A woman prime minister for the Netherlands?
Hillary Clinton's campaign to become President of the United States has led people around the world to ask, is the US ready for a female president? Dutch people are among those watching the US presidential election with great interest. But what about here in the Netherlands? Is this country ready for a female Prime Minister?
While the head of state here in the Netherlands has been female ever since Queen Emma took over as regent back in 1890, there has never been a woman at the head of the Dutch government. Crown Prince Willem-Alexander will at some point end the line of Dutch queens, but most politicians agree it is unlikely a woman will become prime minister anytime soon.
Why is it that a country known for its progressive social policies has never seen a woman even come close to challenging for the highest political office?
One of the most visible female leaders in current Dutch politics, GreenLeft leader Femke Halsema, says the Dutch still associate the qualities of leadership with men. No woman has ever become prime minister, Halsema says, because the large parties who provide prime ministers in the Dutch coalition governments continue to choose male leaders.
Most of her female colleagues share Ms Halsema's pessimism about the chances of a woman becoming prime minister. Women have been well represented in parliament and in the government for at least 20 years now. But they have yet to break through into senior leadership positions. The current Economics Affairs minister, Maria van der Hoeven, is the first woman to lead one of the big four ministries - economic affairs, foreign affairs, defence, and finance.
Just like the private sector, the civil service has what is known as a 'glass ceiling', an invisible barrier that seems to prevent women from reaching the highest level of seniority. The paucity of women in senior positions in the civil service has led to complaints from a number of parliament members.
Neelie Kroes, currently the Competition Commissioner for the EU and for 25 years one of the most powerful Dutch women in politics, has long been an advocate of getting more women into senior positions. She says no country can afford to use only half of its pool of talent. According to Kroes, women have a different management style from men, and are better communicators: "Women are more used to answering questions. They're closer to their children, and children are the most critical human beings, asking all the right questions."
Insiders think it will be some time before a woman gets the chance to lead this country. But what about an outsider? Cynthia Schneider was US Ambassador to the Netherlands in the late 1990s. When she first took up her post, she thought women were doing pretty well in the Netherlands, given how many women there were in parliament and in the cabinet. But that was before she began to mingle with leaders in the private sector. When the ambassador attended gatherings in a corporate setting, she discovered that: "Out of 100 people in the room, there would be just four women. That hasn't happened in the United States in many, many years. I felt like I had stepped into a time machine."
There is one Dutch politician who's optimistic about a woman becoming prime minister. Rita Verdonk, the former immigration minister, is now forming her own political movement called Proud of the Netherlands. Opinion polls consistently predict that Proud of the Netherlands will win substantial support from voters.
When asked if the Netherlands was ready for a woman prime minister, Mrs Verdonk said yes, it is. And, she hastened to add: "I hope it's me. That's my ambition."
By RNW political editor John Tyler with the kind assistance of RNW Europe correspondent Vanessa Mock in Brussels.
29 February 2008
[Copyright Radio Netherlands 2008]