This article is an opinion piece and has been written in the view of the author, these opinions are not fact, but are interesting, please read sensibly and with discretion.
Throughout the past decade, there has been an increase in strong women within politics. By this, I mean that we have less women in politics that are silent and more dominant and assertive female politicians, such as, Nicola Sturgeon. Sturgeon, the First Minister of Scotland, is no exception to this rule. From deputy leader to first minister, Sturgeon’s political experience and expertise means she is undeniably suited to the role. So, why is her authority and suitability, often questioned? Unfortunately, it’s a similar story all around the world; women in power are constantly questioned about the ability to do their job. The media often plays a significant role, as well as deeply ingrained attitudes towards women in patriarchal societies.
After the 2015 General Election increased the presence of the SNP, Sturgeon received a spotlight in the press. The Sun’s front page edited Sturgeon onto a wrecking ball wearing a tartan bikini titled ‘tartan barmy’. Another sexist front page printed by The Daily Mail edited Ed Miliband onto Sturgeon’s cleavage. It is difficult to see why Sturgeon, a politician who had successfully climbed the career ladder, was mocked and undermined by the media at the offset. It might be because many media outlets retain outdated gender biases and are more likely to describe the activities of women in politics with hostility and aggression in comparison to their male counterparts (according to a 2014 study by Deirdre O’Neill and Heather Savigny). Political media is ultimately symbolic of the Parliament it represents, which has historically been an institution created, maintained and centred around white men. Today, despite increased representation, there is still an element of surprise when women enter political spaces, let alone when they become leaders.
Recent claims that Sturgeon should step down from Douglas Ross cite her ‘aggressive demeanour’ and ‘looking fed up’ as reasons for becoming less capable at her job. Other criticisms included that she would be unable to deliver another referendum legally. The former lacks any legitimate form of scrutiny, and the latter would be unlikely to change even if she were to be replaced with a man. As political leaders, women are often under a magnifying glass.
The idea that women lack leadership skills has been an idea known for a very long time. Surveys have revealed that throughout the world, many, feel women are not suitable for significant political roles. According to Christine Ro, only 41% of people in Germany felt comfortable with a woman being the head of government despite Angela Merkel’s long-time premiership. Age-old stereotypes come in to play, where women are considered passive and not authoritative enough to successfully lead countries. Women of colour may face even greater discrimination and are often penalised more even though they have significantly less representation in multicultural societies.
However, there are gradual improvements in representation; the UK Parliament currently has 220 female MPs. At 34%, this is an all time high. However, with exactly half of the population being women, there is still a long way to go. Furthermore, there are only 35 non-white women within the Commons, which needs significant improvement. Women are also less likely to obtain cabinet positions, with the highest proportion of women that held top ministerial positions only reaching 36% throughout 2006 and 2007.
The truth of the matter is that our society needs more women in power. It has been highlighted, particularly throughout the Coronavirus pandemic, that women have a transformative style of leadership and rule with more empathy. Jacinda Arden, the Prime Minister of New Zealand has been praised for her handling of COVID-19, with The Atlantic calling her “the Most Effective Leader on the Planet.”
It is important to see powerful women to help in decreasing patriarchal stereotypes within our society and to inspire the next generation of leaders. But also can we please find a way to stop criticising everything women do?
Gender and the development of a political persona: The case of Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon by Michael Higgins + Fiona McKay in the journal British Politics (2016)