Margrethe Vestager: A woman of substance
With a proven track record in delivering for citizens, Margrethe Vestager has earned the right to be the next European Commission President. She tells Lorna Hutchinson that prioritising gender equality and female empowerment is her number one goal.
Margrethe Vestager | Photo credit: ALDE Party
You have become a figurehead of female empowerment in the EU – are empowerment and gender equality issues close to your heart?
Yes, indeed. Close to my heart and close to my mind, because we really need to take action. This is not just something that one should believe in, it is something that one should work for, because if you see the prognosis so far, it will take forever and a day before we get there if no action is taken.
On your Twitter account, your pinned tweet says that European leadership should reflect Europe - all of Europe, women too. Is it time then for a female European Commission President?
I think it’s long overdue to have a female Commission President. If you look at the portrait gallery in the Berlaymont building, of course you see amazing leadership, but it’s a very uniform sort of leadership. Of course, this is one part of the puzzle, but it’s an important part. Our leadership should reflect who we are in Europe; what people underestimate is the potential for change that comes from gender equality, for men as well as for women.
What personal qualities would you bring to the job of Commission President?
I believe I bring the same qualities I brought to my role as Commissioner for Competition, which is a somewhat Scandinavian approach. We are somewhat direct, though we’re learning to be more well-behaved or at least more polite, because sometimes we lack that quality, but I have learned a lot in the last five years. I think I will bring a more direct, hopefully more forthcoming, approach and of course one that respects the fact that it is not for any of us individually to make things happen; it is all about the team. Of course, you need leadership and you need encouragement, but for things really to happen, for things to change, it must be a team effort.
"Our leadership should reflect who we are in Europe; what people underestimate is the potential for change that comes from gender equality, for men as well as for women"
As a woman and mother juggling a family with political life, do you feel that women face greater obstacles than men in climbing the political ladder? Do women have to work twice as hard and be twice as tough as men to reach the top?
I think the problem, to a very large degree, is that women are expected to be men. When you find toughness in female leaders, it’s because there are too few of them and they really have to work for it, in a very stereotypical male way. I think there could be a real generational gift to all the children being born now - to have a closer relationship with their fathers, because it is still the case that in many families, the woman is the primary caregiver. This is not to say that the father should be the mother, but if they had the opportunity to spend more time with the children, they would obviously develop a different relationship. That would then allow women to be more ‘on the job’, so to speak, because you would also have a different division of labour in the home.
It can’t always have been easy being a woman in politics, which is traditionally a man’s world. What are your proudest achievements in your career so far?
It’s very difficult to say, but one of the things I really believe is that each and every one of us should feel that we count, that we’re part of society. That someone will take care of us if we’re being cheated, that someone will be there to pave the way to allow opportunities for us. I am proud of having worked during my early political life in education to give people opportunities, particularly life-long opportunities, for re-skilling or upskilling or to keep learning. And of course, I have had the privilege these past five years of delivering fairness in the marketplace. Consumers feel this empowerment and I would hope that it would also rub off on the rest of society - to seize that empowerment and use it as a citizen, as a voter, as a volunteer, as an engaged person in whatever you want to do. Because, for me, that is what society is about.
What advice would you give to a young woman considering a career in politics? Is this something you would recommend?
Yes, indeed. I think personally I more or less stumbled into politics because I’m not very good at saying no. I think it’s very important that what you do in life is something that you would want to do - it could be politics, it could be medicine, whatever it is you can put your heart into. I think sometimes it’s good to forget that you’re young - I think that was the only reason why I didn’t completely stumble when I was Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical Affairs in Denmark when I was only 29. I didn’t realise that I was too young for that. That sort of gives you a different boldness and attitude of “yes, of course I can do this”. I think you have to forget your age and step in and say, “I would like to be part of this”.
“Women are expected to be men. When you find toughness in female leaders, it’s because there are too few of them and they really have to work for it, in a very stereotypical male way”
Who would you say are your political and non-political heroes - the people who have, and still do, inspire you the most?
One of my heroes would be Madeleine Albright - she was the US Secretary of State at the time of the terrible wars in the Balkans. She took a very personal responsibility to change that and to work for peace, and she didn’t have to do that. That is something that I very much admire. The other hero would be Nelson Mandela, because having suffered that kind of injustice and yet coming out of prison as a strong, holistic, open, forgiving person - I find that to be incredible, how he managed that. That really serves as an inspiration. And going back to Madeleine Albright, she’s credited with being the person who coined the phrase “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help other women.”
Can we then assume that you’re a big believer in women supporting each other?
Yes, and this is not because women are all the same - on the contrary. There have been two female founders of right-wing parties in Denmark. They’re very, very different from me and we hold strongly opposing political views, but I still find it great that there are more women with wider diversity in gender and political views.
If you were president of the European Commission, would you be working to achieve gender parity?
Yes, indeed. There are currently nine female European Commissioners and it will take more to bring about change. And now voters have come out so strongly in the European elections to show us trust - more than 50 percent voted, which is the best turnout in 25 years. You see the European Parliament with a different composition; the far right didn’t win as everyone was expecting - on the contrary, people voted for a new Parliament, for change, for things to happen. I think the most obvious thing to do is to show that we in Europe are different, that we actually do change and that we do it at the first available opportunity, which is in the composition of the Commission, to make it gender balanced, if at all possible. Then you find all the women that you would wish for - competent, clever, engaged, different - so that you can actually achieve it. And I think that every man born of a woman should engage in this. I think this is an obvious first thing to do. Achieving gender balance is a driver for change.
“Sometimes it’s good to forget that you’re young - I think that was the only reason why I didn’t completely stumble when I was Minister of Education and Ecclesiastical A airs in Denmark when I was only 29”
And finally, what would be your message to the new intake of MEPs, fresh from their wins at the European elections?
Well, obviously there’s a lot to learn, but there’s also a lot that they can do to inspire the MEPs who are there already. And just as it’s a good thing to figure out “what is this Parliament that I’ve been elected to, how do they do things, and what did they do in the last mandate” but also to say that maybe some things can be different. The second thing would be to make friends in other political groups. To make sure that you get to know people, that you have a cup of coffee together, talk politics with people from different backgrounds who have different views. Because that is what enables us to find solutions.
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