When the corona-virus pandemic is raging around the world, political leaders are being weighed in for their performances in containing the pandemic. It is widely discussed that countries with female heads of state have done much better than those having male leaders even in the strongest countries. The Prime Minister of New Zealand Jacinda Ardern, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Prime Minister of Finland Sanna Marin and President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen have been applauded for their success in fighting Covid-19 in their countries. Analysts have tried to dig down the reasons. Though there are several factors behind their achievement to control the spread of coronavirus in these countries, it is also undeniable that these women leaders have been much more caring, sincere and thoughtful in addressing the crisis which have been absent among some of the so called mighty male leaders.
Many have commented that their accomplishment with regard to managing the corona situation would pave the way for more women coming to leadership positions as these women have shown how to do things better. They have a better perspective of doing things and that has been successful. Stretching this optimism a bit further, some have even observed that since corona pandemic has shown "work from home" is a viable option for many jobs, this will help women to continue with their professions, perform better and rise to the leadership position. And in the end, we will be able to make progress towards gender equality.
Actually, it is a big "NO". Gender equality is still an elusive phenomenon in our country and everywhere in the world. Just because these women leaders have done well does not mean they will change the minds of people which are guided by strong stereotyped political, social and cultural values. There are of course many more female politicians in important positions across the world. But the numbers are still far from being "equal". Women in positions of power are still few and far between. This is not only in case of politics, but also in business, corporate sector, and all other professions. If the skill of women leaders in corona pandemic management is any clue as to how women can do a better job, we are in fact missing out on several other good initiatives and tasks that women can do well which are beneficial for the society.
However, the patriarchal system is the biggest barrier for women to advance. In the context of Bangladesh, it is a constant struggle for women to prove their worth in the workplace and society. Irrespective of their education, expertise and experience women are perceived to be less competent, less capable and less knowledgeable than men.
Unfortunately, hypocrisy and pretence exist among the so called educated and cultured men in our society. They talk too much on gender equality, but do not believe in that a bit. Regardless of a woman's experience, education and ability, men would undermine women to establish their own supremacy. When a man says the same thing that a woman says in a meeting he is heard, and appreciated but a woman's point is ignored and unnoticed. If a woman is loud and strong, she would be perceived as a problem in the system. She would be further undermined for her firm opinion and stance. These are not theoretical knowledge written only in books and articles. These are practical and real problems that we face every day even in the so called civilised workplaces.
In the patriarchal society, when a daughter revolts against her husband her parents would try to mend the relationship by any means fearing society's impression towards them but at the expense of their daughter's happiness. In the same manner, when a woman raises her voice for any fault in a male colleague, she would be considered as a troublemaker creating disruption and all men would be out there to protect him. A woman with strong personality is always a threat to a man. Hence the strategy is to silence her by belittling her in whatever way he can. Since a woman in our society is still so careful about her image, she shuts herself up quite often. If not, she will bear the brunt of her dissent. There would also be joint efforts by men and even women to malign her and undermine her achievements and performance. This is all in the name upholding harmony in the workplace and protecting the prestige of the institution. In many organisations, the complainant has to leave unceremoniously. And in the meantime, the male dominated media would be analysing her life in great detail. This is how a woman travels while in her journey towards leadership!
In fact, the challenges women face in the workplaces are multifarious, enormous and underreported. The breadth of the problem is much more than what we know. It is mostly the mean-minded men who are the biggest barrier for women's advancement. They cherish to see vulnerability and fragility of women. While awareness and sensitisation are needed among men, the problem has to be also looked through a broader lens. Indeed, such mindset is the result of a political process where both men and women can stand in the way of women's development. A political system which does not believe in equality, inclusion and justice will always be a hindrance to a progressive and just society where everyone can enjoy benefits from growth and prosperity. An exploitative political mechanism will also discriminate against poor and weak men. In a regressive political framework, we will always observe resistance towards the adoption of a liberal women development policy and face obstruction in stopping child marriage. This underscores the need to invest in political, legal and social frameworks.
Thus, the change has to also come from the top as well as from the bottom. All efforts have to be made parallelly to deal with the vicious challenges that women face in their professional careers. We should not also ignore the strength of sisterhood in this journey. It is said there are not many role models for women. We have not seen so many female ministers, secretaries and high officials in the government before. We have not also seen so many entrepreneurs and professional women in the past. So, why is there a dearth of mentors and role models for women? Actually, we do not look for them. Besides, to be a role model one does not have to be at the helm of power only. Every fighter is a role model for another woman, no matter how small and less paying her job is. So, we will listen to them and echo their voices to realise the power of every woman.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue.