While the European Parliamentary elections, Brexit and the ongoing climate change crisis dominated most of last year’s political debate in the European Union, 2019 also witnessed a higher-than-ever level of female political leadership. From the election of four female head of state to the female presidencies of two European institutions, namely the European Central Bank and the European Commission, 2019 was a banner year for women in politics.
First came the election of Zusanna Caputova as first female president of Slovakia on June 15th, 2019, preceding Mette Frederiksen’s election as Danish prime minister, the second woman to ever hold office, by less than two weeks. Later in the year, Sophie Wilmès became Belgium’s first female (interim) PM when former PM Charles Michel stepped down in October 2019 after being offered the presidency of the European Council, followed by Sanna Marin who became Finland’s third female PM in early December.
Perhaps most significant, were the nominations of Ursula von der Leyen as president of the EC and Christine Lagarde as president of the ECB. Their nominations break with 70 years of male leadership in the EU and mark a significant step forward in bringing gender parity to European politics.
Impressive political careers
Challenging the male-dominated status quo in politics, both Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde have had impressive political careers leading up to their latest roles.
“Their leadership defies the predominantly male-dominated environment of politics and set the stage for their nomination to the head of the EU ”
Born and raised in Brussels, where her father worked as one of Europe’s first officials until the 1970s, Ursula von der Leyen was exposed early on to the multicultural environment promoted by the EU. Mother to seven children, von der Leyen practiced as a doctor before becoming active in local politics in the 1990s. She was elected deputy to the Parliament of Lower Saxony (Germany) in the 2003 state election and served as minister of social affairs, women, family and health until 2005, making her first steps into politics. Von der Leyen has held several executive positions in the various Merkel administrations: she was minister of family affairs, senior citizens, women and youth from 2005 to 2009, minister of labor and social affairs from 2009 to 2013 and minister of defense from 2013 until her election to president of the EC in mid-2019.
A member of the center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU), during her time in office as minister of family affairs, von der Leyen implemented significantly progressive measures to promote gender parity, such as paid parental leave and providing more nursery school places.
Christine Lagarde’s career is similarly impressive: She worked as a lawyer at the international firm Baker & McKenzie until 2005. Specializing in labor, anti-trust, and mergers & acquisitions, Lagarde served as the firm’s global strategic committee chairman until her entry into French politics. She acted as minister for foreign trade from 2005 to 2007, briefly as minister for agriculture and fisheries in 2007 and then became the first woman to hold office as finance and economy minister in France or indeed any G7 country. She took her first steps in European politics when chairing the ECOFIN (Economic and Financial Affairs) council of the EU while serving as the French finance and economy minister. In July 2011, Lagarde was nominated as managing director of the IMF, the first woman to ever hold that position. She was elected for a subsequent term in 2016.
Both women have had their fair share of experience in politics: Their leadership defies the predominantly male-dominated environment of politics and set the stage for their nomination to the head of the EU. Christine Lagarde and Ursula von der Leyen are the first women to hold either position and ranked 2nd and 4th respectively in Forbes 2019 ranking of the world’s most powerful women.
Gender parity in the EU
Similar trends were reflected by the 2019 European Parliament election, where there was an increase in the number of female politicians. While gender parity has yet to be reached for MEPs, women now account for 41% of all parliament members compared to 37% in the previous election.
Since her nomination, von der Leyen has further contributed to promoting gender parity in the EC. 12 of the EC’s 27 commissioners (EU27) including her are women, a small but significant increase from Juncker’s administration which had seen only 10 female for 18 male commissioners (EU28).
Von der Leyen’s array of experts include Margrethe Vestager, a current star of European politics. She has been commissioner for competition since 2014 and executive vice president of the EC under von der Leyen. After serving as Denmark’s minister for economy and interior affairs from 2011 to 2014, Vestager made her mark as fearless commissioner for competition under the Juncker Commission, initiating investigations into the tax affairs of several Fortune 500 companies, including Amazon, Apple and Google. Her decisions to impose a fine of €13 billion on Apple for accepting illegal state aid from Ireland and one of over €8 billion on Google for abusing its dominant market position highlight her leadership strength and her role in contributing to female politics in the EU.
While 2019 was unquestionably a great year for female political leadership in the EU, gender inequalities continue to be a dominant issue. Even today the gender pay gap in the EU remains significant, as women earn 16% less per hour than men. Put differently women work around 2 months for free each year and earn only 84 cents for every euro earned by men. While the gender pay gap is important in addressing gender inequalities in the workforce other issues persist, as it does not account for the overall labor inequalities between women and men and tends to be lower in countries where female employment rate is lower.
As one of the world’s leading economies, the EU, therefore, needs to address gender inequality within both its member-states and its leadership by making gender parity one of its top priorities. Only by valuing women at their true worth will Europe be able to lead the way in our fast-changing world.