The Outlook for Women’s Political Leadership in 2024

Friday, March 8, 2024
Daniel Leal/Getty

Former Prime Minister of Denmark

Secretary General, Council of Women World Leaders

President and Founder, Women Political Leaders


Senior Fellow for Women and Foreign Policy, Council on Foreign Relations; @RobinsonL100

As a record number of countries hold elections in 2024, panelists reflect on the substantive policy achievements of women political leaders, needed measures to achieve increased women’s leadership, and recommendations for bridging divides and governing effectively in a time of turmoil. 

This meeting is part of the Council on Foreign Relations Roundtable Series on Women's Global Leadership.

ROBINSON: Thank you. Hello. I’m Linda Robinson, senior fellow for women and foreign policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. Welcome to this program in honor of International Women’s Day to discuss the state of democracy in this year of elections and the status of women’s leadership. 

I’m excited that we have such a tremendous event with three distinguished leaders: former Prime Minister of Denmark Helle Thorning-Schmidt; Laura Liswood, secretary general of the Council of Women World Leaders; and Silvana Koch-Mehrin, founder and president of Women Political Leaders. I’ll introduce each one further in turn. 

I’d like to make a few framing comments to start. As far as democracy is concerned, last week Freedom House issued its annual report. And it assesses that this is the eighteenth year of democratic decline, with rights and liberties declining in fifty-two countries and improving in only twenty-one. 

I would also like to draw your attention to one of our signature digital interactives on our website, the Women’s Power Index. This offers a view of women’s leadership covering five indicators, and I’ll just give you the topline. As you all probably know, women’s representation does not come close to reflecting its—their percentage as half of the world’s population. Right now, 13 percent of all the heads of state and government in the world are women, and only 26 percent of the world’s legislators are women. So you can see we’re very far from parity. 

Women leaders have made gains, and today we do want to draw attention to their achievements and their vital role in expanding and strengthening democracy. We want to discuss this untapped potential and how to unleash more of it for the benefit of everyone. 

So, without further ado, I would like to turn to Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who served as Denmark’s prime minister from 2011 to 2015 and the leader of the Social Democratic Party from 2005 to 2015. She was the first woman in Denmark to serve in both of these capacities. She subsequently led Save the Children, the international NGO, from 2016 to 2019. And she now serves as co-chair of the Meta Oversight Board among other roles, including our own Council on Foreign Relations Global Board of Advisors. 

So, Madam Thorning-Schmidt, I would like to start by asking you to share your thoughts about democracy in general, given that we’re facing a year in which more than half of the population is going to vote. Do you think that democracy’s in peril? And how do you view the main challenges for those leaders around the world today? Thank you. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: First of all, great to be with you all here. Good morning/good afternoon, wherever you are. So it’s great to be here, and happy Women’s Day to all of you. I think it’s amazing that CFR have actually put a light on these issues today, so happy to be part of it. 

As you say yourself, Linda, democracy is in trouble. Every day, every year, fewer people live in democracy. Before we met here today I was just checking the figures once again, which I do often, and get disappointed: only 8 percent of the global population live in what we would call full democracies—8 percent—and, obviously, more than half live in countries that are far from democracy and authoritarian regimes. 

And the problem with this lack of democracy in terms of women’s rights is that there’s no doubt that there is a direct correlation, direct link between the lack of democracy and women’s rights and women in politics. If you look at some of the big authoritarian regimes in the—in the world—China, Russia, Afghanistan, to just name a few—you will see that that is where we find almost no women in political leadership. So there’s a very clear link between democracy shrinking/contracting globally and women’s opportunity to be part of political decision-making. So that’s—I’m sorry I can’t give a better story this morning, but that is how it is. 

And at the same time—I don’t want to speak too long, but at the same time we have a number of political issues which are targeting women’s freedom. I mean, any global leader, nationalist populistic leader in the world will have as a set piece—as part of their policy will have as a set piece some form of narrowing in women’s rights and women’s opportunity. I would love to talk more about that. But I do think it’s very important that at the same time democracy’s shrinking, we are also seeing that women’s issues are actually the target and high policy areas in many countries. And of course, this is a very, very difficult and bad cocktail for women worldwide. 

ROBINSON: Yes. Thank you. Thank you. 

I would like to follow up by asking you to draw a few lessons from your time in office because you tackled complex issues during your tenure, including economic and fiscal crises, immigration debates, and the emergence of significant polarization. All of these factors, I think, are affecting the trends you just outlined. So I’m curious how you would look at your own experience and advise the leaders today on bridging these gaps, and building coalitions, and seeking to govern for everyone across these divides. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Yeah. Thank you. 

Obviously, you can’t draw too much from very personal experience in Denmark. It’s a very small country; I realize that. But I do think it’s important to note one thing about women entering—as lawmakers entering politics. It’s basically that women are much more targeted of misogynist targeting than men are. If we look at the threats of violence, sexual violence, death online and offline that women experience, it is—it is much more women that are targeted with this kind of abuse when they enter politics. 

We are also seeing something which I think we need to look deeper into, that women’s tenure—the time they are in office—seems to be shorter and shorter. I see that from an anecdotal perspective right now, where we are seeing women leaders stepping down in something that seems too early. We saw that in New Zealand and Finland, for example. So we are seeing that the tenure is shorter, and we need to work out why. And by the way, it’s the same if you look at the big CEOs from the big—some of the big companies worldwide. 

