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Speaker Spotlight: Professor Jennifer Piscopo

Jennifer Piscopo is Director of the Centre for Research and Scholarship at Occidental College in Los Angeles, California, and a Gates Cambridge Alumna. She will be speaking on the Women and power after Covid panel on 6th April [6-7.30pm] with fellow participants journalist and author Mary Ann Sieghart; Resham Kotecha, Head of Engagement at women2win and a Trustee of the Fawcett Society; and Bukola Adisa, Founder/CEO of Career Masterclass, which helps women and BAME professionals progress in the workplace.  The event will be chaired by Heidi Allen, the former MP for South Cambridgeshire.

Cambridge Festival: What got you interested in studying women's role in politics?

JP: Growing up in the United States, students are taught about democracy as something that happened way back - in 1787 when the US wrote a new Constitution following the revolutionary war. Women were completely absent from this process - though they were not absent from the democratisation processes that unfolded centuries later, across Latin America and other regions. Right now, Chile is writing a new constitution and feminists won a rule requiring that women comprise 50 percent of the delegates; their slogan is “never again without us”. I want to understand how women become included in democracy, and why it matters that they are there.

Cambridge Festival: Where do you think the most progress is being made?

JP: In terms of women’s political representation, women in Latin America have seen enormous gains, and not just in Chile. In 1991, Argentina passed the contemporary era’s first “gender quota law”, a rule requiring that women comprise 30% of parties’ candidates for the legislature. Today, 10 Latin American countries - including Argentina - now set that rule at gender parity (50% men and 50% women). Mexico requires gender parity not just in the legislature, but in the executive and judicial ranches at all levels: federal, state and municipal. Women are 50% of Mexico’s lower house and Senate - but just 28% of the US Lower House and 34% of the UK House of Commons.

Cambridge Festival: Is it true that women tend to get leadership roles at a time of crisis, setting them up to fail?

JP: That’s the stylised version, yes. The idea is that the opportunity structure is gendered. In politics - or in business - men are the default person whom a leader looks like. That means men will get many opportunities, so they can be selective. Let’s say an opening to lead a party or business appears, but the situation is a “hot mess”, with low odds that the leader can turn it around. The talented men can afford to wait for a better chance, but the talented women cannot - so on average, women enter leadership roles facing much tougher circumstances.

The other gendered dimension is that different kinds of crises are stereotypically associated with certain leadership styles. My research shows, for example, that parties nominate more women when voters distrust the legislature and are angry about corruption because of gendered beliefs that women are more honest.

Cambridge Festival: What has the Covid crisis shown us about female political leadership?

JP: Everyone thought that women-led countries fared better during the pandemic’s early months, but I argued that the line between women leaders and coronavirus performance is indirect and even spurious.

Why? Because when the coronavirus paralysed the globe in March 2020, only 11 women served as chief executive worldwide - and most women governed in advanced, wealthy democracies like Iceland, Finland, New Zealand and Taiwan. That’s both a very small number of women leaders from which to make generalisations and women leaders were concentrated in countries with other assets for containing a pandemic, like high levels of citizen trust in government and strong healthcare systems. Not to mention, many of them were islands!

Yet this idea captured the public imagination because stereotypically feminine qualities are often viewed as incompatible with good leadership. To see leaders like New Zealand prime minister Jacinda Ardern displaying empathy, and to have her empathy signal strength rather than weakness, was novel indeed.

Cambridge Festival: We seem to be in a world of more authoritarian leadership at a time when there is also growing awareness and anger/activism about attacks on women's rights. Are there any places where you see grounds for optimism in relation to women's representation in politics?

JP: I am really inspired by current events in Chile. The country has convened a constitutional convention, which will write a document that replaces the 1980 dictatorship-era Constitution. Not only are 50% of the authors women, but the overall approach is feminist: recently the convention approved a text that would require all judicial decisions to have a “gender perspective”, a groundbreaking measure that would dramatically change how courts sanction violence against women, among other matters. The new charter will still need to be approved by voters in a referendum, but the convention is showing how constitutions can create more just and fairer societies.

Cambridge Festival: What are the main reasons from your research that women are put off entering politics?

JP: I’m going to flip this question around: why is politics such an inhospitable place for women? So often we hear that women “just aren’t interested” in politics or “don’t have enough ambition” - but this framing wrongly suggests that the problem is women’s character deficiencies. Instead, we see that women have plenty of interest and ambition, but who wants to enter an arena where yelling substitutes for debate and where representatives are subject to character assassination, slander, rape and death threats, and even violence? Democracy is devolving into bullying, and it’s our collective responsibility to improve the public sphere so that members of all historically minoritised groups can participate without fear.

Cambridge Festival: How do you think Covid will affect these?

JP: My research also shows that women’s political ambition increases when women perceive that women’s interests are threatened - these are precisely the situations in which women feel that their voices can change policy outcomes. We know that the pandemic has disproportionately affected women, and that governments are not taking the crisis of care seriously - so we might see more women running for office. At the same time, the dramatically increased needs for childcare and eldercare are pushing ever-more women from the workforce and these same barriers can keep women from politics as well. Yet it’s clear that women’s perspectives are needed in politics more than ever. Otherwise our pandemic recovery and other policies will remain gender-blind.