Newswise — Women’s History Month recognizes the achievements of women throughout the world, regardless of national, political, ethnic, economic or cultural divisions. Expanded since the first observation of a Women’s History Week in 1978, the timing was designed to encompass the annual March observation of International Women’s Day, with themes this year of supporting diversity and progressing toward gender equality.

“Women’s History Month gives an opportunity to evaluate how far women have come but also how far we still have to go worldwide,” said Virginia Tech political science expert Farida Jalalzai. She reflected on world leaders who are women, and how in recent years they’ve broken down barriers and expanded understandings of the roles of women in governance.

“Former prime ministers of New Zealand and Finland Jacinda Ardern and Sanna Marin respectively broke norms by showing more of a human side to leadership,” Jalalzai said. “Arden navigated unprecedented crises and put the well-being of others front and center of her prime ministership. I see her as an inspirational leader who showed that a different type of leadership is possible and better. She demonstrated that you could be strong, decisive, kind, and empathetic. Her valedictory speech as she stepped down in January 2023 said it all. She has earned the time to focus on other pursuits, professional and personal, and her contributions will go on — for example, she is the trustee of Earthshot Prize, which extends her work on enhancing sustainability.

“Sanna Marin, still in the Finnish parliament, has created a persona that puts the human aspect front and center as well. Though she was at times criticized, on balance I think that people respected her for this. In this way, women can sometimes broaden the view we have of what a leader can do.

“Other women who have broken barriers have done so in countries where women struggle to gain a political foothold. There are many such examples but one that comes to mind is Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, former president of Liberia. She again showed that you could be strong and compassionate and bring different sides to the table. However, not all woman leaders serve as inspiring examples to others, so you do have to look at individual cases. You also have to know the obstacles they face when they are in power that could constrain them.  

“Generally, women can sometimes bring together a unique set of leadership skills, policy expertise, practical knowledge, and lots of demonstrated experience. They might be more likely to take collaborative approaches, and bring different issues to the policy agenda including those that promote the wellbeing of society and advocate on behalf of marginalized groups. They may be aware of the struggles they have encountered as women and try to help other women surmount them. As symbols of women in power, they could inspire other women to leadership roles,” Jalalzai said.

About Jalalzai
Farida Jalalzai is associate dean for global initiatives and engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences and professor of political science at Virginia Tech, focusing on the role of gender in the political arena including women national leaders. She is the author of several books on global women’s rights. Read more here.

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