So my personal experience—and I didn’t realize that so much when I was actually in office, and I was leader of our party for more than ten years—was that the level of misogyny which was thrown at me even in Denmark, even in one of the Nordic countries, was actually quite amazing. And when we look back at it now, I’ve just had a documentary made about myself and my time in politics, and it’s very clear that when people are seeing that they are shocked about the proof of misogyny that I was experiencing. And I do think it’s important to talk about because if it was only me it’s not important, but the fact is it isn’t. It’s all women entering politics, that we basically get measured on a broader spectrum from are you a good mother, why do you wear that bag, why do you have your hair like that, why do you wear those shoes, to our actual politics. So what we have to perform on—that spectrum we have to perform on is much, much broader; and the broader the spectrum, the more the risk is, of course, of failing. So I do think we have to understand that there are so many things holding women back from entering politics. And another thing I think is so important, is it only when women is a critical mass of lawmakers that we will try to actually tackle the big issues that are women’s issues. And that’s the last thing I want to say in this section. 

Why does it matter that women are in politics? It matters because women live very different life than men. Globally, regionally, in countries we live very different lives, so we come into politics with very different experience. And that is why most people believe that if we want a more prosperous, peaceful world, we actually need half of the population to be more engaged and involved in policymaking. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. Yes. And that fuller representation, I think, is important to emphasize. It’s part of achieving full democracy. And it in no way means it’s replacing the men; it’s adding our voices. So thank you. 

And there’s so much there that I could follow up on and I do believe we’ll get into more as we go—this critical issue of the online violence that women suffer disproportionately, the gender-based attacks—and that, incidentally, become more severe the more prominent women are, the more senior their position. So it’s this escalating avalanche that women leaders have to face. 

What I’d like to do, though, in just our last few minutes before we open up into the next phase with two other speakers and then some dialogue among you three, I would like to ask you to give us a few highlights that you regard as signal achievements and successes that those women leaders currently have achieved. And I would just note, out of the twenty-six women heads of state, half of them are in Europe. And I think it would be very inspiring here to hear what you reflect on as some of the perhaps unsung or less-noticed successes. Thank you. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Yeah. When we talk about women entering politics, and also at heads of state or government level, we often want—we tend to want to find out why women should be better leaders than men. I tend to not go into that, because even if they weren’t they should still be part of political decision-making just because we live such different lives. And that experience is important to get into political decisions but also the representation, as you talk about, Linda. 

But the interesting thing is that people who have looked into this—and CFR, we have done that ourselves, to look into this, and it is actually hard not to see that women tend to be a little bit more bipartisan political leaders. They tend to actually cross the aisle more. We see that in the U.S. Senate. I personally, when I was in government, I worked with all the parties in our parliament. And mind you, this is Denmark, so we had nine parties in parliament, so I worked with all of them, from the far left to the far right. So I do think there is a little bit of I wouldn’t call evidence, but something that tells us that women are actually quite good at working with different voices and different parties. 

The other thing I thought was interesting, that when we had COVID there was definitely—none of the women-led countries that fared worse than others. And there was also, when we looked at it—Germany, some of the Nordic countries, New Zealand, countries that were led by women—that seemed to fare a little bit better than the worst-run, at least, Western countries. Look at the U.K. Look at U.S., for example. So I do think that there is a slight difference there. And perhaps the key is that women moving up through the system, we have always had to tackle this world where we have to listen a little bit more, be a little bit more—share a little bit more empathy in different situations, and perhaps that is a set of leadership skills that is very worthwhile to have in a crisis situation. 

And personally, my favorite these days is the Northern Ireland political agreement that we had a few months back, which was done by two women. And the voice that we—or, the tones that we heard from that political agreement was just very encouraging in terms of two women who both came from families that were very much part of the struggles, could actually be conciliatory and try to make peace. For me, that was a perfect example that at least women in politics doesn’t make things worse; perhaps women in politics makes things a little bit better. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. Thank you for sharing that. 

I’d like to now turn to Laura Liswood. And I have known Laura for many, many years. I would like to note that she founded the Council of Women World Leaders in 1996, right after the Beijing Conference, and she published the first of several books, Women World Leaders, at that time. 

What I’d like to do, Laura, is really open up for you to share what your historical perspective is about what has changed for the better and what is happening now—as Helle said, a number of fairly shocking resignations of highly popular leaders in Scotland, Finland, New Zealand, and lately the Netherlands. And we really would welcome your prescriptions for addressing those barriers that you see, along with commenting on anything that the prime minister has said. Thank you and welcome, Laura. 

LISWOOD: Thank you, Linda. And also, happy International Women’s Day to everyone. And I’m delighted to be here. I’m delighted to be here with my great colleague Silvana, who she and I collaborate quite a bit in this world; and the prime minister, who I’m pleased to tell you is a member of the Council of Women World Leaders. So that’s lovely to see the prime minister also. 

