Britain has just appointed its second female prime minister. This has produced the flurry of questions about whether this is another crack in the glass ceiling, whether she will be judged on her appearance, will this improve the lot of women etc.
My answer to the question of the glass ceiling is I’m not sure. The fact that we’re even saying things like ‘female prime minister’ is proof that the glass ceiling is pretty intact. This is the 21st century. Having a prime minister who happens to be a woman should not be remarkable. In fact is it even remarkable? The Scottish first minister is a woman. The leader of the Scottish Conservatives is a woman. The leader of the Green party is a woman. The leader of Plaid Cymru is a woman. The leader of Germany is a woman. There’s a good chance that the next President of the USA will be a woman.
Female leaders are not even a new phenomenon. We’ve always had them. We can easily point out the famous ones – Boudicca, Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots etc. But the more you dig into our history, the more female leaders you find. There are the ones who were regents for their husbands while they were away or for their children. There are also many who while they did not have the title, were clearly a strong influence on the male leaders. The question of a female leader is a timely one for me, as I prepare to hit publish on ‘The Girl from Brittia’. This is the story of a sixth-century princess and leader. Interestingly she was not a leader on the domestic front. No, she was a military leader and apparently a successful one.
So, female leaders are not new or, these days, that uncommon. So, why are we even talking about it? To me it seems that the glass ceiling will remain solid however many cracks are in it. It will only be shattered when we stop seeing a female leader as something remarkable.
Should female leaders be judged on whether they improve the lot of women? Absolutely, but so should male leaders. I would condemn, for example, a leader of any gender whose spending policies cause the closure of women’s refuges. How things have improved for both women and men should be how we judge all our leaders. I am hoping that we will soon work our way towards a point where roughly every other prime minister is a woman. I don’t just want sexism challenged when it’s a woman in charge. Challenging prejudice needs to be something all leaders do.
Will Theresa May’s appearance be commented on because she is a woman? Probably. A man probably wouldn’t get judged on their appearance, but isn’t that because men’s clothes are pretty boring? A sober coloured suit, plain shirt, a hint of colour on the tie – there’s nothing to talk about. Humans are a visual species. If something stands out from the norm, we notice it. A male minister turning up for work in a Hawaiian shirt would probably be commented upon. In fact, Jeremy Corbyn was recently called out for not wearing a tie. I don’t think David Cameron ever criticised a woman for not wearing a tie. There is not the same norm in clothes for women. They have the freedom to express more individuality. The price they pay for that is that it get’s noticed. If men expressed more individuality in their clothing, it too would be commented on. We might now be horrified if at a diplomatic meeting between Angela Merkel and Theresa May, the main comments were about what each wore. But at the extravagant diplomatic meeting known as The Field of the Cloth of Gold in 1520 between Henry VIII and Francis I, the appearance of both men was very much the topic of conversation and I suspect both men loved it!
So, let’s stop talking about Theresa May as the second female prime minister. Let’s start seeing her as the Prime Minister and judge her accordingly.