Do role models really work?


Kamala Harris won. Her victory is being celebrated across the world for many different reasons. One of which is, simply because she is a woman.

Politics has always been dominated by men. A woman being elected to a national executive role anywhere in the world, is a rare phenomenon. Most national leaders, presidents, prime ministers all over the world, have been, and still are, men. It is one of the most striking examples of unequal power distribution, given that half the world’s population is female.

Historically, it has never been easy for women to enter the political arena. It was only in the second half of the twentieth century that a handful of women managed to break through the highest echelons of power. And since then there have been sporadic victories, but a woman on top is still relatively unusual. No wonder Kamala Harris is still making news.

There is so much hope pinned on her. As she takes over as the first woman to hold the second highest office in America, millions of girls and women are cheering for her. She symbolises possibilities, as most believe that she has shattered the glass ceiling and opened the doors for others to follow. Only the future will tell if that is true. Going by the past, it is not necessarily the case.

In India, we have had a tradition of strong women in politics. We had Indira Gandhi as our Prime Minister over 50 years ago, which was around the same time when in America, all women, without discrimination, managed to finally get the right to vote. Since then there have been a series of powerful chief ministers – Mamta Banerjee, Jayalalitha, Mayawati, Sheila Dixit, Vasundhara Raje; a woman as President, Speaker, and those holding important cabinet positions – Nirmala Sitharaman, Sushma Swaraj, Uma Bharti, Smriti Irani and the like. For us, there is no dearth of role models, unlike America. But it didn’t really change anything dramatically. There are barely 13% women in Parliament today.

The persistence of male domination in politics is a complex phenomenon. The obvious explanation is rooted in patriarchy, which can be explained both from a historical and evolutionary point of view. But it is important to dig deeper and understand why and how, does it continue. Not just our country – why are parliaments around the world still made up of mostly men.

It is especially relevant also because there are enough and more studies, followed by real life cases which prove that women in leadership positions are sometimes more able to understand, empathise, and take effective action, that leads to long lasting positive change, for their families and their communities. For example, a study by the UN found that the number of drinking water projects in panchayats headed by women was 62% higher than those led by men. IndiaSpend reported that women panchayat leaders in Tamil Nadu, invested 48% more money in building roads and improving access than their male counterparts.

Despite these examples, the truth is that women should not be needed to demonstrate their capabilities vis-à-vis men. Each one of us has a right to engage with civil society, and to make our voices heard.

For America having a role model like Kamala Harris, might change things. But here in India, we need more. We proudly celebrate our list of women leaders, but their individual journeys have not necessarily changed things dramatically. It has not led to hordes of young, dynamic women jumping into politics, inspired with the belief that if she could do it, so can I.

It is through equal political participation that we can hope to achieve gender equality. But how do we increase that dismal number (13%!). A role model will not be enough. In one of her speeches, Kamala Harris said, ‘I may be the first, but I won’t be the last’. We all hope that she is right. But we need to actively talk about how.

DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.

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