You know, there’s virtually nothing that I disagreed with, with reference to the prime minister and what she has observed. But as I look at the arc of history for the women who were in political office starting in the mid-1990s—and there were fifteen at that time in total—they said some of the exact same things: we’re over-scrutinized for our dress, our style, or, you know, let alone our political positions on things; the tolerance for mistakes was much less than tolerance for mistakes for men; that—you know, that they—that often, for women—and this is still true today, too—is that women often end up being put into positions of power during a crisis, you know, and that can lead, as the prime minister indicated, to a shortened term—tenure in the office, you know. And of course, crises makes it much harder to lead a country. It’s got a name now. It’s called the glass cliff, you know. And it’s—it’s somewhat like, well, you know, let’s try a woman now, you know, in the middle of a crisis, you know, kind of thing. So that happens often. 

Also, because, you know, ironically, some of this—the reference to the blowback or the pullback of women’s rights, et cetera, is—has been found to be a function of the change of women’s gender roles. So women are taking on more positions of power, they’re taking on more roles, and the dominant group is reacting to that in a very negative way, you know, because they feel that there’s a loss of power—or, as one author, Virginia Valian, said, that men have a tendency to be concerned about their loss of centrality. They were central to the society, and now there are other people—women, other historically underrepresented groups—who want to have, and rightly should have, full political participation, full economic participation, full social participation. And that appears to be a threat, and therefore you see—you know, it’s an ironic sort of paradox. It’s like there’s something called the Nordic paradox, which is that the more money women make in a household, the likelihood of domestic violence goes up; so, you know, it’s these kinds of paradoxes in society. 

And certainly the women, while before were saying that they were over-scrutinized, now, of course, we have social media as a tool, which does increase—according to the statistics I’ve read, women politicians are likely to be eight to nine times more likely to be threatened than men politicians are. And of course, that’s having a chilling effect on women wanting to be—participate in politics, and that’s a danger. And I think our laws are lagging behind in terms of legislation to prevent this kind of harassment and death threats, et cetera. I know some countries—like Iceland, where Katrín Jakobsdóttir is the prime minister—have introduced this kind of legislation, and I think that that’s going to be needed more and more. Otherwise, we are going to start seeing this decline. 

Now, I think what’s also interesting is—a positive, if you will—is that most countries, or many countries—not including the United States, but many countries have affirmative mechanisms in place, which does increase—you know, it’s an inflection point. It does increase the number of women in parliaments, often in Cabinets, often in boards of directors, et cetera. And I think that’s a positive, affirmative mechanisms, because they’re the only way to break through in-group favoritism and closed social networks, which is what have helped men over time. I certainly agree with the notion of a critical mass. And again, that’s why affirmative mechanisms work so well. 

So, you know, sometimes people will ask me do I think, you know, we’re making progress or not. And incidentally, let me put a sub-comment to this. We can’t expect women to hold all the truth, beauty, and light. You know, women can be autocratic leaders as much as men can be autocratic leaders, so let’s make sure we put that out there, you know. Hopefully not as many. But you know, I agree with the prime minister that women do have a tendency to bring differing skillsets to their leadership. Those are generally skillsets of a historically underrepresented group: empathy, listening skills, understanding the lived experiences of others. You know, so that’s a dynamic that women bring. 

But just I’ll end my—the comments right now. You know, I asked John Major—well, John—and I asked him if this was a true statement. He was quoted as saying he called Boris Yeltsin and he said to Yeltsin: Tell me in one word how it’s going in Russia. And Yeltsin responds: Good. He says: Well, maybe you should elaborate. Tell me in two words how it’s going in Russia. And Yeltsin responds: Not good. So—(laughter)—I think we’re in that kind of dilemma place, that we are advancing in some ways—more women are getting into the political process often, they see themselves in the political process, they see role models in the process—but then we have these counterbalance of things like the harassment and the cyber bullying and things like that, and the over-scrutiny that continues. So, you know, Frederick Douglass said there is no progress without struggle, and we’re still in the middle of that struggle. 

ROBINSON: Thank you, Laura. You always have such pithy insights, and I appreciate that. 

I have a follow-up for you, but what I’d like to do is first go ahead and bring Silvana into the conversation. Again, president and founder of the Brussels-based Women Political Leaders organization, which is specifically oriented to promote and support elected women leaders around the world. She served as a member of the European Parliament representing Germany for a decade, from 2004 to 2014, and as vice president of the parliament from 2009 to ’11. 

Silvana, I would like to ask you—and as we’ve talked, I really value your own personal reflection from your experience, as well as the work you’re doing right now where you’re constantly in touch with the world’s parliamentarians. And again, the theme here is, looking at both sides, what are the obstacles you see? But I really do want to highlight achievements today as well. Thank you so much. 

KOCH-MEHRIN: Well, thank you so much, Linda, for having me here. And it’s such a critical issue, especially in 2024, when there is the huge opportunity to vote more women into elected office and get more women into political leadership of the world. That would be the opportunity. But I think a reality check shows that it’s not very likely that this is going to happen. And there’s a couple of reasons why. 

On the one hand, in many countries where we have a lot of women in political office, there are not as many women running again. And that has—there are patterns to that, on which I’ll speak a bit a bit later. But also, women that get elected drop out way earlier. And what Helle mentioned, that the tenure of women in political office gets shorter and shorter, the IPU has measured it, and one out of six women politicians leaves her first mandate before the end of that first mandate. So they drop out just after having been elected, in the first few years. And it’s also really interesting and important to look at that and to figure out what are the patterns behind that. 

Now, when I was in politics, I had many experiences that, looking back at this now, I really see this was outrageous misogyny. There was belittling. There was touching. There was calling me all kinds of things. I didn’t realize it, interestingly, at the time. I think what I did, as well as many other women in politics, we put on this—you know, this guard that we do not want to let this get to us because there’s so much else that we already have to fight off that this is yet another layer, and I decided to ignore it. It was only through conversations with my now three—my now teenage daughters who look at me with big eyes and say: This is impossible that you didn’t call this out. Why did you not do that? And this really was also part of conversations that we have again and again when we internationally meet in these organizations’ convenings of women political leaders, when peer-to-peer exchange is happening and the only woman politician from Papua New Guinea talks to MPs from New Zealand, talks to MPs from Norway, and so on, and they realize, actually, my experiences, they’re not only my experiences. And in the end there are nuances, yes, but it’s not that important where you’re from. 

So what we did, just wanted to throw a little bit of data pieces because I always believe it’s so crucial and critical to have the empirical data to then not be brushed off by saying, oh, this is what you experienced. No, we, together with Kings College, Julia Gillard’s institute there, we surveyed the women who are in political office about their experiences. What do they see as the barriers for their political advancement? And very high up there was violence—there was online violence, online hate, and happening to an extent that—where the tendency is only upwards. And the German organization HateAid, doing incredibly good work, they had the data that for the German top politicians, on average there’s thirty hate messages per hour, meaning every two minutes—tick, tick, tick—you get a hate message or a violent threat, which is draining. 

But also, importantly—and this is critical to point out—some of those online hate campaigns are orchestrated from within your own party. This seems to be surprising at first, but actually, it isn’t because political parties, which in most democracies hold the monopoly over the democracy, it’s a setup where women are still the minority. They’re still the odd one out. And they’re still—what Laura and what Helle described—the ones that now begin to advance to critical positions and become a bit of a threat. Now, there are some countries that have made already very successful strides and others that are still at the beginning. But even those—some of the Scandinavian, some of the Nordic countries—are seeing a decline. 

And let me just end by saying that you might have heard of this incident, political, called Sofagate. And what happened there was that one of the most powerful women of the world, the president of the European Union Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, was on a state visit together with her male colleague, who is the president of the EU Council—EU is complicated. The two presidents, anyways, met the president of Turkey. There was the final photo op public session where all the cameras were there from the world media, and there were two chairs—two chairs for three people. The two gentlemen take seats immediately and let her stand in the room. This is happening when one of the most powerful women is in a room with all cameras on. So now just picture a room with cameras off and think of how powerful women are treated there. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. Powerful and important anecdote, Silvana, and thank you for mentioning Ursula von der Leyen. And I want to note also Roberta Metsola. So we have two women not in our official count of women heads of state and government, but extremely prominent and important leaders in the European context. 

I would like to—I know we will go to questions and people will begin populating with their raised hands button the desire to come into the conversation, but I would like to take the privilege of the moderator to ask one question in a lightning round of all of you. And Laura spoke about the quotas, the affirmative mechanisms that have allowed us to achieve as much representation as has been achieved. But there’s also the issue of how parliaments and legislatures function and parties, political parties. And some issues—I know there’s a Republican member of our Congress now that has been lobbying for allowing proxy voting for those women with care duties and things that keep them from being able to be present for key votes. It’s also the case, though—you may have led parties as in the case of the prime minister—party leaders can often be gatekeepers that keep women from having the positions of prominence that allow them to influence. So I’d just like to start with, Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt, if you have any thoughts about further mechanisms within parties and parliaments that would help increase women’s influence, and then we’ll go around the table for brief comment. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Yeah. Thanks. Two things, just brief. 

I think parties play a major role. And I so agree with Silvana that parties also can keep women back, but parties and their structure can do so much for promoting women. And many parties within the European Union have actually got all-women shortlists. This is the case for Labour in the U.K. And there’s no doubt that you can have lots of opinions about all-women shortlists, but it has changed the Labour Party over the last twenty years. If you see the Labour parliamentary group, you can see that difference. So that is a shortcut to trying to change that. And in many parties in the Nordics and other—you actually have mechanism policies that means that you have to have women in the forefront. Another mechanism that I know they’re using in the British Labour Party is that you’re not allowed to participate in all-male panels. That will also make sure that women are asked to be on panels, and men have to decline and not go onto all-male panels. So there is a lot of mechanism, big as all-women shortlists but also small things parties can do to promote that. So that’s the first round of this. 

The other one I think is very, very important as well. When you become a female leader anywhere in the world—politically, business, whatever—when you become a female leader, you also at the same time get a very serious obligation of promoting other women. There is this myth out there that women are not promoting other women because we love to be the queen bee and all that. This is not my experience. When I was leader of my party but also prime minister, I did my utmost to promote other women even though I might not always agree with those women. I appointed Margrethe Vestager to the European Commission, who went up to get very, very high post in the Commission. I promoted the now-prime minister to important posts within my government. And this is the important thing: When women have power, we need to promote other women. I think we are doing that already, but let’s use this day to remind ourself that that is also an added obligation to women’s obligations when they become leaders. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. 

Laura, would you like to come in with your thoughts about these issues? 

LISWOOD: Well, certainly you have to look at the electoral system itself even before you look at the party system. So in the United States and in other countries, you have this winner-take-all, fifty-plus-one vote. In other systems, you have the parliamentary systems, which are much more friendly to historically out-of-power groups because you can get into coalitions, et cetera. Other countries have what’s called ranked-choice voting. Ireland had that. That’s how Mary Robinson got in initially. And there’s another number of countries that have ranked-choice voting where you vote for your first choice, your second choice, and your third choice, you know. And so those kind of—those kinds of sort of electoral systems make it—are very important as gatekeepers or as encouraging. 

I think that the notion that women don’t help other women, I completely agree with you, Helle, that that’s not true. That’s just a myth that gets put onto women—although we do need many more male allies as part of this whole process to get—to encourage women, to get women, to protect women, to override concerns about women, et cetera. 

I also think that, depending on, again, the system—in the United States, for example, the financial barriers are huge, particularly in the primary, to get—for the women to raise the funds. That’s a huge barrier for some—for some countries. 

And I think the simple things. I mean, I remember reading when the Swedish parliament, after it got to a critical mass of women, decided that they’d stop running the parliament until ten p.m. They stopped at six p.m., you know. But it happened only because there was a critical mass of women in the parliament who said we’re not going past 6:00. And of course, most of the men were internally grateful because they didn’t want to go to 10:00 either, but they—you know, for the cultural norms, they couldn’t say anything or do anything. The women came in and changed the hours. 

So, you know, I think there are practical things that can be done. There are mechanisms in place—party systems where you have a zipper system, where every other candidate has to be a man, a woman kind of thing. So there are—you know, it’s—I rarely quote Donald Rumsfeld, former secretary—(laughs)—of defense in the United States, but he had this concept of the known knowns and the known unknowns. Well, there are known unknowns. That is, we know things and we just refuse to use them—refuse to acknowledge we know them, you know. So we have—Silvana’s got all the data in the world; rightly so. We know these kinds of things, but we just don’t act upon them. So I think that’s part of the challenge. 

ROBINSON: Thank you, Laura. 

Silvana, what are your thoughts on the reforms we need? 

KOCH-MEHRIN: So I guess there is, for—as Laura said, it, of course, depends on the electoral systems. But when a woman is a candidate and she’s under attack, she needs a place where she can turn to to get help. And in most countries, she’s part of a party setup, if it’s on a list or if it’s a candidate in a certain—like in the U.S. and getting elected not through the list system. So where does she turn to when she gets all this online hate, when there’s hardly any legislation and, even if there’s legislation, it’s very little enforcement of it or capability of—to enforce? So there needs to be—there needs to be a place for those—for those women that face such adversity, and this needs to be both established in parties as well as in the parliaments when elected. 

It's a while ago that I was a member of the European Parliament, but I had at the time a stalker that threatened both my kids as myself. I first turned to the European Parliament. They said: We’re not responsible. You’re German. The German government said: Well, actually, this is not really our responsibility because you’re in the European Parliament. And this kind of game is not something that’s particular because it’s EU-Germany; it’s because there is a refusal to feel responsible for a problem that seems to be gendered. And that, I think, we need to be very clear about. As Laura said, there is—all the solutions, we—known. I mean, there are these—(laughs)—the possibilities to act on it; we just don’t see it happening. 

And there are places that have mandatory DEI training. Does it help? Certainly a bit. But this needs to be engrained in the political system in every aspect of it, because the creativity that goes into circumventing rules—the country where the EU’s headquarters is built—based in, Brussels, there is a—it’s mandatory to have at least 30 percent of women on the electoral lists. OK. That works out. Sometimes there’s even more women elected. But then in the government, because it’s a huge multiparty coalition, there is a core group that takes the big decisions. There’s never been 30 percent women in that, because as soon as it’s about the real power, real decision-making—we need these rules to be very, very granular and affirmative acts happening. 

And then just finally, again, there’s data out there on how to change things. IPU has, I don’t know, ten years ago issued its first guidelines for gender-sensitive parliaments. Hardly any parliament around the world has maternity leave rules. So women are under huge pressure if they give birth during their time in politics to come back as soon as possible, a couple of days after giving birth, because her responsibilities, her jobs, will be very gladly taken on by some colleagues. And sometimes she’s even threatened to leave her mandate. So these maternity rules that are legislated upon for many other workspaces also need to exist for parliaments. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. Thank you. 

And I know there’s so much we can get into with the expertise here. I want to note I hope we will talk about some of the measures being contemplated to deal with the online violence and the artificial intelligence-powered onslaught, as we saw in—Taylor Swift and the episode with her deepfake foreign porn I think put that on the radar screen in a way that hopefully will hold feet to fire for some action. 

What I’d like to do is turn now to our events team to reiterate our ground rules and invite people in, and we will work to get as many of you into the conversation as possible in our remaining time. Thank you. 

OPERATOR: (Gives queuing instructions.) 

We’ll take the first question from Ronnie Goldberg. 

Q: Thank you so much. Thank you for this wonderful discussion, slightly depressing as it may be. 

You’ve spoken very eloquently about women’s leadership style and women’s skills, but I wonder if you might say a few words about policy and substance. Some years ago, before her return to Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto came to the Council, and she was asked whether in retrospect—or, what in retrospect she would have done differently as prime minister. And she said: I would have governed more as a woman. What she meant was she—or, as she explained, she was so busy trying to be macho and male that she neglected, in retrospect, she thought, priorities such as health care and education, which now she wishes she had given more priority. Now, of course, the irony is that health care and education are not just women’s issues; they are fundamentally important societal and political issues. But in your experience, do you think there are women’s priorities or female priorities? And how has those—have those played out? 

ROBINSON: I think everyone would like to speak to this. If you don’t mind, I will invite Laura to come first because, as today is such a busy day of events, she has to drop off in a couple of minutes. So, Laura, and then we’ll go to the prime minister. Thank you. 

LISWOOD: Yeah. Thank you for that comment, Ronnie. It’s a—it’s a good observation. 

For Benazir, she was the only O in a room full of Xs, right? There were very—there were no women in her Cabinet. There were very few women in their parliament. And if you’re the only O in a room full of Xs, as Rosabeth Moss Kanter describes it, the likelihood is you’re going to have to turn yourself into an X. You know, Thatcher was—you know, she took on the coloration of the species she was trying to invade, you know. So she—you know, she almost didn’t have a lot of room for that kind of thing. 

Now, there is some evidence that, in fact, it’s what happens. In the panchayats in India, where there is a mandate that one-third of the councils have to be women, what they have seen is a move away from budgets that were major infrastructure budgets—major roads, you know, heavy equipment kinds of budgets—into more health and more education for girls and boys. There’s a fair amount of data that does show that when women do get to a critical mass that there will be more likelihood of this—let’s just put it this way, the—expanding the spectrum of what the issues are, because the issues that we say are historically male are important but the issues that we consider historically female are equally important. So the idea is if you can—if you have that flexibility of that critical mass, you’re more likely to be able to do that. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. 

Prime Minister, would you like to add your comments, please? 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Yeah. First of all, I think it’s a great question. 

I also have been the first female prime minister in my country and the first leader of my party, so I have thought about this. How much—how much can you actually change when you also have to navigate the given structures that has been there for hundreds of years? They are the structures that are there. You come in. We talked about all the misogyny that we meet on the way in all its different shapes and forms. Honestly, if you have to stop every time you see that, you couldn’t do anything else. And it’s the same with so many other things, that you have to—have to live with the fact that you’re moving into a system that is set in a certain way and it’s very—it’s set by the hundreds of males that came before you. So that is what you have to navigate. And sometimes that actually limit(s) how much change you can make in the tenure that you have, and we also heard is perhaps shorter and shorter. So that is a limitation. 

So that’s why we are much stronger when we are more. And there is a time where you—when you are a critical mass of women that you could actually start making a difference, and making a difference in the areas that matter to a lot of women. And it is shown—again, I think it’s our own research, CFR research—shown that when there is enough women lawmakers, they start putting their attention to health issues, to social welfare issues, and they do it in a more—in a way where they involve more parties and perhaps even more NGOs. So there is a change of topics. 

And that comes down to this issue that I am—I’ve talked about before today, which is basically that women and men live very different lives. What do I mean by that? Well, I basically mean that any event that can happen impacts a woman differently. 

Of course, war and conflict will impact women differently than it impacts men. Women are much more at risk for sexual violence, which has also become weapons of war. So that’s war and conflict. 

But also in our everyday life we live very different lives. Economically, obviously, every time a guy makes—a man makes a dollar, we make 80p. And it’s the same in Europe. 

Violence—women have a real fear of violence every day of their lives, and with good reason. Every day, every year, you see women being killed in domestic abuse, and it’s a lot of women. So women actually are very afraid of violence. 

Then there’s more everyday things, as unpaid work. Women do one hour more of unpaid work every day, and this has increased with the pandemic. 

So in so many aspects of our life, we live different lives than men. We have also been pushed out of a lot of fora all through our childhood and our adolescence. So that means that if—when we get into some kind of power with other women, we will gradually start changing the agenda, and we will see new policy points on the agenda, new topics that we have to discuss based on the actual lived experience of most women. And that’s why I think it is so important that women get into politics, because our lives are so much—so different from men’s. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. 

Silvana, please. 

KOCH-MEHRIN: Thank you very much. Just to add briefly to that—because I’m kind of coming from a data nerd approach here—we last year undertook the exercise to showcase the correlation of legislative and policy change in the area of economic and financial policies, and the way this correlates to more women in politics. And we took data from about forty years—mid-1970s to 2016—and as everybody would have anticipated, there is a correlation. The discrimination of women—discrimination against women by law is reduced when there are more women in political leadership. 

So this is better for everybody—not only for women, of course—but it also shows that there are some important deviations, and this shows then that these are countries that, yes, they bring more women into politics, but it’s more of a window dressing exercise. And that’s a danger, of course, for the whole agenda of bringing more women into politics because the expectation is things will get different, but if it’s an exercise to appease a certain demand but the access to the real influence isn’t combined with that, then this can of course create a significant backlash. 

I’m not quite sure, to be honest, if there are real women’s preferences for certain policies. I compare it sometimes to corporate careers where a traditional place for women is HR, is communication, is those kind of things, and the CFO position is mostly with men. There are fewer women finance ministers in the world than there are heads of state. And for me the equation is more—the more power, the more money is attached to a political position, the harder it is for women to get into it. And I’m sure there are plenty of extremely qualified and also ambitious women who would like to be finance ministers of major countries. 

