For women, leadership a labyrinth, not a glass ceiling

For women, leadership a labyrinth, not a glass ceiling

Kamala Harris' election shows that there is a path, however difficult, that women can navigate to leadership

US Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. Credit: AFP Photo

Earlier this month, history was made when Kamala Harris became the first female Vice President-elect of the United States. Her win is being celebrated globally for having crushed a major gender stereotype in the US and bringing a symbolic victory to women around the world. In her national address, Harris encouraged future women candidates by prophesying that, “While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last. Because every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities.”

While the 2020 American presidential election will be remembered for a long time as monumental, it is empowering to remember that so many countries have earlier  elected women to be their leaders. In 1960, Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka and the first female Head of State in Asia. In 1966, Indira Gandhi became India’s first female Prime Minister and today, November 19, marks the 103rd birth anniversary of our ‘Iron Lady’, a woman who stood at the helm for nearly 16 years and was responsible for several historic decisions that altered the course of our nation.

While India can boast of having had a female PM and President, the election of Kamala Harris is still so important to us Indians partly because of her South Indian descent and also because the book on women’s empowerment is yet to have its concluding chapter written. While the question of whether women can lead as capably as men has been adequately answered by prominent world leaders, particularly during this global pandemic, there is still the perception of an existing glass ceiling.

The term ‘glass ceiling’ was popularised three decades ago in a Wall Street Journal article to describe the barrier that prevented women from being promoted to leadership roles. Despite extant gender stereotypes and the statistical masculinity of leadership, women are rising into positions of power in governments and private organisations. The presence of corporate leaders like Susan Wojcicki and Lisa Su, Heads of State like Angela Merkel and Jacinda Ardern, and heads of international organisations such as Christine Lagarde and Kristalina Georgieva are examples of how women do make it to high positions of authority, and proof that the metaphor of the glass ceiling is untrue. While an absolute barrier does not exist, the path to leadership for a woman is still not a straight one. Rather, as Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, professors of psychology at Northwestern and Wellesley College, respectively, put it, it is a labyrinth with obstacles, not barriers. Routes to the centre exist, but are full of setbacks, twists, turns, and sometimes dead-ends. The metaphor of the labyrinth more accurately describes the complexities women face along the way, including prejudices, male domination, issues with leadership style, and family responsibilities.

Women have proven their ability to lead, especially when their communities are jeopardised. This year’s news has seen women on the frontlines everywhere as heads of governments, legislators, healthcare workers and community leaders. Today, women are heads in just 21 countries, though they have displayed inclusive and effective decision-making. The world’s oldest democracy may have waited till 2020 to entrust a woman with the second highest office, but the past and present is full of examples of women who have successfully navigated to the centre of the labyrinth, such as Indira Gandhi.

Today, we celebrate a piece of history by remembering India’s first and only woman Prime Minister, and also look forward to what the future will bring with Kamala Harris. While her election is an empowering reminder that times have changed, we must also remember that we once elected a woman as head of our country. I am proud that we can claim to be one of the 75 countries to have had a female leader but yearn to see more women at the forefront. Harris’ victory, especially as she is the daughter of an Indian immigrant in the US, should remind women all over the world of their native changemakers who made it through the twists and turns of the occupational labyrinth.

The celebration of a woman making it to the top should remind us that there is a passage through the labyrinth that requires perseverance, wisdom, and an occasional helping hand. As a woman slowly making my way through the professional world, I am grateful for the laws in place to discourage systemic discrimination against women, but I am constantly reminded of how skewed the gender ratio of people in leadership positions is. Today, however, I am inspired. I am inspired by history and the present. I am inspired by the fact that India once entrusted a woman with its destiny, and I hope it once again will. I look forward to a less polarised future, where the progress women have made for themselves is not lost but is perpetuated by a rising number of women who make it to the news and by the many women who navigate through the labyrinth every day.

(The writer is a software engineer at Microsoft)