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Frontpage News 2011 From the right to vote to the right to influence

No 22 Global fund for decent work and tripartite dialoguel

From the right to vote to the right to influence

Marking the 100th International Women’s Day, twice Latvian president Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga shares her views on how women’s participation in decision-making are not only a matter of economic return, but of democratic right.

12 years ago, Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga became the first elected female head of state in Central and Eastern Europe. After steering Latvia into the EU and NATO, she was considered for the position of UN Secretary-General, and last year, was the only female contender for the position of EU President. Yet, one hundred years on from the inaugural International Women’s Day, Vīķe-Freiberga seems to be the exception rather than the rule. In the EU today, there are only four female heads of state (Finland, Ireland, Lithuania and the UK) and three heads of government (Finland, Germany and Slovakia).

Her home country Latvia is fairly typical. “We have not achieved any kind of stellar performance in female representation in politics. It seems to be settling at around 20%,” Vīķe-Freiberga said. This figure is slightly below the EU average, where at 24% - up from 16% in 1997 - it is still below the so-called ‘critical mass’ of 30% seen as necessary for women to exert meaningful influence in politics.

Numbers alone do not count

However, for Latvian women keen to make a mark in the higher echelons of politics or business, there are reasons to be optimistic. “What we do have clearly are possibilities for women who are interested in reaching the highest positions,” Vīķe-Freiberga said, stressing: “You need to look at not just the number of women in a party – but how much influence they wield. Numbers alone do not count - influence counts.”

Latvia has also steered clear of demarcation of gender along hard and soft lines in politics. As well as President Vīķe-Freiberga, Latvian female politicians have also occupied some of the more ‘big-hitting’ positions in government, such as the ministries of defence, foreign affairs and the interior. Yet, in Latvia’s current government only 3 out of 14 cabinet ministers are women – a figure slightly below the 26% average for female ministers in EU governments.

At a European level, although the gender proportion remains unbalanced, women are slightly better off. Despite the European Commission’s strong commitment to equality, when President Barroso unveiled his new team the number of female Commissioners ended up at 9 out of 27, similar to the previous term. In the European Parliament, the share of women is 35%, slightly better than in national parliaments. But, last year, the EU only came up with one female candidate to the position of President of the European Council – Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga

A right to be there

For Vīķe-Freiberga, enhancing gender equality is a question of democracy. While today’s EEA and Norway Grants conference on gender equality in Brussels will show why investing in gender equality makes economic sense, Vīķe-Freiberga, also a distinguished academic, argues that the positive correlation between company performance and gender diversity, or the notion that women bring different perspectives to the table, is interesting from a scientific point of view. Not a political one.

“My point is that women possess equal rights as human beings and as citizens. These are inherent rights that don’t have to be proven. The minute you say you must prove women’s right to equality you are implicitly accepting that they are unequal until proven otherwise. Anyone has to prove they are good enough if they want to get a job or get into politics – as an individual. But individuals should be evaluated solely on the basis of their individual competence and capabilities and ideally their gender should be an irrelevant consideration.”

Crucial parental leave

What then of the future? Does she believe in quotas? “I am not very enthusiastic myself,” she admitted, pointing to her experiences as a professor in Canada. “Having gone through a period throughout my career as a scientist, facing the severe competition that professors come up against, I felt I was able to compete quite handily with my male colleagues and that was a source of satisfaction and accomplishment. If I were told I was only accepted to fill a quota, I would feel offended. I always felt I was as good as, or better, than my male colleagues,” Vīķe-Freiberga said, adding: “However – where male prejudices are blatant, various steps need to be taken to ensure that women get a fair deal in competition.”

She does however see parental leave as a crucial component to ensuring the presence of younger women in politics. “We need to have adequate support systems in place -women are the ones that nurture children in early age. In order not to lose their place in their career track, there must be fair maternity leave conditions.”