faculty & experts
03 March 2023

Women in Political Leadership and the Glass Labyrinth

Norita Mdege is currently a Research Fellow at the Institute's Gender Centre. Her research explores the representations of women politicians in Africa as a means to understand how such representations may impact their claims to political legitimacy.

In 1980, when Joice Mujuru became the first woman Cabinet Minister in independent Zimbabwe, she said, “I have been a leader since I was 18. I think the only difference is that I am now nominated to the highest peak”. This suggests that she did not imagine advancing any higher, for example, to becoming the President of Zimbabwe. This sense of the impossibility of a woman becoming the leader of a country reflects many experiences across various parts of the world.

In their book Women and Leadership, Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala note that of the 193 United Nations member countries, only 57 have ever had a woman hold the highest political office with executive power in their nation (2021, p.19). Women have faced many obstacles, or what Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala describe as a “glass labyrinth”, which they must negotiate as they struggle to advance to leadership positions. 

In 1981, when a debate about the role of women in Zimbabwe arose, a male senator mentioned how "a woman’s place is in the kitchen", and there is "the danger of a woman becoming President or Prime Minister". Perhaps as a way by the male elite to curtail this ‘danger’, for many years, Joice Mujuru held positions mainly within the seemingly non-threatening parameters of what UN Women note are five of the most commonly held portfolios by women ministers:

  • Family/children/youth/elderly/disabled;
  • Environment/natural resources/energy;
  • Employment/labour/vocational training;
  • Social affairs;
  • Women affairs/gender equality

In 2017, Joice Mujuru stated that many factors, including her gender, limited her ability to influence decisions. Her political survival also depended on not causing "misunderstandings" by being seen as too ambitious. This might explain why she lasted longer in national politics than women such as Margaret Dongo, who were very vocal in criticising top-level men leaders and their policies. 

When Joice Mujuru was nominated for the position of Vice President, an opinion piece titled "Sunday 21st: The day the cooking stick went to the quiet one" was published in The Herald. The article linked Mujuru to women’s traditional role – cooking – and hinted that women in politics are rewarded for staying in the background and not challenging male authority.

There is a need, globally, to transform perceptions about women leaders so that they can receive respect and play roles commensurate with their positions. Women worldwide struggle against being pushed into the background. This struggle was aptly demonstrated in the so-called "sofagate" incident. In this incident, Ursula von der Leyen, the President of the European Commission, was relegated to the sofa on the side at a meeting in Ankara when Charles Michel, the President of the European Council, and the Turkish President sat on the only two armchairs prepared for the occasion. 

Women have persistently fought for equality in political leadership. In 2004, Joice Mujuru was promoted to Vice President of Zimbabwe after mounting pressure from women’s organisations to promote women to political leadership positions. In 2005, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the presidential election in Liberia to become the first woman to be elected as a national leader in Africa and Liberia. But, as UN Women note, there is a long way to go before gender parity in political leadership is achieved. In September 2022, only 13 countries had a woman head of state, 15 countries had a woman head of government, and 21 per cent of government ministers were women

Therefore, as we mark International Women's Day, we must emphasise the need to continue searching for ways to destroy the glass labyrinth in political participation. It is also vital to honour women who have committed themselves to the struggle for gender equality.