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Global leadership: Voters launch a power surge of women

Brazil's President-elect Dilma Rousseff is the latest in a power surge of women in global leadership positions.

By Correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor / November 13, 2010

Global leadership: There are 18 women heads of state, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel (l) and the President of Argentina Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner (r) who met at the chancellery in Berlin,Germany, last October.

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When Johanna Sigurdardottir campaigned to be prime minister of Iceland last year, she vowed to bring an end to the "age of testosterone."

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It was a reference to the international banking meltdown that destroyed her country's financial system. But the gender dynamics were also clear: Ms. Sigurdardottir was suggesting that men had had their chance and that it was time for women to take over. Her center-left party won by a landslide.

Iceland may be unique in its gender equity. The World Economic Forum called the country the world's best at closing gender gaps in economics, health, education, and political representation; in March, Iceland banned strip clubs – for feminist, not religious, reasons.

But globally, as far as women in politics goes, the concept is becoming altogether mainstream.

Over the past decade, almost every region of the world has seen exponentially more political seats – legislative and executive – go to women. Iceland's 42.9 percent female representation in the legislature, for instance, now sits in the rankings behind South Africa's 44.5 percent, Cuba's 43.2 percent, and Rwanda's 56.3 percent, according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU).

More men than women voted for her

Eighteen countries also have women as heads of state. Earlier this year, Julia Gillard took over as prime minister in Australia, Iveta Radicova became the first female prime minister of Slovakia, and Roza Otunbayeva took power in Kyrgyzstan after street protests toppled President Kurmanbek Bakiyev.

Most recently, on Oct. 31, former guerrilla Dilma Rousseff won a bruising runoff campaign to become Brazil's first female president. A Pew Research Center poll in September found that at least 70 percent of Brazilians viewed the idea of a female executive positively; other local polls indicated that more men voted for Ms. Rousseff than did women.

"There is definitely a shift," says Leslie Schwindt-Bayer, a professor at the University of Missouri who has written extensively on women in politics. "We've certainly seen around the world an increase of women in national politics. And the women who are winning positions these days are quite different than the women who were winning these positions in the past – they're not winning because of family connections; they're not taking over the position of a family member who died in an assassination. They're winning on their own merits."

Scholars and advocates caution that the female power surge does not always lead to improved socioeconomic status or increased rights for women. The amount of power wielded by a head of state varies, and studies show that women have more often moved into the weaker executive slots.

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