No “Merkel-Factor”

Political career progression of women and men differ little

Lüneburg. Which conditions do women have to fulfill to climb the political career ladder? Does their path to power differ from those of their male competitors? A new Leuphana University of Lüneburg study refutes this hypothesis. The researchers compared the biographies of numerous female prime ministers in Europe since 1945 with those of their male colleagues. It is the most comprehensive study of its kind in all of Europe.

Since 1945 there have been 276 male prime ministers in Europe but only 14 female prime ministers. British Margaret Thatcher and German chancellor Angela Merkel are perhaps the best known. ”Very few women make it to the political top,” concludes Ina Kubbe of the Center for the Study of Democracy (ZDEMO) of Leuphana University. “We are interested in finding out whether, on their way to there, they have to fulfill different preconditions than men.”

The democracy researchers analyzed the biographies of 14 successful women and compared them to those of their male colleagues. They focused only on those countries that since 1945 were, at least once, under female leadership. The democracies of southern Europe were therefore excluded since in these countries the driver’ seat, up until now, has exclusively been reserved for men. “In total we compared 138 résumés - 124 of men, 14 of women, “ explained Kubbe.

Initially, the result was surprising. “The career progression of male and female prime ministers are almost impossible to tell apart” ZDEMO Director Prof. Dr. Ferdinand Müller-Rommel emphasized. Whether Kohl or Merkel, Thatcher or Blair—women and men on their way to the top generally go through very similar experiences: they start in local politics, at some point become a member of parliament, then take on the responsibility for a ministry, and later, typically, the leadership of their party. In total they gather seventeen years of experience in parliament and cabinet, before stepping up to the prime minister post, typically when they are in their late forties.

Those wanting to lead their country, in other words, first must prove themselves in high-ranking political posts.  What counts is experience and professionalism - independent of any sex chromosome. “Looking at our data we did not detect a typical pattern that would indicate that women reach the top differently than their male colleagues,” summarizes Müller-Rommel. “That came as a surprise.

No model for equality

That does not mean, however, that the European governments are a model for gender equality. Although men and women are expected to bring the same qualifications to the table to gain a foothold in key positions, women are still very much underrepresented in politics. One possible reason: men get ahead more quickly because they are given preference in cases of comparable qualifications. If this were indeed the case, then at every stage of their careers, men would encounter fewer obstacles than women. The Lüneburg researchers wanted thus to find out whether this mechanism might explain the small numbers of female prime ministers.

The ZDEMO Researchers noted two additional interesting striking features. First of all, female prime ministers are on average better educated than their male colleagues—they more often have a university degree, including a Ph.D. It seems as if, in this respect, the requirements for women who are aiming for a career in politics, are higher than those of men.

Minister for fuss

In contrast to the men, the women additionally often hold ministerial posts with little prestige. They are - to use the words of former Chancellor Gerhard Schröder - more frequently responsible for “fuss” than for finance or for the military. More often than not they are responsible for “soft” topics. Ursula von der Leyen is in her position as minister of defense (still) an exception - at least in this country. In the Scandinavian countries, however, this classic distribution of portfolios is already more or less something of the past. “When it comes to equality issues, Sweden, Denmark or Norway are - this is true for politics as well! - several steps ahead of us. “ Ina Kubbe stressed. “In these countries gender equality is firmly rooted in society. This is also reflected in the overall structural conditions such as in the availability of childcare.”

Still, when it comes to this topic Europe seems to be making some progress overall. By now, female prime ministers are no longer exotic: between 2010 and 2014 there were after all six female heads of state, whereas in the thirty previous years there only had been a grand total of eight. Kubbe, nevertheless, does not see this as a boom for women in politics: “ In the 28 EU-states, there are currently four female prime ministers in total. That’s a mere 14%.”

Professor Dr. Ferdinand Müller-Rommel
Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Phone: 04131/677-2486

Ina Kubbe
Center for the Study of Democracy, Leuphana University of Lüneburg
Phone: 04131/677-2465