Women stand at the helm of all the three parties that are looking to form the government after Lithuania's recent parliamentary election. But women in top positions could also serve as an alibi to ignore overall gender inequalities, observers say.
The new parliament, Seimas, will have 103 male and 38 female members. Although an increase of 5 points, women will still make up only 27 percent of MPs.
Ingrida Šimonytė, the lead candidate of the Homeland Union (TS-LKD) party that won the biggest number of parliament seats is likely to assume the prime minister’s position in the new government. Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen, the leader of the Liberal Movement, is tipped for the parliament speaker post.
So far, Lithuania has had two female prime ministers – Kazimiera Prunskienė and Irena Degutienė who was acting PM twice – and two female speakers of the Seimas, Loreta Graužinienė and Degutienė.
Meanwhile the outgoing government, led by the Farmers and Greens Union (LVŽS), struggled to keep a gender balance. At one point in their term, men assumed all 14 ministerial positions, making Lithuania the only EU country with an all-male cabinet.
Leaders in crisis
“Women have led three parties to victory. They are not afraid to assume leadership during difficult times,” Dalia Grybauskaitė, Lithuania's former female president, posted on Facebook after the election.
Dovilė Jakniūnaitė, a professor at the Institute of International Relations and Political Sciences (TSPMI) of Vilnius University, has noted that women leaders are more common in crisis situations.
This is the so-called “glass cliff” phenomenon, according to Jakniūnaitė, where women have more chances to achieve leadership roles during periods of crisis and downturn – when the chances of failure are at their highest.
The Liberal Movement is a good case in point, according to the political scientist. The party is male-dominated, and all of its newly elected parliament members are men except for Čmilytė-Nielsen, who assumed leadership when the party was trying to survive following a major corruption scandal and a split.
“In better times, Viktorija Čmilytė-Nielsen’s leadership would not have been likely, not in the near future anyway. Her decision [to become a leader] was brave and risky, and the risk paid off. But it would be wrong to think that she helped liberals out of the crisis because she is a woman. On the contrary, because the party was in crisis, it allowed a woman to be where she deservedly is,” Jakniūnaitė wrote on Facebook.
According to Natalija Arlauskaitė, a professor at TSPMI, women leaders could also become an excuse not to do anything about wider inequalities.
“We've had this before – women were in high positions and it was an alibi to not pay attention to the composition of the entire Seimas and government. As if a woman leader eliminates the problem,” Arlauskaitė said.
On the other hand, the election of parties with women leaders could mark a change in political culture, believes Natalija Mažeikienė, a professor at Vytautas Magnus University.
“Parties that have more male members focus on a certain traditional view of society, where man is the head of the family. Old patriarchal values are accepted both by these parties and their voters and determine who could be involved in politics,” Mažeikienė explained.
A greater number of women in politics is also needed to better represent the composition of society. The current overrepresentation of men points to systemic issues in the country's politics.
“These issues could be social or internal to the parties themselves. We see that even liberal parties have difficulties in this area and for some reason do not have many female members who could equally take part in party life, the Seimas, or the government,” Arlauskaitė said.