What’s the norm? …. If you’re asked to think of a president and (you) close your eyes while doing that. Does a woman come to your mind or is it a man?
Originally organised to celebrate the very recent appointment of Silvana Koch-Mehrin, Founder & President of the Women Political Leaders (WPL), to senior member of the European Leadership Network (ELN), the virtual conversation between Lord Des Browne, Chair and Co-Founder of ELN and Ms. Koch-Mehrin was an opportunity to reflect on how to design the future of leadership in a post-COVID-19 world.
Learning curve: challenging perceptions to benefit from female leadership
Ms. Koch-Mehrin identifies several barriers that women face in accessing leadership positions, including stereotypical perceptions and biases. While the COVID-19 pandemic has provided a unique opportunity to amplify the visibility of women’s leadership, it is also a necessary moment to analyse where progress is lacking and what makes women leaders stand out in a sea of men.
“For (Helen Clark, Chair of the WPL Board and Prime Minister of New Zealand (1999-2008) the critical difference between the leadership that was shown in this pandemic between women and men is that most women were much higher on empathy,” Ms. Koch-Mehrin reveals.
It’s not that men aren’t empathetic, but women seem to be leading an inclusive and accessible conversation to the COVID-19 response in a way that is not often seen by male leaders.
Unbridled potential: using networks to increase women’s visibility as leaders
As Lord Browne points out, both ELN and WPL seek to harness the power of their networks to affect and accelerate this type of transformative change; change that will prove sustainable and that advances an agenda of equality and collaboration. He continues on to cite gender imbalance in both ELN itself as well as in the broader sector of defense and security, which has historically been male-dominated. ELN is working tirelessly to address this imbalance, yet progress remains stagnant, he says.
How can networks and organisations bridle the unprecedented potential of crisis to catalyse change in this area? The first step, as Ms. Koch-Mehrin outlines, is eradicating norms that reinforce inequality between women and men and the second is defining what types of positions men and women are able to hold.
“Why aren’t we seeing more women as Ministers of Foreign Affairs or Defence?” asks Ms. Koch-Mehrin.
In part, this is due to an absence of visibility for younger women and women rising in the ranks to positions of leadership. As Lord Browne rightly notes, there is not a shortage of qualified women. Rather, there is a barrier that is preventing these women from filtering to the top despite their expertise and qualifications. One of these barriers is that they are not able to access the same visibility as men.
That is why organisations like ELN and WPL seek to elevate women leaders so that they can become part of the mainstream conversation. Ms. Koch-Mehrin mentions WPL’s involvement at the annual Munich Security Conference, the leading conference for international security policy, where its network offers insight into which women leaders should be included in these important global conversations. Now, as opposed to a few years prior, the MSC makes a concerted effort to include more qualified women, and there are many. Both Lord Browne and Ms. Koch-Mehrin agree that their organisations, and myriad others, have a critical role to play in elevating the visibility of women to change public perceptions and increase appearances especially in defence and security.
Time to stand together
It is also more important than ever before to act collectively regarding matters of security and defence. Unfortunately, cooperative action has been severely lacking. Lord Browne remarks that the pandemic provides convincing evidence that we must all work together, however, the international system is more fractured than ever before. This is why Ms. Koch-Mehrin underscores the idea that ELN and WPL’s “networks…can make sure that people across borders, across political affiliations are cooperating” because one thing is certain: a unified global response is the only way to create an effective security policy and it is the only way to ensure the advancement of equality between women and men.
The virtual conversation outlines the defence and security challenges that the global community faces collectively, and how this is impacted by a significant lack of women in leadership.