Take Action: Overcoming Barriers to Better Gender Representation in Politics
Anna-Kaisa Ikonen is Deputy Mayor of the City of Tampere, Finland and a Vice President of the World YWCA. She learned leadership through her lifelong involvement in the YWCA. Here she outlines strategies to overcome obstacles to women’s equal participation in decision-making.
Breaking Barriers and Stereotypes
When we discuss women in leadership, we often focus on conflicts between career and family commitments. Women tend to have a bad conscience about not giving enough time to their families. This can be a barrier when women, especially young women, think of taking on leadership positions in work or politics.
When struggling with caring responsibilities, women need to be supported by close networks: husbands/partners, family and friends. Society needs to support women by offering childcare through the state, municipality, or non-governmental organisations. This allow women to participate in public life.
We must also pay attention not only to the top leadership but to the whole path that leads us there. We need education as well as skills to campaign, communicate and negotiate. Opportunities to participate in decision-making at the grassroots level allows women to grow into more challenging posts. I myself started as a three-year-old girl in a YWCA club, later becoming a club leader and then ending up on the local board, going from there to the YWCA national board and presidency and finally serving on the World Board and as one of the World YWCA Vice Presidents. I believe there are many of us who can tell the same fine story of how our leadership has grown within this movement and beyond.
It’s also about how we act as individuals. Women face many expectations. It is good not to be either too serious or too frivolous. The media still pays a lot more attention to the way women dress than men so it’s important to pay attention to how you look too. But these are just secondary means — cheap publicity never gets you far. To be reliable in the long run we need to be clever, do the work, and gain the required knowledge.
Age is a difficult question. There never seems to be a proper age for a woman. You are either too young, potentially a busy mother laden with responsibilities, or simply too old. As women it is our responsibility to overturn these generalisations by acting against them. When we get older we should give room and opportunities to those who are younger. Even without a lot of experience, they can bring fresh thinking. We may also innovate ways to combine work and family so having a baby won’t become a barrier to our careers in our own heads and in societal practices. We can strengthen the positions of older women by respecting their knowledge and learning from them as mentors.
Supporting Each Other
Too often women are merciless to other women and when they get to a position of leadership, they strive to treat women and men absolutely equally, trying to avoid the stigma associated with feminism. Still, equality is not always enough. Women need affirmative action too, making use of relationships and women’s networks – just as men have always done.
The demands of women’s movements for equality have helped break through masculine traditions. And, while they are not the best means, quotas ensure women are represented. None of us can do it alone. When we enter leadership positions, we must remember to open doors to other women.
In the end it’s about our own attitudes. We must believe in ourselves and have self-confidence and determination. We can lift up other women by giving them responsibilities, by employing them and giving them leadership positions, and finally, by voting for women in elections. It is only in this way that we will see women’s leadership grow. It is in our own hands.