For purist feminists with an eye on Europe, the past week has been pretty good. After decades of male dominance at the top of two of Europe’s most powerful institutions, Ursula von der Leyen and Christine Lagarde unexpectedly secured the backing of the bloc’s leaders to head up the European Commission and the European Central Bank respectively, taking over from Jean-Claude Juncker and Mario Draghi.
Though Lagarde’s appointment still needs formal sign-off, and von der Leyen requires the majority support of MEPs, many are treating the moves as done deals. “I am really happy about it,” crooned Donald Tusk, the outgoing president of the European Council.
“After all, Europe is a woman,” he reasoned. “I think that it was worth waiting for such an outcome.”
Even Angela “I-don’t-call-myself-a-feminist” Merkel couldn’t help herself. “For me, it is also a good sign that a woman will have this office for the first time,” she admitted in her trademark guarded manner, referring to von der Leyen – her erstwhile mentee.
Both have done their fair bit of glass ceiling – if not quite smashing – then certainly chipping.
As well as being the first woman to lead the International Monetary Fund, Paris-born Lagarde was the first female finance minister of any G8 economy.
A lawyer by background, she was the first woman to chair global law firm Baker & KcKenzie and has for years been a staple on any credible list of the world’s most powerful individuals, regardless of gender.
Internationally lesser known, German defence minister Von der Leyen grew up in Brussels and attended the London School of Economics. Though you could say politics is in her blood (her father was a prominent EU civil servant in the 1960s), the mother of seven was a relative latecomer to the field and first qualified as a doctor.
As Germany’s minister of family affairs from 2005 until 2009, she was instrumental in implementing improved parental benefits and boardroom gender quotas in a country still shaped by a widely held, but wisely unspoken, belief that women should obviously be the primary caregiver. More recently, she’s been campaigning hard to increase Germany’s armed forces budget.
So, both women have stellar CVs and accolades galore, but it’s doubtful those will equip them for the herculean tasks that now face them.
Lagarde’s key challenge will be to revitalise the eurozone’s stagnant economy. Markets rallied when traders and investors learned she was likely to take the ECB’s top job, largely on expectations that she will continue Draghi’s policies to stimulate growth. But her armory of tools to hoist the region back to prosperity is not exactly well stocked.
A cocktail of international trade wars, rising geopolitical uncertainty (including but not limited to Brexit) – and sluggish global economic growth has stung the eurozone, especially export-driven Germany. Lagarde has proved an expert negotiator and an adroit diplomat, managing to repair the IMF’s reputation when it was catastrophically tarnished by unproven accusations of attempted rape levelled against her predecessor Dominique Strauss-Kahn. But she has no formal experience of running a central bank or deciding on and implementing monetary policy.
And even if she did, her options for what to do are painfully limited. Interest rates, which can be cut to stimulate economic growth, are already at record lows. She could cut them more or resort to unconventional measures – quantitative easing, for example – but scrutiny is sky high and her lack of economic training will no doubt prompt fierce questions from seasoned Eurocrats, especially if we’re forced to brave a fresh recession.
Meanwhile, von der Leyen’s suitability is already being challenged, most fiercely on home turf. Germany’s pro-business Free Democrats bluntly dismissed her as “not the best candidate”. The country’s Green party derided her nomination as an “old-school backroom deal”.
A particular bone of contention seems to be the decisions she’s made as defence minister in charge of an underfunded military. It’s a job widely acknowledged to be a poisoned chalice, and one that’s ended several of her predecessors’ political careers.
Her reputation has also been marred by accusations of nepotism after heavyweight military contracts were awarded to consultancies including McKinsey – her son’s employer. Claims she plagiarised her PhD dissertation have been dismissed.
Qualified or not, with Brexit on the horizon, a fresh economic crisis not exactly unlikely, and global trade wars threatening to escalate, the charming Christine Lagarde and affable Ursula von der Leyen – if confirmed – will have the unenviable task of steering a bruised Europe through one its most testing periods in history. Both their terms would start on 1 November – a day after Britain might crash out of the EU without a deal.
The term “glass ceiling” is universally understood to mean the invisible barrier that professional women encounter in their careers because of their gender. More recently, a theory of “glass cliffs” has emerged arguing that women are often parachuted in to leadership positions when organisations face a crisis, because of a perceived mildness of temper, an ability to stay rational and effective communication skills.
I’ve written before that I think women are often better leaders than men when times get tough. In Europe, we’re now balancing precariously on a precipice, so I’m keen to put my theory to the test. Even the staunchest feminist will hopefully see that, at this point, it really could go either way.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies