Fri | Sep 17, 2021

Marianne Van Steen | Women in leadership: focus on what too often remains in the dark

Published:Sunday | March 7, 2021 | 12:11 AM
Marianne Van Steen
Marianne Van Steen

Women and men are not the same, and they will never be. A while ago, a video in circulation ridiculed the European Union for supposedly claiming that “women equal men” and “men equal women”. That is to say that we are all the same. That assumption is in itself derisory, for although Europeans regard equality as an important value, we would never undervalue the richness of our differences.

While we can accept that the genders are obviously not the same, there is certainly not one reasonable argument to negate the fact that women, like men, are equally human beings and that both deserve the same rights and protection.

On rights, the European Union is a strong believer in equal opportunities and has no doubt that if such were to be guaranteed, more women could undeniably be politicians, engineers, CEOs of big companies; but also carpenters and electricians. We believe that women can assume any other profession that would traditionally be reserved for men, such as ambassadors, astronauts, pilots, and many more, and that equal qualities should entail equal opportunities. We should not forget that social stigma also plays the other way round and still, too often, prevent men from aspiring to typically female professions such as interior designers, elementary school teachers or social workers, and many others. Moreover, we strongly believe that equal work should result in equal pay. As normal as this sounds, a global study carried out in 2018 concluded that women in the same professions as men earned 33 per cent less. Is it because of performance? No. It is prejudice or outright discrimination.

On protection, the European Union is worried about the regretful fact that in the 21st century, women still need to be protected from physical abuse, sexual, and other harassment, including outright femicides. Sadly, the threats they face have increased over the last 10 years. The statistics speak for themselves. According to UN Women, globally, 35 per cent of women have experienced physical and/or sexual violence, including by their own partners. In addition, across the world, 137 women are killed by a member of their family every day. In Jamaica, unfortunately, the situation isn’t any better: it is frightening and heart-breaking to see the regular news reports of violence committed against women, some of this violence leading to irreparable trauma and even to death. That is why the European Union and the United Nations are, under the global Spotlight Initiative, working intensely with the Government and civil society in the country to keep women and girls safe. This requires funds, but that is the easy part. It requires a change of mentality, a change in value patterns. It is a long-term endeavour that should start at home and in the classroom.


It is necessary to guarantee these equal rights and protection not only because it is ‘just’ or ‘fair’, but also because it is in the interest of society as a whole. There are ample studies that underpin this thesis, but even without them, it seems only logical that the complementarity of all genders is by itself an added value that no society should be allowed to push aside. When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau presented his government in 2015, comprising 15 men and 15 women, he was asked to explain this gender parity. His answer was “because it is 2015”. His choice was not a mere political stunt to increase his popularity, but was based on a clear understanding of the added value of having different points of view and different ways of working in his government to steer his country in the right direction. In a world where the fate of nations depends on the ability to leverage innovation, skills, and knowledge, leaving out half of a country’s talent pool is not exactly smart. Trudeau may have read the report by McKinsey Global Institute, which points out that global GDP could grow by an additional 26 per cent by 2025 if women are given the same economic opportunities as men.

Similarly, when in September last year the people of Jamaica elected a record 18 women to represent them in Parliament, it was a democratic expression of that same understanding. With an additional eight women appointed to the Senate, Jamaica has a 31 per cent female representation in Parliament. This is up by 17 per cent compared with 2015. It is above the global average of 25 per cent, above the 30.4 per cent average in Europe, and exceeds the 30 per cent benchmark of women parliamentarians set by the UN as the gender-related Sustainable Development Goal for 2030. This is definitely excellent news.

Women see things differently and do things differently, and that is good. More women in politics will provide the diversity that the new challenges of this world demand. They will put a spotlight on what too often remains in the dark. They will prioritise differently and look at challenges and policy making from a different angle. In a recent study published in the Harvard Business Review seeking to establish the performance rate of women vs men during the first months of the COVID-19 pandemic, women scored significantly better than men in terms of crisis resilience. It was even demonstrated that countries led by women and US states with women governors saw fewer fatalities. This is probably not about women doing things better (as women in leadership positions today are most likely only in these positions because of their excellence), but it shows how important it is to have them. It is no longer about showing that the traditional slogan “We can do it!” is right. It is a lot more about “When we work together, we can achieve more”.

- Marianne Van Steen is ambassador, Delegation of the European Union to Jamaica, Belize, The Bahamas, Turks and Caicos, and The Cayman Islands. This article is one in the series focusing on strategies and approaches needed to address gender inequality, including ending family violence. Send feedback and comments to