13 November 2018Last updated

Real Women

The new era of women on top

With a female leader newly in residence in Britain’s Number 10, and another hoping to move into the US White House, we look at the women taking up the reins of power across the globe

5 Sep 2016 | 10:00 am
  • Theresa May


Theresa May

Prime Minister, United Kingdom

As the second woman to govern the UK, Britain’s newly appointed prime minister, Theresa May, has already achieved a first by promoting women to some of the big posts in her cabinet. For the first time ever, two of the top four jobs – justice secretary and home secretary – are simultaneously held by women. The move is a stark contrast from the country’s first female prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, who famously appointed an all-male cabinet amid accusations that she broke the glass ceiling only to pull the ladder up behind her.

Having worked in politics for two decades, it’s not the first time May has embraced gender equality. She co-founded Women2Win in 2005 – a group that supported promoting more women to Parliament – and was appointed Minister for Women and Equality in 2010. In her former role as home secretary, she has tackled issues affecting women and girls – including helping survivors of female genital mutilation, and cracking down on emotional, sexual and domestic abuse.

She’s been described by former chancellor Ken Clarke as a “bloody difficult woman,” to which she replied, “Politics could do with some Bloody Difficult Women actually.”

Inevitably, she has had to put up with some factions of the press focusing on her clothes and footwear, but she is quick to point out that a woman’s love of fashion has no bearing on her ability to lead. “I like clothes and I like shoes… you can be clever and like clothes. You can have a career and like clothes”. She added, “I always tell women ‘you have to be yourself, don’t assume you have to fit into a stereotype’ and if your personality is shown through your clothes or shoes, so be it”.

Angela Merkel


Chancellor, Germany

As Germany’s first female head of government and the woman charged with guiding the fate of Europe, Angela Merkel is arguably the world’s most powerful female leader currently in power. In 11 years in office, she has topped Forbes’ most powerful women list eight times and has earned her place in the German and European political history books. Dubbed the Iron Chancellor for her ability to stay cool under pressure, she put women’s rights on the agenda at last year’s G7 summit, urging heads of the world’s leading economies – Britain, Canada, France, Italy, Japan and the US – to improve gender inequality in the workplace. Before the summit, she wrote, “We need to talk about the possibilities open to women around the world to establish their independence and ensure their advancement through safe and skilled labour. All the statistics show a reduction in poverty and inequality when more women play an active part in economic life. However, only about 50 per cent of all women are currently in gainful employment.”

In her home country, her government has pushed to improve childcare, help female start-ups and force big businesses to promote more women to the board. Under a new law – introduced this year – large, publicly listed companies in Germany must ensure that at least 30 per cent of seats on their boards are filled by women. “We can’t afford to do without the skills of women,” said Merkel. “This law is an important step for equality because it will initiate cultural change in the workplace.” She also lobbied to reduce the financial burden on new parents by introducing a tax-financed parental benefit scheme that allows parents to share up to 14 months off after the birth of a child and gives each up to 67 per cent of their salary during that time.

Virginia Raggi


Mayor, Rome

In June, for the first time in Italy’s history, a female candidate was elected mayor of the capital city.
 Virginia Raggi, 37, won the mayoral election in Rome, while Chiara Appendino, 31, was the shock winner in Turin. Both women represent the anti-establishment Five Star party.

Raggi, a lawyer – who got 67 per cent of the vote in her city – is a vocal anti-corruption campaigner and was reportedly inspired to get into politics following the birth of her son.

Her predecessor, Ignazio Marino of the ruling Democratic Party, was ousted following an expenses scandal, and Raggi – the first female mayor in the city’s 2,700-year history – has vowed to take on corruption and organised crime in the city. “A new era is beginning with us,” she said. “We’ll work to bring back legality and transparency to the city’s institutions.”

Described by her former husband as a ‘lioness’ and a ‘raging river’, Raggi has hailed her appointment as a breakthrough for all Italian women. “For the first time Rome has a female mayor in an age where equality of opportunity remains a mirage,” she said.

Meanwhile Appendino’s appointment in Turin comes as a bitter blow to the country’s ruling Democratic Party. She replaced the party’s founder, political heavyweight Piero Fassino, 66, who had held the office for five years. The businesswoman is the city’s third female mayor. She said, “We have made history. This was not a protest vote, it was about pride and change.”

Bidya Devi Bhandari


President, Nepal

Last October, Bidya Devi Bhandari – the former deputy leader of the Communist Party of Nepal – became the country’s first female president. Though the role is said to be largely ceremonial, she has managed to make an impact. She has promised to champion minority and women’s rights in Nepal, and helped push forward a mandate that women will comprise at least a third of the country’s parliament. She has previously lobbied for a new constitution to require that either the president or the vice-president be a woman.

As a female political activist in a male-dominated society, Bhandari worked underground in the pre-democracy era, but was elected to parliament after her political husband was killed in a car crash. In 2006, she led demonstrations against the authoritarian rule of the former King Gyanendra, restoring democracy. Since then she has worked to bring about a shift in Nepal’s patriarchal society, where women were traditionally limited to working at home or on farms, to a society with equal opportunities and legal rights. Her election, she said, marked the first step towards making “guarantees of equality” a reality.