ROBINSON: Thank you so much. I would like to make sure—we have a number of our wonderful CFR staff online today joining, too, and I just want to make sure they are welcome to come in with questions. 

I don’t want us to let the hour go away without asking for Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt to discuss from her experience on the Meta Oversight Board. Are there mechanisms that you see that can be used to encourage these platforms to do more about the online gender-based violence? And of course I know we have the Digital Services Act now entering into effect where there actually are requirements in law to assess the risk and mitigate the risk of online gender-based violence, and there are penalties attached, stiff fines that can be applied. We haven’t really seen that in action yet, but I would really like to take advantage of your work in this field to offer people your thoughts, if you wouldn’t mind. Thank you. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Absolutely. Just so people will understand what I’m doing because many people do not know what the oversight board is doing. We basically had the final say on the most contentious and difficult content decisions that Meta had to take on their platforms, and those platforms are, as most people know, Facebook, Instagram, and now also Threads. And that means that whenever there is a really difficult decision, a user can complain, or Meta can refer a case, and we take the final decision. Meta always follows our decision. So that’s what we are doing. 

And many of the decisions we will be taking—we are taking, will be taking in the future, will of course be looking at the content which is not real. That could be written content, it could be pictures, videos, whatever—things that are spliced or AI moderated, things that are not real. And one of the things we will—we are looking into and gave Meta advice on recently is that they perhaps need to change their policies so they actually look at—they don’t need to take down everything which is not real, but they need to take everything down that is—that causes real-life harm. So we have asked Meta to establish a clearer link between what they take down and real-life harm. And I am convinced, having looked at this for a number of years now, that there is a gender bias here, as well, and Meta, of course, has to look into that. And they—Meta has grown up over the last couple of years. They are doing much better, but there is always—they can always do better, and the next thing we’ll move into is when there is falsehoods or content which is made, which is not real, they need to take it down if it runs the risk of causing real-life harm, and that is the balance they have to strike. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. 

I’d like to let Silvana add her thoughts on this. Thank you. 

KOCH-MEHRIN: Indeed, I think there is a lot going on in tech companies, as measures against—if it’s deep fakes, if it’s disinformation, removing hate. One of the challenges I see here is that a lot of the politicians don’t know about it, and they also might not be in a position to really know how to apply them. I think there is this gap between what technology companies—also because there is a threat of regulation heavily leaning towards them, that they proactively take as measures and what do politicians actually really know and are capable to apply. 

There is—there is an age difference. I mean, the majority of politicians hasn’t grown up with social media as their main communication channel. That definitely is something I think to take into account for tech companies. But also there is a subtlety sometimes of these kind of offenses that are also very difficult then to just remove through processes. For example, I learned of an example to just showcase that this woman’s place is not in a leadership position. Whenever she made statements, there were food emojis or food pictures posted, or photos of kitchens. So, I mean, banning kitchens, banning food pictures is obviously not that straightforward, right? So to come to a place where the contextualization is really—is really grasped, and then measures taken against it, that’s a very—I mean, that’s a compared quite harmless one, but still, it is—it is happening on a daily basis. It also has some effect on audiences. 

So I just wanted to also bring those two aspects in. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: I just want—because we have to disagree on something today—I think we have to—I accept that there is misogyny everywhere and online. But I also think we have to be very, very careful that we don’t get to the position where we say just because something is unpleasant or insulting, it has to be removed from platforms. So we really want—particularly because of what we started talking about in this conversation—democracy is not doing very well right now. So one of the pillars of our democracy is free speech, so we cannot move to a phase where we say, for social media, that is not something that they should really promote. So I am always arguing for finding this balance between free speech and accepting falsehoods sometimes, insults sometimes, but finding the balance between when does free speech become harmful in real life, or hateful in real life, or can instigate violence or hatefulness in real life. This is the balance we have to strike for women as well as men, and that’s why it’s so hard to strike that content moderation. 

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Madison Schramm. 

Q: Thank you so much for sharing your insights, and to Linda for convening such a wonderful talk today. 

So I have maybe a sociological question, but I think it builds quite a bit on the last point you were saying, actually, regarding these images or GIFs of things like the kitchen. So one challenge that I tend to see, as someone who studies this from a distance, is that the state is conventionally kind of highly masculinized, and we see these sharp divides between the public and private sphere.  

But there is actually quite a bit of—there were quite a few women in the nineteenth century, for example, who were actually leading states: the queen of Hawaii, queen of Madagascar, the Empress Dowager Cixi in China, Queen Victoria. And looking forward or ahead, we see—actually in science fiction—the new Dune movie came out, a really interesting example of women’s leadership.  

You know, are there avenues for us to kind of disrupt or challenge this association of the status being this kind of masculine enterprise? So I guess one question is do you think excavating these narratives and these histories could potentially help with that? Or looking forward to pop culture as perhaps a way of challenging our imagination for depictions of women’s leadership could be another one? Thank you so much.  

OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Katherine Hagen. 

Q: Hello. Thank you for this very good conversation. 

I am living in France, and I am wondering if there is any reaction from the panelists on the issue that has just been incorporated into the French constitution on the right to an abortion—just a simple question. 

OPERATOR: And we’ll take the last question from Claire Bednarski. 

