Will a Difference Be Seen With Women Presidents or Prime Ministers?

The numbers are yet so few that the gathering of women heads of state and government can be assembled in a phone booth size room. Yet, there is a glimmer of pattern or at least possibility.
11/21/2007 02:21 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Another woman has won the presidential election in her country. On October 28, 2007 Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina won a decisive victory over her opponents -- one of whom was a woman.

It is still not business as usual. A woman president is still the 'dancing dog' phenomenon, still an anomaly worthy of press articles, extended comparisons to others in her region (see Bachelet-Chile) or her similar circumstances (note Hillary Rodham Clinton, wife of President, Senator and now running herself), and a trend (Angela Merkel!-Germany, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf!-Liberia). The numbers are yet so few that the gathering of women heads of state and government can be assembled in a phone booth size room.

Yet, there is a glimmer of pattern or at least possibility. In both parliamentary and presidential systems women are winning highest offices. This is a step forward. Prime Ministers can be elected by their parliamentarian peers or appointed by a president. Presidents at least in North, Central and South American hemisphere have to win through direct election (or close enough through the Electoral College). And this is not easy. It is a tougher election road and harder to gain a foothold.

(Note: Canada is a Commonwealth country and still has the Queen in the background).

We are not talking equality nirvana but traces of lighting on the path. More country governments are giving women allocation of seats, or the parties are. More women are being named ministers of cabinet as governments in some countries move to 50 percent women and 50 percent men in cabinet. (Think Spain). Others are moving if not to parity, to larger presence. This is a pipeline effect. Many a male minister has seen the oval office in their country (or whatever shape it is) and coveted it as within their reach. Women have ambition, too, and there is a growing cadre of women with government experience running large departments with arguably big budgets. Women are exercising power.

Women are gaining more economic clout and often with that come independent thinking and action. The market women of Liberia were a major force that helped Ellen Johnson Sirleaf become the African continent's first woman president.

Is it quick enough? A sort of glass half empty/half full question. Yes, progress is happening, but we still need to 'hurry history' because the rate of progress as measured by previous changes still suggests that anything close to parity, if we wait for natural forces, is a 50- to 80-year dream. Affirmative mechanisms help. Norway is now requiring 40 percent of board's of directors be women. If nothing else these are directional sign posts -- "go this way" is what is being said to companies and in government.

Will a difference be seen with women presidents or prime ministers? Ho Chi Minh was once asked if the French Revolution of 200 years ago made a difference. He said it was 'too soon to tell.' It is probably too soon. We really need to see critical mass -- if the cameras panned over the UN General Assembly and 70 of the 190 plus leaders were women, we might see different language, priorities, funding efforts.

The Council of Women World Leaders will co-convene an International Women Leaders Global Security Summit in mid-November 2007 along with the Annenberg Trust, Women Leaders Intercultural Forum and the White House Project. World leaders, including sitting leaders such as Tarja Halonen, President of Finland and Jenny Shipley, Prime Minister of New Zealand (1997-99 will attend. Mary Robinson, chair of the Council and President of Ireland (1990-1997 and Kim Campbell, chair emerita of the Council, and Prime Minister of Canada (1993) are co-chairs. 75 women leaders at the highest levels are going to discuss global security and what further advances can be made when women's voices are heard and women are at the table. We firmly believe that women walk in the world and experience it differently than men.

I co-founded the White House Project 10 years ago, and when we started we wanted to reinforce the idea that a woman can be president in the United States. Having more role models sure helps.