Over the weekend, Somalia’s prime minister appointed a woman to the post of foreign minister in his reorganized cabinet, making her the first woman to hold the important post. Fauzia Yusuf Haji Adan referred to her appointment as a moment “historic for the Somali country and particularly for the women of Somalia.”
“Historic” is not an overstatement. Somalia’s small UN-backed Transitional Federal Government is struggling to consolidate a country suffering from a 20-year old power vacuum that has been filled with civil war, foreign invasions, territorial secessions and the rise of powerful al-Qaeada affiliated Islamist organizations like al-Shabab.
In a country as unstable as Somalia, the appointment of even one female leader still represents an important step toward ensuring gender equality and representation for women in government.
But to ensure real progress continues, Somalia needs to include more female leaders in government, and this message goes for every other country in the world. In the United States, it is comforting to think that we live in a modern, post-sexism society. But the fact is we have not even reached the centennial anniversary for when women won the right to vote, and according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, women currently earn 77 cents for every dollar men earn.
It is dangerously easy for women like Adan to be treated as tokens of progress when they should be viewed as a foundation for ongoing change.
According to the Center for American Women and Politics, women currently hold 90 out of the 535 seats in the 112th U.S. Congress — approximately 16.8 percent. On a list ranking countries by the percentage of women in parliaments or their government equivalent, the United States occupied 80th place, tying with Morocco and Venezuela.
Although several women do occupy powerful positions in President Obama’s administration — including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett, and Deputy Chief of Staff Alyssa Mastromonaco, among others — on a state level, female political leaders are still a minority. Women hold 24 percent of elective executive offices in the United States, make up 23.7 percent of state legislators, and hold just six out of the 50 state governorships.
As of the 2010 census, females represent slightly more than half the population, edging out men by approximately four million. Ultimately it is the electorate that decides who holds office, but in a republic built upon the standard of fair representation for minorities and majorities, the public’s opinion would be more accurately represented if there were more female leaders in our political institutions. This is especially relevant for issues like abortion and contraception that should not be debated by panels composed almost exclusively of male politicians.
Women are making inroads into roles of leadership in countries around the world — Brazil elected its first female president in 2010, and Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel is one of the most influential politicians in Europe. In the United States this Tuesday, Wisconsin elected Tammy Baldwin, the nation’s first openly gay senator.
But on the United Kingdom’s parliament website, a bold banner states that a century ago, there were no female politicians in the House of Parliament at all, which is followed by the current percent of women in the House of Commons and the House of Lords (one quarter and one fifth).
Women may have fought for and won suffrage and the right to hold office, but they are still underrepresented in governments in every country. It is not enough to tip the scale by sprinkling a few women from a binder of resumes onto a few committees. The progressive cultural transformation that sparked the suffragette movement and led to the modern age where women can lead nations must continue as women struggle for equality in their rights and their representation.