Q: Hi. Thank you so much for this. This has been a really great conversation. 

I’m a staffer at CFR. I’m an assistant to one of our vice presidents, and so as a junior staffer listening to this, I would just really appreciate if you could—if you could give one piece of advice to young women who are just starting out in their careers and entering this field, what would be your best of advice or the one thing that you wish you could tell your younger self as they enter the workforce. Thank you. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. So we’ll go first to Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt, and feel free to add any final thoughts, and then we’ll wrap with Silvana. Thank you both. 

THORNING-SCHMIDT: Yeah. Viva le France. I think it’s fantastic what’s happened in France, and I think it’s fantastic on the basis of what I started out saying: that any populist national leader these days, they have to have as part of their policies—they have to have policies against women. And that’s why it’s so uplifting every time you see actually new policies that are favor of women’s right to choose over their own body, and women’s freedom in general—so great. 

On the first question on representation, I believe that representation matters, and it’s not only here and now, which we discussed today, it is also in the past. That’s why I love this wave we have right now of finding the old stories, stories that were forgotten about women who changed history and were part of a narrative. 

I was very annoyed, in the film, Oppenheimer, which has got—is nominated for an Oscar, and one of the women who played a big role in the development of the nuclear power, she wasn’t mentioned, and she was awarded for a Nobel Prize I think forty-nine times. She is not even mentioned in the film. And that actually goes against what we believe in this space, that finding these women, naming our streets after them, putting up statues, doing all that, honoring women of the past. So I believe in that. I also believe in representation in culture. That is TV shows, that is performance art, whatever. Women have to be represented. So it’s very, very important. 

And I want to say something before we finish today. It has been a very white panel today, but I also want to underline on a women’s day, that we must never ever forget the privilege of being white and the fact that women of color, they are seeing this inequality much clearer and experiencing it much heavier every day of their life, and that’s the whole world—in the U.S., in Europe, everywhere. So we must never forget that, and we understand that this is the intersection that women of color are experienced, combined with the lack of equality in general. It actually has some very, very dire consequences for them in terms of health and other things. So I just want to mention that. 

And the last—and last question, what advice would I give to myself, what advice do I give to young women, and there’s basically two. First of all, pick your battles. You can’t stop every time there is something you want to change because there is so much we want to change. So you need to pick your battles. And I’m sorry to say that, but that is still a very important rule. 

And the second one is promote women and make women your allies, and make everyone you can get access to—women and men, allied into this change that we want to happen. But promote women, be friends with women, also in the workplace because that is a really good source of strength, and learning from each other, and empowering each other, and giving each other agency. And that is what this is all about. 

ROBINSON: Thank you. And I’ll give the last words to Silvana, who—of course you do so much to bring women and women in all their diversity together. Thank you. 

KOCH-MEHRIN: Well, thank you very much, Linda, and—but unfortunately I have to agree with everything Helle said—really boring—but I’ll just add—let me add a few things. I think today we need to, for example, look at very important sources of information for a lot of people around the world, and Wikipedia has a job to do to increase information about women—about women of historical importance, about women today. You can still see that they are underrepresented, and that’s one of the most used online knowledge sources. So pushing Wikipedia or becoming authors on Wikipedia and contributing and upping the visibility of women there, I think, will be—will be having effect. 

Secondly, we need to do massive affirmative action to keep women in public life and to keep them visible—if it’s on TV, if it’s in film, if it’s in politics—because we see from those, again, data, if it’s the UNDP’s social norms studies that they do on an annual basis, if it’s our own Reykjavik index on the extent of stereotypes that impact the leadership possibilities for women, there is a backlash happening. And unfortunately, it’s the younger cohorts surveyed that have an increased prejudice to women in leadership. And that’s really, really a problem. So we need to enforce the visibility of women in all their diversity—in age diversity, in different colors, in everything that Helle said in this public life. 

On the French constitutional rights, I am really proud of my neighbor country. I find it a really very important statement because what we see, again, across the world, that a woman’s body is usually the first battlefield when it comes to a backlash. If it’s about what women are allowed to wear or not, what they have to wear, so it’s from clothing, it’s from the rights to owning their own—the decisions on their own bodies, and so on. So to make a very clear point, it’s a woman’s own body. I’m really proud of France. 

And then finally the piece of advice—so one technical one. If you go into politics, have a team with which you work on social media because you alone, reading all those messages that you will get, it will drain you. It will make you less motivated to do something for society, and you want to be that leader with a positive outlook to make things better and not think, oh, my god, what are these people out there—why am I doing what I’m doing. So have a team with whom you can share, and discuss, and also have a cathartic moment every now and again. 

And secondly, don’t compare yourself to Nelson Mandela, to Obama, to Angela Merkel. Your benchmark to start off, right, and to be better is the average, mediocre male competitor in politics, OK. You don’t have to be the superstar right away. You might become it, but don’t let yourself be judged against those big names, which women are often immediately put into that question, so what will you do better than the others, right? Be yourself and choose your competitors as well. 

ROBINSON: Thank you both so very much. It’s been a wonderful hour, and I want to thank everyone who has joined in.  

And to elaborate on what Silvana said for today, go and be in some of these wonderful gatherings, these celebrations that are occurring on International Women’s Day. And I thank you again very much. Have a good day. 


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