Sunday, September 26, 2010

Women in leadership positions: the Swiss Federal Council

On Wednesday, September 22, 2010, the Swiss Parliament elected two new female cabinet ministers, resulting in Switzerland’s first-ever female-majority cabinet government. According to the Telegraph, the Federal Council cabinet, which is comprised of seven politicians, governs Switzerland without a fixed Prime Minister or President. The latest election resulted in a four-female, three-male coalition government. Ironically, Switzerland represents one of the last countries in Western Europe to allow women the right to vote in national elections (in 1971), but now stands as one of only five countries in the world (alongside Finland, Norway, Spain, and Cape Verde) that have a majority of women in government. According to the New York Times (“NYT”), Switzerland did not choose its first female minister until 1984, and only six women have ever held ministerial rank.

I think this occasion illustrates a compelling modern sketch of women in leadership positions, at least in the Western hemisphere. According to NYT, the female-majority Swiss government “is seen by Swiss commentators as more symbolic than practical.” One commentator interviewed by NYT stated, “What this vote shows is that gender is no longer a huge issue.” Indeed, policy-wise, the female-majority will not change much because the same parties make up the cabinet with the same number of seats. I tend to sympathize with the sentiment that gender is no longer a huge issue, but I believe that the statement requires clarification.

I think that gender does matter in the sense that a decision made by a female leader is probably somewhat informed by her perspective as a woman – at least to the extent that her gender may be at all relevant to that particular decision. However, I think that other characteristics – such as race, socio-economic background, core values, etc. – also factor in to the decision-making process, to the extent that these other characteristics are similarly relevant. Moreover, the influence that these characteristics have on a given decision may not be easily separable and may actually interact in incredibly nuanced ways. For example, I think that if the U.S. Supreme Court heard an abortion case in the near future, Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s opinion – whatever that may be – would probably be informed, at least somewhat, by her status as a Puerto Rican woman who was raised in the Bronx and attended an ivy-league law school.

I think that gender matters in this way – that a woman or man brings to the decision-making process her or his perspective as a woman or a man – and that this aspect regarding gender should be highly valued in society. I think that varied perspectives, backgrounds, and life experiences are important in the political sphere because it is probably more difficult for a representative to fully understand or appreciate a constituent’s concerns without shared perspectives, backgrounds, or life experiences. In such a diverse society as ours is, I think that being as inclusive as possible at the highest levels of government will lead to more cooperation and compromise between groups that may hold different values.

On the other hand, I think that gender does not matter in the sense that I do not hold prejudicial preconceptions regarding the ability of a woman to competently run a government as a result of her gender. As an analogy, I do not hold prejudicial preconceptions regarding the ability of a black man to serve as President of the United States as a result of the color of his skin. As a corollary to my valuation of diversity of opinion, gender does not matter in the sense that I am not fearful, resistant, or angered at the notion of a woman filtering her decisions through the lens of gender.

In short, I understand the sentiment that the election of a female-majority Swiss cabinet has more symbolic significance than practical significance. I think that, with my generational peers anyway, we are much less prejudicial (though not completely free of prejudice) regarding a woman’s perceived ability to do any task that a man can do – and vice-versa. Therefore, it does not make a practical difference to me whether the United States elects a female president or a male president. Here, however, I think that the election of the female-majority Swiss cabinet is also symbolic in a practical way.

When the cabinet must make decisions that unmistakably concern gender, their outcomes will now likely be more balanced and informed by female perspectives that were not previously represented on the council. I think this representation of perspective is important in terms of process, even if the actual outcome would be the same as if made by a privileged, all-white, all-male group. Ultimately, I think that the election of a female-majority Swiss cabinet is unremarkable in the sense that society should have realized the benefits of such a balanced representation long, long ago.


N.P. said...

Not to keep harping on Madeleine Albright's speech, but she made an interesting point - as she was in a leadership position herself. She found that women have a great understanding and perception of putting themselves in another persons' shoes. On this basis, she felt that as a woman she was in a better position to negotiate - both through coercion, force, and also kindness (which is what most people seem to think that women act in such situations). These tactics were the same used by men, but in some ways she had an upper hand because she could understand two sides to a story - an important tool in diplomacy.

Chez Marta said...

Switzerland's example shows that it really does not matter when a country's female population gets the vote, what matters is what they do with it!