Can one iconic feminist bring our awaited gender revolution?

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Voices calling for a female leader are also evident in the virtual world.

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris jointly named Time's 'Person of the Year' (photo credit: REUTERS)

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris jointly named Time’s ‘Person of the Year’

(photo credit: REUTERS)

As Israel heads to its fourth elections in under two years, many Israeli women (and men) are addressing the need for women leaders – an Israeli Kamala Harris or Jacinda Ardern – in order to create change within Israeli politics and promote gender diversity among decision-makers.

Voices calling for a female leader are also evident in the virtual world. The Facebook profile frame “come” (boyi in Hebrew feminine form) followed the frame “leave” (lech is a great example of such voices). Whereas the call “leave” identifies with the popular social protest against Israel’s presiding prime minister due to his pending indictments, the call “come” expresses the longing for a female alternative to take his place.

While such calls for a female prime minister are important and create the social and virtual infrastructure for such a welcome development, making a real change in Israeli politics will require more than a single woman in high office. The demand “come” and the quest for our own Kamala or Jacinda, imply that overall gender diversity will be achieved when a woman will serve as the Israeli prime minister. These calls express the desire for a single, individual woman leader and not for a systematic and substantive change that will allow women to take center stage and become significant players in the Israeli public sphere.

Maybe instead of “come” in a singular feminine form, the Facebook frame should be replaced in the plural feminine form (boena) – a call to many women, not a single woman, to step up to the plate of Israeli politics.

Various researches show that female leaders (prime ministers, presidents) in mostly masculine governments tend to adopt masculine stereotypical behaviors and policies in order to be accepted by their male counterparts and prove their professional competence. This phenomenon was not created in a vacuum. Barbara Poggio, a researcher from the University of Trento, Italy, claims that such conduct of female leaders is driven by their need to handle men’s efforts to exclude women from groups of predominantly male elites and blame women themselves for their inability to fit in.

FOR EXAMPLE, Madison Schramm and Alexandra Stark, studying the intersection of gender, security and foreign policy, argue that female leaders, in order to maintain their positions and establish their status among their male colleagues, embrace traits and behaviors stereotypically attributed to men (such as firmness, stubbornness and aggression). That is because such traits and behaviors, in a patriarchal society, are perceived as reflective of leadership capabilities.

These women often reject traits stereotypically perceived as feminine to signal their surrounding male elites that they are just as capable of fulfilling whatever challenge presented to them and that their gender (and its accompanying stigmatic traits like over-sensitivity, weakness, insecurity and lenience) will not be an obstacle.

However, such motivation of belonging to exclusive male elites is not only manifested in embracing male stereotypical traits and behaviors during deliberations and negotiations, but also in adopting decisions and policies that are perceived as reflecting male values and ambitions. For instance, Schramm and Stark found that female leaders in predominantly male governments tend to initiate more conflicts than male leaders as means of externalizing their competence to their male colleagues and maintaining their positions.

Conversely, the researchers found that in countries where women play a bigger role in politics and gender is not perceived as an indicator of leadership abilities, female leaders are less vulnerable to removal from office on the basis of scrutiny over gender attributed behaviors. Therefore, the effect of such twisted gender power balance on their conduct and policies is diminished, normalizing notions of female leadership.

Adopting Schramm and Stark’s observations leads to the conclusion that an Israeli Kamala or Jacinda cannot, on her own, create real changes within Israeli politics and society. This great achievement of electing a(nother) female prime minister, would be an amazing stepping stone for Israeli women. However, without the integration of many other women in key roles in Israeli politics and government, its influence remains partial and of limited effect. We must encourage as many women from various fields, professions and backgrounds to run for public offices in order to achieve our longed-for vision of gender diversity; not only quantitative diversity but also substantive diversity that will enable women’s leadership, absent of gender labels that force women to alter their traits, behaviors and decisions in order to prove the legitimacy of their presence in the world of politics.

Therefore, while we should continue searching for our very own Kamala Harris or Jacinda Ardern, we should also put efforts into finding the Israeli Florence Parly, France’s minister of the armed forces, Maria Jesus Montero, Spain’s minister of finance, and Sophie Wilmès, Belgium’s minister of foreign affairs. Only they, together, could bring our long-awaited revolution.

The writer is an Israeli master’s degree student at Harvard Law School, focusing on gender, diplomacy and international law.

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