue to dominate politics. There are currently two male members for each female member in the Europe Parliament, and there are only a handful of countries in the world with national parliaments with a higher proportion of women members than the European Parliament. Across the EU countries women only account for 28% of members of parliaments. Similarly, in business women remain underrepresented in decision-making positions, accounting for only 20% of board members of the largest publicly listed companies registered in the European Union. To put it bluntly there are simply more men on corporate boards named John, Robert, William or James than there are women altogether.
The European Commission has made it one of its priorities to address gender inequality in business and public service, but was embarrassed when its president, Jean Claude Juncker, failed to appoint more than 9 female commissioners. In January 2015 Kristaline Georgieva, the European Commissioner for Budget and Human Resources, committed to increase the number of women in top positions by 40% by the end of her mandate.
Whilst underrepresented, women are by no means absent from European politics and these women are leading the way:
Angela Merkel is the undisputed leader of Europe. Forbes Magazine has crowned her the most powerful woman in the world, a title she has hold for nine of the past ten years. She was the first woman to serve as Chancellor, a position she has held since 2005.
Raised in East Germany, Angela Merkel trained as a scientist before entering politics in 1989 after the fall of the Berlin Wall. She served as Minister for Women and Youth in Helmut Kohl's cabinet, and has been the leader of Germany’s centre-right Christian Democratic Union since 2000. Some in Germany call her Mutti, or Mummy, but for others in Europe she is the Iron Chancellor who has sent Europe into agony and despair with her insistence on fiscal discipline and austerity.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt has been the Prime Minister of Denmark since 2011, and the first woman to hold the post. She has been the leader of the Social Democrats since 2005, and served as a Member of the European Parliament from 1999 to 2004 before being elected to the Danish parliament in 2005. A College of Europe alumna, she became an internet sensation in 2014 after taking a selfie with President Barrack Obama and Prime Minister David Cameron at Nelson Mandela’s funeral.
Dalia Grybauskaitė is Lithuania’s first female head of state. She has been in office since 2009, winning a second term in 2014. She had previously served as deputy foreign minister and played a key role in negotiating Lithuania’s accession to the European Union. She was also Finance Minister and European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget. Her toughness and blunt talk have gained her the nicknames the ‘Iron Lady’ and ‘Steel Magnolia’.
Erna Solberg was elected Prime Minister of Norway in 2013, having been the leader of the Conservative Party since 2004. She has served as a member of the Storting, the Parliament of Norway, since 1989 and was Minister of Local Government and Regional Development from 2001 to 2005. She is Norway’s second female prime minister, after Gro Harlem Brundtland, and has appointed women to half of the posts in her cabinet, in line with an unwritten rule about gender equality.
Atifete Jahjaga is the first female, first nonpartisan candidate, and the youngest elected president of Kosovo (she is only 39 years-old!). Elected president in 2011, she is the first female head of state in the modern Balkans. She served as Deputy Director of the Kosovo Police. She has made membership of the European Union a priority for her term in office, and she has been very active in promoting the EU integration agenda in Kosovo.
Laimdota Straujuma was appointed Latvia’s first female prime minister in 2014. An economist and mathematician, she has previously served as Minister of Agriculture.
Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović has been serving as President of Croatia since February 2015. She is the fourth president of Croatia, and the first woman to hold the office. Previously she served as Minister of Foreign Affairs and as Croatia's ambassador to the United States. She was Assistant Secretary General for Public Diplomacy at NATO between 2011 and 2014.
(Damian Burzykowski, Newspix)
Ewa Kopacz became Prime Minister of Poland in September 2014, following Donald Tusk’s resignation, who moved on to become President of the European Council. She was first elected to the Sejm, the lower house of the Parliament of Poland, in 2001, and reelected in subsequent elections in 2005, 2007, and 2011. She was Minister of Health from 2007 to 2011, and the speaker of the parliament between 2011 and 2014. She is sometimes referred to as the Polish Margaret Thatcher.