In light of the US Presidential election coming to an end today and the significant media attention surrounding the first female US Presidential candidate, this post was written by guest contributor Vanya Minkova to discuss some of the challenges faced by women in leadership positions.
I have been involved with community-oriented initiatives and civil organizations since my school years. In 2006 I started participating more actively in Bulgarian politics and from 2009-2013 I served as Deputy Regional Governor and subsequently as Governor. Through this experience I gained an insight into the challenges that women in politics and the public sphere encounter on their way to success.
As the first woman Governor of the Bulgarian Pazardzhik region I was able to recognise the differences in the social perceptions of male and female leaders. Depending on the structure of a society, people’s expectations of women leaders and their behaviour towards these leaders could vary. During my experience in politics I have observed that some consider female politicians more willing to agree and cooperate with them before meeting you based solely on the fact that you are a woman. On the other hand, it is less readily accepted for a female politician to reject an idea or express a dissenting opinion.
Proposing a plan of action or making a suggestion could pose similar challenges. A woman leader has to undertake a double effort to do so. Firstly, before even discussing the content of the suggestion, a woman often has to spend time on making herself be heard. As in many societies, both developed and developing, the perception of women as less capable in spheres such as business and politics still exists. A female leader has to first prove her competency by establishing a record of good decision-making before gaining equal recognition to male leaders. Secondly, women often need to ensure that their arguments are particularly convincing as they could be held on a higher standard of evaluation and greater scrutiny compared to arguments of men.
An additional challenge to many women building their professional career in any sphere is unequal start in terms of timing. If a woman decides to have a family prior to starting a career, this inevitably poses a delay that is normally not experienced by men in the same manner. I personally, as well as many women I have met who work in business and politics, have started building careers in our late twenties to early thirties. Most men at that age already have substantial experience and a network of professional connections.
Last but not least, it is important to not overgeneralise. Even though the gender structures in many social environments negatively affect women’s chances of professional progress, this does not necessarily encompass the attitude of all men with regard to women in politics, business and leadership. I have had the opportunity to meet male politicians who actively support programmes preventing discrimination against women and encourage women’s participation in decision-making. Furthermore, positive developments with regard to gender equality in politics are already observable. For example, the current cabinet of the Republic of Bulgaria has an equal representation of women and men as 50% of the ministers are women.
Overall, the majority of women still face significant gender-specific obstacles to their professional development and the political sphere is no exception. Despite encouraging trends of increased women’s participation in high-level decision-making, the gap between men and women is nevertheless present and it is essential to continue efforts in order to achieve full and sustainable gender equality.
Vanya Minkova is a former Deputy Governor and Governor of Pazardzhik region, Bulgaria. She has experience in education, working with people with disabilities, ethnic minorities and programmes on social integration. Vanya has hosted and participated in seminars and panel discussions on gender equality and women’s leadership.