Why we should look to the Queen as an example of female leadership and its potential
Queen Elizabeth II is now the longest reigning monarch in UK history and a rare illustration of powerful female leadership at the highest level. She has strengthened the monarchy notwithstanding numerous periods of serious national and international crises – as well as familial ones. She has, throughout, adhered strictly to her constitutional duties which by definition have constrained her ability to express her true feelings and thoughts.
She has also been an impressive and prominent working mother and in her ability to keep a large part of herself hidden from view, she has something in common with a lot of working mothers.
When the Queen became our Head of State, she was also a mother to two young children and, as a full-time working mother, she was very much an outlier in 1952. At the time, the archetypal image of a perfect mother was a ‘stay at home’ wife. Since then – through decades of social, economic and political progress, women now make up 49% of the UK’s workforce.
Conditions for success
The Jubilee is among other things an opportunity to consider the conditions that enabled the Queen to lead as a woman and working mother for so long and with such success.
To begin with, the Queen had pre-eminent role models to instil in her confidence and validation. Her namesake, Elizabeth I and great-great-grandmother, Queen Victoria, were women whose regna (+100 years combined) speak to their strategic and political expertise. Such role models can only have fed positively into the Queen’s expectations of herself.
Secondly, the importance of her role (and her dedication to it) was secure and incontrovertible. Prince Philip could not – regardless of his ambition, talent or skills – compete with her ‘job’.
However, probably the most critical factor has been the Court infrastructure (or support system) established to ensure monarchical continuity and a second Elizabethan era.
Whilst the era of the ‘1950s housewife’ is long-gone as an aspiration or expectation, societal norms and pressures on women to fulfil caring roles persist and motherhood is still the factor that has most impact on a woman’s work choices and the numbers speak for themselves:
75% of mothers with dependent children were in work in the UK compared with 92.6% of fathers with dependent children;
4m women are “economically inactive” on account of caring responsibilities compared with 0.3m men;
38% of women work part-time compared with 13% of men .
The lifelong impact on a woman’s income of this continuing status quo is obvious: a woman of average working age earned 40% less than her male counterpart in 2019. More career breaks and part-time work lead inevitably to lower earnings and pensions.
Research also shows that working mothers are seen as less committed and less competent regardless of their performance record and the result is that women frequently seek to hide or minimise their motherhood in the workplace so as not to damage their career prospects.
H.R.M: A royal role model
Uniquely for a woman in such a leadership position, the Queen’s motherhood (as well as grand-motherhood and even great-grand-motherhood) has been entirely visible throughout her reign and without ever calling into question her gravitas or dedication.
And it is true that there is much progress to celebrate in relation to the position of women over the past 70 years and the Queen has had direct exposure to it: two women Prime Ministers, women Bishops and even in her favourite sport a celebrated champion jockey in Rachael Blackmore.
Yet the evidence is that the weight of the ‘double-shift’ on women continues to take its toll and that sexist and ignorant stereotypes continue. Amanda Blanc, CEO of Aviva, recently faced abuse from some investors based on her gender: she wasn’t the “man for the job” and needed to wear “trousers”.
Such people need to look to the Queen as an example of female leadership and its potential. Over the course of 70 years, she has demonstrated that a working mother – with the support of her partner, illustrious role models and a strong domestic infrastructure in place – doesn’t need to wear trousers or adopt ‘male’ stereotypes in order to lead with purpose and strength.
And whilst we can’t hope to replicate a Court infrastructure (or rules of primogeniture) across workplaces, we can recognise that equality in the workplace isn’t possible without equality in the domestic sphere.