I wanted to list female political leaders to watch in 2018, in honor of International Women’s Day, but the list is sadly disappointing.
Currently, there are only 20 women holding the office of head of state or head of government — which equals 6.3 percent of the 315 international leaders. And two of the heads of state – Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and Denmark’s Margrethe II — are hereditary queens.
No wonder the World Economic Forum’s 2017 Gender Gap report predicts that it will take 99 years to, maybe, reach political parity between male and female leaders. (Will it take that long, I wonder, after the Hillary debacle for the United States to elect a woman president?)
Nor have women leaders fared particularly well in recent years. Several female prime ministers lost elections during the last decade. Brazil’s Dilma Rousseff was impeached for budget malfeasance, South Korea’s President Park Geun-Hye was impeached for corruption in 2016 and is awaiting trial, and Thai Prime Minister Yingluck Shinawatra was defeated in 2015 and found guilty of abusing power by the country’s constitutional court. Given the political history of those countries, it’s not clear whether these leaders would have been treated better if they were male.
In one happy contrast, Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the world’s first elected black female president and Africa’s first elected female head of state (in 2006), survived some dips to step down with dignity in 2018.
Of those female leaders now in power, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, who has been state counsellor (equivalent to prime minister) since 2016, has been the biggest disappointment. A heroic fighter for democracy and human rights, she suffered 15 years of house arrest and won the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize. But she has refused to criticize Myanmar’s military for its massive ethnic cleansing and brutalization of 500,000 members of the ethnic Muslim Rohingya minority, who have fled to Bangladesh.
So whom, among the remaining 18 non-queenly female leaders, should you watch in 2018?
First and foremost is the indomitable Angela Merkel, German chancellor since 2005. In her final term, her power has dipped and her party’s parliamentary bloc shrunk, but she just concluded a difficult coalition accord with the Social Democrats. This will provide some vital stability in a Europe shaken by a populist surge in Italy and Central Europe. Merkel is still an anchor for Europe, which the continent badly needs.
Which brings us to the second European leader to watch: Theresa May, the weakened prime minister of the United Kingdom. The U.K.’s drawn-out Brexit is further destabilizing Europe. This year will reveal whether May can negotiate a divorce from the European Union without crashing her island’s economy and sparking new strife in Northern Ireland.
Then I would watch the two female Baltic presidents, Kersti Kaljulaid of Estonia and the reelected Dalia Grybauskaite of Lithuania. It takes particular skill to manage Baltic affairs with Vladimir Putin’s Russia breathing down their necks and seeking to manipulate their politics, but the Baltic leaders have been managing astonishingly well.
Speaking of Russia, I would watch Russian presidential candidate Ksenia Sobchak, a 36-year-old former TV star who has had the gall to challenge Putin in the March 18 presidential election. She will probably draw only a tiny percentage of the vote but has at least managed to insert some real issues into state-controlled TV coverage. (She is tolerated as a candidate, unlike the banned and far more potent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, because her dad was a friend of Putin’s and her unthreatening presence gives Putin cover to claim the election is free.)
I would also recommend watching Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen, who is not recognized as a sovereign leader by China or the United Nations. She has had to govern with a strong and steady hand to balance Beijing’s constant pressure and President Trump’s Taiwan gaffes. (By the way, you won’t find any senior female leaders in Beijing, where President Xi Jinping will be confirmed as virtual president for life this week.)
And finally, it’s worth paying attention to the talented Michelle Bachelet, first Chilean president since 1932 to win twice in the presidential elections, as well as New Zealand’s Jacinda Ardern, who at 37 is the youngest prime minister in the world.
With such a tiny sample of women leaders, it’s hard to tell whether their performance is truly affected by gender or whether it reflects their countries’ cultures and histories in the same way it does for their male counterparts.
But we will never know until the sample is vastly expanded. And, if the Gender Gap report is correct, that won’t happen in my lifetime or yours.