From Hillary Clinton's presidential race to The Philippines’ new transgender politician, Frances Dickens shares her pick of the women who blazed a trail
Last year was a bumpy ride on the way towards gender representation in big business. While we saw progress with Sir Philip Hampton setting a goal for FTSE 350 companies to make one-third of their board members female by 2020, we also saw a drop in the number of FTSE 100 female execs – those that hold the responsibility for day-to-day operations – from 22 to 20. Fortunately, it looks like we have a brighter year ahead of us. I’m particularly looking forward to seeing Hampton make his first steps towards this significant long-term target.
But the responsibility is for all of us – not just those who head government initiatives – to build a more equal society. So as 2017 begins I’d like to take stock of some highlights of the previous year and celebrate some serious female talent. Over the last 12 months, we’ve seen a variety of inspirational women rise to the top of their fields from all manner of challenging backgrounds. No matter your position, there are inspirational lessons behind each one.
May Geraldine Roman: The Philippines’ first transgender politician
On the other side of the world, May Geraldine Roman was the first transgender woman to be elected to congress in the Philippines as the representative of the first district of Bataan, following a landslide win of 66% of votes during the 2016 election. Speaking to CNN, she said the election shows the Philippines has "matured as a society". It’s an incredible achievement and I look forward to following her journey as she aims to make socioeconomic improvements and bring in anti-discrimination legislation.
Maria Grazia Chiuri: Dior’s first female creative director
It only took Christian Dior 70 years to hire its first female creative director. Maria Grazia Chiuri spent the last 17 years as co-creative director at Valentino, working with her long-standing professional partner Pier Paolo Piccioli to reimagine the Valentino brand. Her appointment is not only significant for Dior but for the entire fashion industry, which is still notoriously unbalanced, with many men taking top roles despite women holding the majority of entry-level creative positions.
Theresa May: The UK’s second female prime minister
Following the EU referendum, Cameron stepped down and Theresa May was elected by the Conservatives to be the UK’s second ever female PM. She's swiftly removed the Cameroons and Etonians and instead compiled a cabinet of men and women who were for and against Brexit. Interestingly, May's cabinet is one of the most gender neutral in UK history.
Taking the reins at an impossibly difficult time was a big ask and her route to leadership was bittersweet amid the turmoil of backstabbing and lies. However, through her tenacity and rigor May has pushed the Conservatives to reach its highest rating since 1992, with a recent poll from The Guardian / ICM putting them at 44 per cent, compared to Labour’s 28.
Nadia Murad: Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N
Nadia Murad was one of over 5,000 Yazidi women taken captive by Isis. After surviving three months of torture, she successfully escaped in November 2014. And in September 2016 she was appointed as a Goodwill Ambassador for the U.N, which marked the first time a survivor of such atrocities has been appointed by the organisation. Murad is an inspiration, not only because she managed to survive and escape such a horrendous situation but also for the courage and bravery she’s shown through her continued efforts campaigning for countries in the Middle East to stand up to ISIS, as well as advocating for the end of human trafficking worldwide.
Hillary Clinton: a good race
Clinton’s near miss was the story of the year but her substantial victory in the popular vote should still be cause for some celebration in a country where sexism and misogyny are widespread issues. While Trump’s current cabinet follows the old-school pale and male template seen in countless corporate boardrooms, Clinton’s campaign to smash the glass ceiling demonstrated that expertise, resilience and leadership are not reserved for one gender.
Paula Nickolds: John Lewis’ first female managing director
In October 2016, John Lewis, one of the UK’s biggest and most respected retail brands, announced that Paula Nickolds would be its first female managing director. John Lewis’ internal culture and customer service is unparalleled in the retail sector, so it seems fitting that it's finally hiring more women in top positions – especially since retail is yet another sector dependent on female consumers, yet lacking in female leadership.
Angela Merkel: standing for a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor
Angela Merkel shot to political fame when she announced Germany’s controversial open-door refugee policy. In June 2016, she topped Forbes’ Annual World's Most Powerful Women List – ahead of Hillary Clinton in second place. However, a recent regional election saw heavy losses to the far right, which some suggest is due to her refugee policy. It’s amazing to see Merkel stand for a fourth term in office – something rarely seen in politics. We’ll see how she does in the autumn of 2017.
While many will be glad to see the back of it, 2016 was filled with monumental achievements by female leaders. We still have a long way to go to make gender diversity commonplace but these women have played a real part in improving the status quo. With the odds stacked against them in male-dominated fields, they’ve shown what they can achieve, which will hopefully inspire millions of others to follow their example. I look forward to following these women and others like them over the next 12 months. Here’s to 2017: may we see even more progress made by women leaders in each and every sector.