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I feel it is time to write some words about women in politics and positions of power in the European Union. After a rather long drought period, we see women enter with force the top level of EU jobs. Ursula von der Leyen as Commission President Elect, Christine Lagarde as future President of the European Central Bank, Margrethe Vestager as powerful Executive Vice-President of the European Commission and possibly Kristalina Georgieva to succeed Christine Lagarde at the helm of the International Monetary Fund.

On Tuesday 10 September, von der Leyen, the first woman ever to lead the European Commission, put forward her choices for Commission portfolios. The von der Leyen team has historic and almost perfect gender balance, with women holding 13 of 27 positions.

It is not the aim of this blog to comment on the individual nominations or even less on the abilities of the individual Commissioners designate. Von der Leyen’s nominees still have to be confirmed by the European Parliament, and this doesn’t promise to be easy. But I think it’s a good opportunity to pause for a moment and digest. At the end of the day, the result of the seemingly endless discussions and horse-trading of Europe’s heads of state and government is quite a sensation.

Von der Leyen’s nominees include a dozen women — a considerable leap forward from the Juncker Commission, which has eight women, and a “seismic shift for the EU’s executive body, which from 1985 to 1988 had no women at all” (Politico, 10 September 2019). Historically, not even a fifth of all Commissioners were female (Neue Züricher Zeitung, 10 September 2019). Also, if one compares the situation in the European Commission with the one in national governments in Europe, one quickly realises that gender parity is still a far-away dream. In early 2019, only three EU member states hat a share of 50% women in their Cabinets (France, Spain and Sweden), according to the Inter-Parliamentary Union.

From the very beginning, right after her nomination as Commission president, von der Leyen was adamant about the fact that she wanted to preside a gender-balanced Commission. In my view, that she managed to practically reach this goal, is quite an achievement – also given the fact that heads of state and government were not too keen on putting forward women. The ones who did were rewarded: Also in stark contrast with the current Commission, women hold many of the most powerful posts and prominent portfolios in the von der Leyen team.

Margrethe Vestager keeps her Competition portfolio but will assume “more power than ever, expanding her portfolio to become the equivalent of the European Union’s digital czar” (New York Times, 10 September 2019). Other powerful women in the von der Leyen team include Věra Jourová (Czech Republic), who will be vice president for values and transparency; Goulard, a former French defense minister who will take a broad internal market portfolio and oversee a new directorate general covering defense, industry and space; Dubravka Šuica (Croatia), a former mayor of Dubrovnik, as vice president for democracy and demography; and Kadri Simson (Estonia), as energy commissioner.

So what does this mean in terms of the future policy development of the European Union? Will this Commission led by a woman and with a share of nearly 50% of women work differently? Gender differences – whether alleged or real – in leadership style are a favourite subject of debate among leadership experts, researchers, and women’s leadership advocates. But is there really a difference between male and female leadership styles? And do men and women lead differently because of their sex? I do not have an answer to this question. What is clear is that there is some sense that women lead differently than men. In an article for Forbes, Laura Liswood, Secretary General of the Council of Women World Leaders, points out that women’s networks are different, that woman collaborate differently, that they find creative solutions, that they focus more on stakeholders and that they tend to be better prepared.[1] If this is case, these are traits and abilities that the European Union – which is being challenged on so many fronts – will definitely need. Creativity, stakeholder-focus and new ways to collaborate are without any doubt crucial for paving the way for Europe’s future. If the new college of Commissions can contribute to this, this would be no mean feat.

What can already be said, is that von der Leyen’s proposed College of Commissioners effectively scrambles positions and portfolios to focus far more on policy themes than on mirroring the Commission’s directorate generals. Furthermore, she branded her Commission a “geopolitical” one, a clear difference to the current “political” Commission and an acknowledgement of a changed international environment. Von der Leyen also demonstrated her willingness to lead, for instance through the nomination of a third Vice-President from the Central and Eastern member states, a move not foreseen by European leaders. She also clearly articulated her claim to power: “As a president, I’m free to decide. That’s what I did.”

As a group of female advisors we too are championing women’s empowerment and forging a more inclusive and collaborative way of working. In particular, we offer trainings, workshops and mentoring. Please do get in touch to find out more.


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