By Aaron, our Design and Layout Editor
In this article, Aaron looks at women at the front: leaders, influencers and role models. What is it that gives them the edge over others? Not ever having been a woman, but as a gay man, strong women have featured prominently in his life, but were they role models? Did they inspire him? Read on for this self-exploratory insight. Aaron dressed up in drag on one occasion... but it wasn't for him.
In recent years, we have been lucky enough to live through three female leaders in the UK, providing us with 'prime' examples of women in the Big Chair and how they respond to the turmoil of events. This is my take on how things worked out.
Margaret Thatcher, being the first to rise up to this lofty position in Britain, was something of a trailblazer, punching above her weight to get heard and then leading with strength and determination. I don't aim to write biographies of our subjects here, but to draw some conclusions from their time in office. Clearly, Thatcher was a success in that she won three elections - something women following her have been unable to do. Was she a woman of her time? Did the Falklands War victory make the difference? Did she have some unique qualities?
The West Wing TV series refers to the 'Mommy Problem', which is when a country needs to be led by a strong commanding leader, rather than coddled, protected and looked after. Did UK voters in 1979 expect that a female leader would be more protective, one that would look after them? Were they surprised when Margaret Thatcher turned out to be that strong leader the country needed, and more resolute than most of the men around her? Conservatives are typically small-state, self-sufficient types, who are not keen on state handouts and being protected. So did the thought of a protective 'mommy' leader win over some left-wing voters, I wonder?
Either way, when Theresa May came along in 2016 we gained our second female leader. She was quite a different personality to Thatcher. She had been a strong and capable cabinet minister, and so was not an unknown face. She projected strength in standing up for Britain during the Brexit crisis. But was she outmatched and outmanoeuvred by Eurocrats? Few of us will ever really know what happened in those negotiations, but when she was summoned in the middle of the night, answering to their beck and call and coming away with no gains, it felt that she had lost. She had delivered some truly promising speeches at Lancaster House in London (used for government receptions) in January 2017 and at the Mansion House (the official residence and office of the Lord Mayor of London). Optimism was high and even Labour voters liked what she had to say. I thought she was in it for the long haul, but she lost her Parliamentary majority in a snap election in 2017 and this sealed her fate.
After Boris Johnson left office in September 2022, we had yet another 'strong and stable' woman take the lead. Liz Truss was, again, a known face, certainly softer in tone than either Thatcher or May, but having been a patriotic voice for Britain as foreign secretary, she got elected as leader of the Conservative Party in preference to Rishi Sunak, and was appointed as Prime Minister by Queen Elizabeth II shortly before her death. As a member of the Conservative Party, I wanted Penny Mordaunt, but although she had been the party members' favourite, she was eliminated by MPs in their final ballot. Between Sunak the 'accountant' and Truss the 'visionary', I opted for the latter.
It took days - if not hours - to realise this has not been a good choice. The cabinet she formed led to bad decision-making and closed-door policy, and finance decisions further weakened her command of events. But perhaps Liz Truss herself was the biggest flaw. I'm sure she is a lovely person, but as a UK citizen I watched on in horror as this new Prime Minister, like a 12-year old schoolgirl caught in the headlights, stumbled over her words, rigidly following an autocue and just coming across as fake, heartless even, and lacking leadership credibility. Boris (notice how we are always on first name terms with him) was a very hard act to follow. He had charisma, flair, optimism and a sense of humour. When Truss took over she seemed cold and uncaring. She was rigid and then reckless in her decision-making, and then she was forced to backtrack on her decisions within days as financial markets went into meltdown.
These three female leaders were all different, and yet remarkably similar. To go into politics you need to be pretty tough and resilient but our women in politics have been quite macho in stance and style. Our three female Prime Ministers made efforts to be more feminine in some areas. Theresa May's shoes were always a talking point for example. Yet to fight on a par with men they had to appear strong. Margaret Thatcher even had voice coaching to deepen her voice and sound more authoritative. Is this all because women are viewed as weak?
For many years I've been drawn to strong women in film and television. I liked the fact that they were equal, performed the same roles as the men, were not weak and feeble, tripping over high heels, breaking a fingernail or worrying about smudged makeup. They got on with the task in hand, and were an equal match to any man out there.
The 'fairer sex' may have been designed to attract men and bear children, but none of this matters to a gay man. Women don't need to look beautiful. They need to be competent in their role as a human being, doing whatever it is they are doing. My close female friends over the years have all followed this approach. None wore high heels, none wore makeup very often, none wore frilly dresses or would hold back from home DIY or changing a tyre. 'I can't do that, I'm a women' simply wasn't in their vocabulary, and that attracted me to them as a friend. The political women above fall into that category I feel, perhaps not to the same degree as my TV examples, but they certainly qualify as 'strong women'.
Now I'm sure a woman can be pretty, and stunningly attractive in a feminine way, but I'd like to think that's not all she is, not her entire remit. I imagine most humanists would agree that women shouldn’t be subservient to men, or expect them to open doors for them, pay the bills, fix the engine or make decisions for them. But does being equal lead to power? It seems that if a woman is to be a leader she will have to be even tougher and more 'masculine' than the men, but even then she will seem out of place in what is still predominantly a man's world.
In my last job, there were a number of women in the chain of command. A female team leader, a female manager, a female department lead and a female head of division. Only the director above her was male. This was in a County Council. In previous roles, I have had many female managers, and like all people, they had their good and bad points. None of these, however, were related to sex. It was purely about personality types and styles of leadership. In my view, a person who is good at the job should get the job. I do not agree with the weighted targets used by the Labour Party on at least on one occasion to fill positions with women, just because they were women. As much as I support equality, 'the best person for the job' should be the aim. It should not be a woman on the basis that it's a woman's turn to captain the ship.
Women in positions of executive power have been relatively rare in modern times although Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria were no push overs. Men served under these Queens and also under Queen Elizabeth II. But we did not have a female Prime Minister until the second half of the twentieth century. Why is that? In very recent years, the United States nearly had a first woman leader in the person of Hillary Clinton. As is the fate of so many candidates, she got smeared by the Press and lost the 2016 election, but I would have voted for her had I been there. Democratic countries across Europe and globally have had female leaders, and yet it seems that females still struggle to grab the top jobs in business.
There's absolutely no denying that women are the ones who are designed by evolution to give birth. Women can of course take career breaks for pregnancy and child caring but their promotion prospects are often compromised. Fortunately, there are still far more women who want to become mums, and do, than women who put career front and centre above all else, and this may account for the relative rarity of women in the very top jobs.
Biology notwithstanding, it should be possible for women to serve in top roles in all western nations. There are, of course, countries in which equal opportunities are held back by religion, history, dictatorship, or culture, and women still struggle to gain an equal foothold. Can the West do anything about this? Or should every woman wanting an equal bite of the cake just move to a Western country to gain recognition and be valued for who they are and the skills they have? The only alternative, it seems, is to encourage women everywhere to stand up for their rights and for the West to be an example to the world as to how society should be organised, for the benefit of women and men, without detriment to a nation's GDP or its future.