Five years of the European Women’s Academy

Liberals Transform the Political Landscape for Women

When the first participants successfully completed the European Women’s Academy in 2016, just 26,8% of the parliamentary seats in Europe were held by women. In recent years, the political representation of women in European parliaments has steadily improved. Together with its partners at the ALDE Party and the European Liberal Forum, the Friedrich Naumann Foundation has been working for years to empower women in politics. The results speak for themselves.

More than 70 alumnae celebrated the fifth anniversary of the European Women’s Academy this week. The academy is a modern training program that provides aspiring female politicians with the knowledge and the skills to succeed in elections. Many graduates are now members of national and regional parliaments or hold mayoral and other political positions. From the 2018 class alone, four participants were elected to the European Parliament.

While the political landscape has improved for women in recent years, female politicians still face barriers when advancing to leadership positions. “When I started my professional life, I didn’t even realize that there was a negative bias, but when I moved ahead in my career to higher levels, the glass ceiling become more and more visible,” said Estonian President Kersti Kaljulaid in her welcome address at the virtual Alumnae gathering. Kaljulaid, who is the first woman to hold the office of Estonian president, has arguably shattered every glass ceiling there is by assuming the highest office in her country. Yet, her way to the top was also marked by discrimination and prejudices because of her gender. “In my former position as the Estonian representative to the European Court of Auditors, I was mistaken for the interpreter and directed to the translator’s booth instead of the negotiating table.” And even in her role as Estonian president she is sometimes pushed aside because people expect the president to look different. Her advice for all women in politics who go through similar situations: instead of quietly accepting such situations, confront people head-on about their prejudices; don’t be shy – make a fuss!

An Idea Bears Fruits

When the founding team surrounding Annika Arras (Miltton New Nordics), Johanna Hasting (FNF), Ian Marquardt (ALDE) and Joakim Frantz (former ALDE) came together in 2015, none of them had any idea how successful the Academy would become. “The European Women’s Academy started as a minor project,” says Johanna Hasting, now head of the Baden-Württemberg State Office of the Foundation for Freedom. “It’s great to see that the training program has developed into such an important platform for gender equality in Europe.”

In recent years, the European Women’s Academy has become a real talent hub for female politicians in Europe. For Bettina Stark-Watzinger, EWA alumna of 2016 and by now member of the German Bundestag, the Academy has also proven to be a real “game changer” in her political career. As a board member of the Naumann Foundation, she wants to continue to promote women at all levels of politics: “Women’s rights are human rights, and we as FNF see it as our job to support and empower them.”

With the training program, the liberal partners actively contribute to equal opportunities and equal rights in Europe – and that even beyond the realm of politics. As a report by the “World Economic Forum” shows, improving the political representation of women has, as a general rule, corresponded with increased numbers of women in leadership positions in the labor market.

Despite the academy’s past successes, there is still a long way to go before the so-called “glass ceiling” is actually shattered. Although more and more women are holding political office in Europe, they still remain underrepresented at all levels. Those that do succeed in gaining office facing more scrutiny and discrimination than their male peers, undermining their mandates and making it harder for them to continue succeeding as leaders and decision makers.  

For the liberal partners, this is reason enough to not only continue the European Women’s Academy, but to significantly expand its work next year. “Our goal is to ensure that women’s voices are heard wherever political decisions are made. A society in which women have equal power, their leadership is valued and in which female politicians can thrive free from discrimination, is a society that makes better decisions for everyone,” says Adam Vink, project manager of the European Women’s Academy. In the coming years, the alumni work of the Academy will be intensified and developed into an influential network advocating for change at every level in European politics. It is hoped that the increased visibility of the issues will inspire more action and investment towards achieving equality and increasing diversity in European politics.

Johanna Hans

Desk Officer European Dialogue