Tsai Ing-wen


President, Taiwan

Tsai Ing-wen – affectionately dubbed ‘Little Ing’ by her followers – was sworn in as the first female president of Taiwan in May. She was immediately the subject of criticism, with an opinion piece published by China’s state media agency Xinhua claiming she had an erratic style due to being single. According to the BBC News website, the piece, which has since been removed from Xinhua’s website following a storm of protest on social media, said in Chinese, “As a single female politician, Tsai Ing-wen does not have the emotional burden of love, of ‘family’ or children so her political style and strategies are displayed to be more emotional, personal and extreme.”

The shy but determined leader represents the country’s Democratic Progressive Party, which traditionally advocates for the island state’s independence from China. In her inaugural speech, Tsai said her election was a sign Taiwanese people were “committed to the defence of our freedom and democracy as a way of life”. She also called for peace, and urged the people of both China and Taiwan to “set aside the baggage of history, and engage in positive dialogue, for the benefit of the people on both sides”. Her strong, pragmatic approach – promoting political tolerance, understanding and cooperation – has been praised by many, particularly concerning the incendiary topic of independence from China.

A Cornell law graduate, she compares her leadership style to that of Angela Merkel, and throughout her campaign she has addressed women’s leadership, workplace equality, and female participation in politics in her speeches. She has worked to advance the rights of women during her political career — including supporting maternity leave rights, prohibiting sex discrimination in hiring, and strengthening anti-sexual-harassment laws. Citing Sheryl Sandberg among her influences, she says, “Whether you are male or female, we have a great deal to learn by studying female leadership qualities. Attentiveness, tolerance, calm, flexibility and organisation — not only women, but every leader should strive for these qualities.”

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim


President, Mauritius

Ameenah Gurib-Fakim is Mauritius’ first female president and the first female Muslim to be appointed the country’s leader. When she replaced president Rajkeswur Purryag in June 2015, she said, “People were fed up with the way politics was run, and wanted change. Before, they voted by caste and religion. For the first time, they voted instead for a party and its ideas.”

A trained scientist and former academic, she is an advocate for education and for equal rights. Since taking the presidency post, she has chosen to remain in her family home, with plans to open the presidential palace to tourists.

Ranked among Forbes’ 2016 List of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women, she has no previous political experience but has put her concerns as a scientist on the political agenda, particularly the issue of global warming. She has partnered with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to pilot 10 PhD research grants on the island, with plans to expand the programme to as many as 10,000 other scientists across Africa in the future.

Born into an Indian Muslim family, she credits her parents for helping her secure an education. “The nature of society in Mauritius is patriarchal but I was a little fortunate girl by joining education, especially (since) it was not free, and many of the girls did not get this right,” she says. Adding, “My parents had the vision to educate their daughter at a time when it was boys who were given the priority.”

Hillary Clinton


Presidential candidate, United States of America

She famously said in an address to the World Conference on Women that “Women’s rights are human rights”, and now that Hillary Clinton is running for US president, not just as the first woman to do so, but as an advocate for women’s rights, she is shaking up the status quo. As supporter Lena Dunham (of hit TV show Girls fame) stated on the campaign trail, “Our first female president would send a message that we are here. We are ready to lead. In fact, she has been leading all along.” Other female celebrities have embraced Clinton’s presidency bid as a win for feminism. Jamie Lee Curtis said in a YouTube video, “I want my president to make decisions on my behalf based on her experience, her command, her intelligence and from her big, warm, embracing feminine heart.” Meanwhile Amy Poehler, Shonda Rhimes, Kerry Washington and Katy Perry have all endorsed Clinton, proudly declaring #ImWithHer.

Throughout Clinton’s career – as First Lady, senator and Secretary of State – women’s rights and equality have been on her agenda. She appointed the first US ambassador for global women’s issues, and has worked to end child marriage, promote women’s health and foster women’s global economic security. She has said, “It is past time for women to take their rightful place, side by side with men, in the rooms where the fates of peoples, where their children’s and grandchildren’s fates, are decided.” She added, “There cannot be true democracy unless women’s voices are heard. There cannot be true democracy unless women are given the opportunity to take responsibility for their own lives. There cannot be true democracy unless all citizens are able to participate fully in the lives of their country.”

Forbes’ 2016 List of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women

The smartest, most influential female leaders, scientists, philanthropists, and CEOs in the world today

1. Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Germany

2. Hillary Clinton, Presidential candidate, United States

3. Janet Yellen, Chair, Federal Reserve, Washington, United States

4. Melinda Gates, Co-chair, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

5. Mary Barra, CEO, General Motors

6. Christine Lagarde, Managing director, International Monetary Fund

7. Sheryl Sandberg, COO, Facebook

8. Susan Wojcicki, CEO, YouTube, Google

9. Meg Whitman, CEO, Hewlett-Packard

10. Ana Patricia Botín, Chair, Santander Group, Banco Santander