The dearth of women in politics continues to be a major talking point among political observers. The matter has gained even greater significance with Barbados gearing up for general elections, which are constitutionally due next year.
Earlier this month, Minister of Labour Dr Esther Byer-Suckoo told a forum on women in the workplace that while women have made many strides in the labour force, politics remained an area where barriers are still to be broken.
Last Friday, former government minister Elizabeth Thompson sought to explain some of the factors that may hinder women from pursuing a political career, during her lecture to mark International Women’s Day, entitled: Nasty or Nice: Women in politics, leadership and life. The discussion was organized by CIBC FirstCaribbean International Bank and the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus.
“Our notion of how we see women, how we treat women; are they subordinate, insubordinate? Are they to be loved? Are they to be used sexually and discarded?
“We focus on the women, but really the system is nasty. And if you’re going to emerge to the top a lot of the time, it is really difficult. So you hear – and it is not an accident – that the women who have emerged to the top in politics are single, and perceived as aggressive. ‘Yuh ain’t gine get through if you too nice! You got to be tough’. I have developed the hide of a rhinoceros,” Thompson told her audience at the Errol Barrow Centre for Creative Imagination.
Thompson, who served as Minister of Health and later as Minister of Energy and the Environment between 1994 and 2008, said she had to work just as hard for the female vote on the campaign trail, due to public perceptions that men are better leaders than women. However, she noted that throughout her political career she was fortunate to have the support of more experienced female politicians and other women outside the political arena.
“First of all, to get into politics you really have to be tough. You have to have a sense of self; you have to see yourself as a leader, and women are not socialized to see themselves as leaders. My parents and my grandparents said to me ‘you can be anything you want to be’, and I took them quite literally, in innocence.”
However, she acknowledged that not all little girls are given the same encouragement from their parents, with many steering their daughters along more traditional paths.
“From the time they are very young, you put dolls in your children’s hands, you give them little cooking sets and things that are domestic. You don’t go out there and tell them ‘drive that tractor’. You don’t put them into positions where they have to fight to get to the top, or to do things that are considered masculine. And part of the narrative that you hear growing up is ‘you husband ain’t going to want so and so’.
“In that are two statements: Get a husband because you are not complete without one. And second, when you get a husband, hold him by treating him in a particular way. Men are not taught ‘but your wife is not gonna want that’,” she argued.
Thompson, the executive director-designate of the SUNY-UWI Centre for Leadership and Sustainable Development, also pointed to the dilemma of many professional women – whether to pursue a career, raise a family, or do both.
“I made a decision that I was not going to have children because I wanted a career. I wanted a political career and I didn’t think I could do both well, [so] I made a choice. Everybody cannot make that choice.
“If you look at all the women who have been parliamentarians in Barbados, they’re either like (Dame) Maizie Barker-Welch. . .who have had careers and come to politics after their children are grown, or you have the single women, who are perceived as aggressive, getting into the political frame. So it is very difficult,” Thompson stated.
Currently there are five female Senators in the Upper House, with the same number in the House of Assembly.
Outside of politics, Thompson said women continue to be paid less than men, and men still outnumber women in senior positions in Barbados and across the Caribbean.
Another area of inequality, she noted, is that women have less access to capital than their male counterparts.
“As a professional woman, I have had a bank tell me ‘if you want a loan, bring your husband’. And I said, ‘but I’m borrowing this money for my law practice, to put up a building for my practice. My husband has never seen a client as a lawyer. Why would I have to bring my husband?’ and the woman who was serving me, the female officer, could not really explain to me why it is that she needed to see my husband to give me a loan on my law practice.
“So those are the kind of biases which still persist. Women do not have access to capital in the same way as men. When you go before a loans officer, more stringent terms apply,” Thompson said.