The United States of America has finally elected its first female vice president, Kamala Harris.
In the past, this may have not been possible. Once upon a time, the idea of a woman leading anything might sound preposterous. But this is not that world.
With International Women’s Day coming soon, we thought we’d take a look at some of the figures that have embodied this year’s theme — #ChooseToChallenge.
Here are 7 global female leaders who are challenging perceptions and taking the world by storm.
#1. Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister of New Zealand
The story of Jacinda Ardern’s ascendancy is an interesting one. In 2017, before her appointment as the prime minister, she wasn’t even the leader of her own political party.
Seven weeks before the 2017 election, in the face of low poll numbers, then Labour leader Andrew Little made the decision to resign. Ardern took over and after winning the second highest number of votes, she formed a ruling coalition with two other parties and became the 40th Prime Minister of New Zealand.
Since then, Ardern has received acclaim worldwide for her work in leading New Zealand through some of its worst moments ever — a terror attack, a natural disaster and a global pandemic. In the 2020 election, Arderns’s Labour party won 64 of the 120 contested seats — the party’s biggest victory in 50 years — giving her the ability to form a first-ever single-party government in decades.
#2. Katerina Sakellaropoulou, President of Greece
Katerina Sakellaropoulou is no stranger to breaking gender barriers.
Even before she was elected as Greece’s first female president, she was already the first woman to lead the Council of State, the country’s top administrative court. As a judge, Sakellaropoulou was noted for her strong work in human rights advocacy and pro-environmental policies.
Considered a left-leaning progressive, Sakellaropoulou’s appointment is a fascinating one. It was made at the suggestion of centre-right leader, Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, whose party’s political beliefs often go against hers. Additionally, she also did not belong to any political party.
Nonetheless, with backing from the conservative New Democracy, the main opposition Syriza, and the centre-left Movement for Change party, Katerina Sakellaropoulou became Greece’s first female President in January 2020.
#3. Sanna Marin, Prime Minister of Finland
Sanna Marin was only 34 years old when she rose to the rank as Finland’s youngest-ever Prime Minister.
Coming from a low-income family and raised by her mother and her mother’s female partner, Marin grew up feeling like politics was out of reach for someone with her background. Nonetheless, this did not stop her. Driven by the desire to “influence how society sees its citizens and their rights”, she began her political career in her early 20s.
It didn’t take her long to rise through the ranks. First elected to parliament as an MP in 2015, Marin won her second term in May 2019 where she served as the Minister of Transport and Communications. A few months later, she took over from former Prime Minister Antti Rinne to become Finland’s 46th Prime Minister.
#4. Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Former President of Liberia
When Ellen Johnson Sirleaf took office as the 24th President of Liberia in 2006, she also made history as the first elected female head of state in the whole African continent. She went on to hold the position for 12 years before bowing out in 2018.
Sirleaf’s appointment was not her only symbolic achievement for African women. In 2020, she founded the Amujae Initiative, a programme meant to advance women’s leadership by providing access to critical leadership skills and knowledge to prospective women leaders.
While not free of her own share of detractors, Sirleaf’s work in improving Liberia has earned her the adulation of many worldwide. In fact, she was even awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her non-violent work in empowering and uplifting women and women’s rights.
#5. Kersti Kaljulaid, President of Estonia
A biology graduate from the University of Tartu, Kaljulaid knew that there was no money in the science field for 1990s Estonia. Instead, with an MBA in business, she turned to management and did such a good job that she was soon noticed by the reform-minded Estonian politician, Mart Laar. He offered her a role in his government, marking the start of her political career.
In the 2016 presidential election, Kaljulaid became the sole candidate for the presidency. This came after several failed rounds for other candidates. With major support for her candidacy, she became the fifth president of Estonia, taking over from former president, Toomas Hendrik Ilves.
#6. Corazon Aquino, Former President of the Philippines
Corazon Aquino was the 11th President of the Philippines and the first woman to hold that position. Among her people, she is known as Tita (Auntie) Cory, the Mother of Democracy.
Aquino was an essential figure in the Philippines’ revolt against kleptocratic dictator, Ferdinand Marcos. While not initially the leader in the movement, she took over the fight for democracy and reformation after the assassination of her husband in 1983.
She participated in non-violent and peaceful demonstrations as part of the “people power revolution”. Soon after, she began to run against the autocratic president. Marcos, confident that she’s “just a woman”, called for an election and in 1986, Aquino was elected as the new president.
Aquino passed away in 2009 from colon cancer but her spirit lives on through her people.
#7. Angela Merkel, Chancellor of Germany
Often dubbed the most powerful woman in the world, Angela Merkel first became chancellor in 2005, making her a contemporary of former leaders George W. Bush and Tony Blair. Fifteen years later, she is now the most senior member in both the European Union (EU) and the Group of Seven (G7).
Alongside her successful political career, Merkel also holds a science background. She studied physics in Karl Marx University, Leipzig before eventually getting her doctorate for her thesis on quantum chemistry.
This science background proved to be useful even after leaving the field. Many have attributed Merkel’s science background for Germany’s brilliant handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. This in turn boosted her credibility to her people.
With no plan to run for another re-election, Merkel is set to retire this year. However, it will take quite a candidate to fill such big shoes.
#Bonus: Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, Former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia
Okay, technically, she’s not a prime minister but how could we not include our very own first female deputy prime minister?
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail became Malaysia’s 12th Deputy Prime Minister after the 2018 historic election that saw the defeat of a 60 year old reign of the political coalition of Barisan Nasional. Her term was cut short after the collapse of her administration in early 2020.
Even though her tenure was brief, Dr Wan Azizah had contributed significantly to the country. As part of her portfolio as the Minister of Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development, she pushed for the Suri Incentive Scheme (i-Suri), a monetary scheme aimed at helping women, in particular housewives, and the creation of the Child Sex Offenders Registry.
These female leaders prove that the gender barrier is meant to be broken. While we are still far from an equal world, more and more people are challenging the status quo and breaking the glass ceiling. Staying true to this year’s theme, let’s all #ChooseToChallenge.