About Rachel’s Fullbright Blog Series; Rachel Simon-Kumar was awarded the NZ Fulbright Scholar Award for 2022 and will be at Georgetown University, Washington D.C, between October 2022 and February 2023. During this time, she will be hosted at the Department of Women’s and Gender Studies, working with Prof. Nadia Brown. She will exploring comparative perspectives on intersectionality among Ethnic Minority Women in Politics in New Zealand and the United States. Her occasional blogs will reflect on gender, race and politics during her Fulbright journey.
On October 12th, I attended the half-day conference Delegation of the European Union to the United States, entitled ‘Women in Power’ held in downtown Washington DC.
The conference was divided into three sessions. The opening address was by Professor Pippa Norris noted political scientist whose presentation focused on emerging challenges in women’s political participation. These challenges are especially concerning in light of the gains made by populist parties and politics globally, the weakening of rights-based institutions, the rise of anti-gender movements and the threats of violence to women in the public spheres.
Prof. Norris, who spoke to us via zoom, presented a multi-dimensional conceptual framework for comprising four dimensions of women’s empowerment and resultant political representation:
- Cultural indicators of empowerment or the values and norms supporting gender equality
- Civic engagement indicators
- Decision-making indicators in apex and local bodies
- Gains in policy
She argued a direct link between the values and norms supporting gender equality and representation. While being a liberal democracy matters to the representation of women, values and norms around gender equality matter more. She also noted the pushback in policy’s aimed at women’s equality and in fact loss of gains made in previous generations. She warned against complacency and the need to resist these alarming trends.
Her optimistic conclusions were that feminists are not without options. Although at this moment in time feminists are not in charge of the gender agenda, we are still able to frame it in particular ways that benefit women.
She also called for a greater integration in the scholarship between gender studies and populist studies rather than sit, as it currently does, in silos.
The second session was a panel discussion by women directors and CEOs in NGO or similar organisations. Many touched on the challenges of women’s leadership in largely male dominated occupations: of balancing personal and work life, the imposter syndrome they carried with them, but also that they were made to feel when they sat at the decision-making table.
Monica Frassoni, a former member of the European Parliament and Green Party, one of the speakers, made some interesting points about women’s leadership in the current environment.
- The value of diversity – beyond merely merit – must be more widely embraced
- Find alliances with men, especially those who are sympathetic to women’s issues, not against them
- Recognise that there is a lack of solidarity among women
- The need for representational parity means that sometimes women who are less than competent for roles are elected but that is the price to be paid in order to have diversity.
- To have women who lead better, it is vital to break out of stereotypes that define gender from a very early age. Improve women’s capacity to be ambitious.
- Green transitions create more leadership roles for women in political decision-making but also in companies and academia.
Frassoni is Italian in origin so I asked her to comment on the recent parliamentary elections and the surprise win for right-wing Giorgina Meloni. Frassoni’s response surprised me. She noted that regardless of the all the issues given the populist party she leads, symbolically her win signasl a tremendous sense of achievement as the first woman Prime Minister of Italy.
The final speaker for the day was Neera Tanden, White House Staff Secretary and Special Advisor to President Biden. Tanden spoke of the challenges facing women in the current political climate. Biden’s signature policy agenda Bring Back Better was able to progress largely because of the childcare provisions in the original version had been struck down. The recent Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson (overturning Roe v. Wade) is another example. Are women experiencing a time of backlash?
Despite room for pessimism, Tanden ended on a positive note. The generational gap is bigger than the gender gap (so there is hope for the future). This is how gender politics in the US has always been, she noted – it’s two steps forward, one backward.
Maybe that’s still progress and something to hold on to.