LONDON — Britain has had quite a time of it over the past few months. Between sluggish growth and persistent unemployment, riots, strikes and the Euro crisis, many are wondering aloud whether what this country really needs is another Margaret Thatcher-style leader who would restore order and stability.
Many of us remember Mrs. Thatcher for her lengthy and dramatic stint on Downing Street in the 1980s, during which time she privatized state-owned industries, crushed trade unions and went to war with Argentina over the Falkland Islands.
But there’s another way in which Mrs. Thatcher made herself a household name the world over: she exemplified an unapologetic model for how to be a prominent woman in public life.
The U.K. could use a few of those right now.
In its Sex and Power Report 2011, Britain’s Equality and Human Rights Commission studied the number of women in positions of power and influence across 27 occupational categories across the public and private sectors. The report concluded that progress in gender equality was not just “tortuously slow” in the UK, but that it “regularly stalled or even reversed” in some sectors, despite the fact that women are better educated than ever before and graduating with better grades than men.
But when it came to influential positions such as Members of Cabinet, health service chief executives, directors of arts charities or editors of national newspapers, women’s participation had dropped significantly since 2007-2008.
This under-representation of women in leadership roles in British society is mirrored in the board room — where only 5% of executive positions are held by women — as well as in the media. (In a typical month, according to a recent study by The Guardian, 78% of newspaper articles in the U.K. are written by men.)
It’s not that things are so great in the U.S. on this score. As Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg reminded us in an impassioned 2011 TED talk, the glass ceiling is alive and well in America, too. The number of women running Fortune 500 companies dropped from 15 to 12 over the last year. The percentage of women in Congress dropped for the first time in 30 years in 2010.
What’s different in the US is that, much as with Margaret Thatcher, you do have a number of women living boldly in the public eye in a way that compels others to take note.
Sandberg herself, is a good case in point. She is easily my own pick for office of anything, 2016. Former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is no slacker either. She’s just published a 900-plus page memoir about her eight years in the White House as George W. Bush’s confidante. Jill Abramson was recently named the first female Editor-In-Chief of the New York Times. And waiting in the wings, we now have Chelsea.
I do think that having highly visible role models matter, because they show the rest of us what’s possible.
There are are any number of impressive female politicians, journalists and businesswomen over here in the UK. But other than the novelist J. K. Rowling, there’s no one on the order of a Margaret Thatcher right now in terms of stature, and that’s a shame.