If we were in any doubt that the prospect of a female leader fills some people with fear and loathing, the coverage of Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin’s political careers should be enough to confirm our worst fears (although I’ve got to say that another one of my worst fears is a fundie, anti-environmentalist gun-nut secessionist becoming the second most powerful person in the western world). But according to a new Harvard study, although people have negative ideas about female leaders, once they actually experience what it’s like to have ladies in charge, their attitudes to women in power become more positive.When an Indian government ammendment decreed that at least 1/3 of government jobs should be held by women, the residents of some regions were not impressed by the idea of ladies in charge. And once the first batch of women started working in government, the voters gave them poorer evaluations than their male counterparts, even when the female politicians had outperformed the men. So far, so depressing. But when the same voters encountered female politicians for the second time, they began to evaluate them more positively, indicating that exposure to powerful women reduces prejudice against them by 50 to 100%.
Good news, right? Well, it would be if there were a few more women in power to begin with – people’s prejudices can’t be challenged by female leaders if there are no female leaders. And we could be waiting a while for this to change, according to last year’s report from our Central Statistics Office:
The report shows that women are under-represented in decision-making structures at both national and regional levels. Only 13% of TDs in Dáil Eireann are women, while they account for 34% of members of State Boards, 20% of members of local authorities and just 16% of members of regional authorities.
And here’s a surprise – except no, it totally isn’t:
The education and health sectors employed the highest proportion of women, with around an 80% share of the total at work in these sectors. However, women were not well represented at senior level positions. In the health service, women represented just over 30% of medical and dental consultants. Similarly, women accounted for 84.7% of primary school teachers but only 51% of primary school managers.
Women: doing socially important but low status, badly paid work since, um, the dawn of time!
And if anyone wants to know why I’m a feminist, well, here’s one of many reasons:
Women’s income in 2005 was around two-thirds of men’s income. After adjusting for differences in hours worked, women’s hourly earnings were around 86% of men’s. The proportion of men at risk of poverty in 2006, after pensions and social transfers, was 17.5% compared to 19.5% of women.
Sigh. But I want to try and look on the bright side. I do not think Sarah Palin becoming America’s VP is a good thing for women (this is a woman who, as Mayor, made rape victims pay for the cost of the rape kits) or indeed the world. But there is this: high-profile women in power do change people’s expectations. For most of my generation, Margaret Thatcher is the first UK Prime Minister we remember – she was in power from when I was 4 to when I was 15 (one of my teachers came into the classroom grinning from ear to ear and told us she was out). Thatcher wasn’t a female-friendly politican either, but the fact that she was the British PM for pretty much my entire childhood and early adolescence meant that I, and others my age, always took it for granted that women could run countries (badly, in that case, but still). I just wish more women would get elected whose politics I agree with, but alas I fear that, as in the cases of both Thatcher and Palin and even Mary Harney, a conservative women is always going to be less threatening to the masses than a liberal one. What do you think?