Getting into positions of power still isn’t enough for women to be seen, as the latest #sofagate controversy sadly proves.
Arriving at the European Council Building for the EU-Africa summit last week, Ugandan foreign minister, General Jeje Odongo confidently moved to shake the hands of the two men who were standing to greet him.
In doing so, he breezed past Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, who was first in the line-up.
Gender equality is one of the core values of the 🇪🇺— Óscar Rodríguez Fernández 🇺🇦🕊 (@rguezfdezoscar) February 18, 2022
Discrimination against women has no place in Europe.
My sincere support to @vonderleyen, victim of sexism in public for the second time.
No excuse, @eucopresident! #Sofagate pic.twitter.com/tC8ndIZBKj
The squirming, sickly feeling of being overlooked is one every woman will have experienced at some point in her career; it’s generally followed by an overwhelming surge of rage that heats the back of the neck.
Hours, days, and even years later, we replay the scene in our minds, wishing we hadn’t just stood there, hadn’t just pretended it was OK. We also wish the other men present had called it out.
As some of the press photographers broke into uncomfortable laughter, Ms von der Leyen handled the situation like the true professional she is.
She watched on as, after nodding politely at the politician, she was bypassed. She didn’t as much as flinch as he shook hands with European Council president Charles Michel and French president Emmanuel Macron, before posing for a group photo.
It was not until Macron, after many awkward seconds, pointed Odongo in the direction of the head of the commission, that he finally acknowledged her, but didn’t shake her hand.
Ms von der Leyen has been left in a similar position before.
After last week’s gaffe, many who recycled the #sofagate hashtag on social media took aim not only at Odongo but at Michel, who passively stood by as his colleague was macho snubbed.
The #sofagate hashtag, of course, refers to the first snub, which involved Michel, as well as Turkey's president Recip Tayyip Erdogan.
Ms Von der Leyen, whose diplomatic rank is the same as that of the two men, was left without a chair when the three political heavyweights met in Ankara in April last year and was forced to sit on a sofa on the periphery of the discussion.
Again, Michel stood by and let sexism win out.
European Commission President Von der Leyen humiliated during visit to Erdogan— Darya Safai MP (@SafaiDarya) April 7, 2021
And yet again Europe is bowing to a regime that violates women's rights
It’s shameful how Europe repeatedly allows itself to be made a fool & missed opportunity to show what our values are#SofaGate pic.twitter.com/ohVy5rnEr6
Ms von der Leyen did not mince her words when addressing the European Parliament shortly afterwards and described how she had felt “hurt” and “left alone” during the incident, which “happened because I am a woman”.
“The female members of this house, I am sure, know exactly how I felt.”
Of course they identified with her words. It’s a shameful reality that women in positions of authority and influence are too often mistaken as the secretary, the assistant, or the ‘tea lady’.
Ms von der Leyen continued: “I felt hurt and left alone, as a woman and as a European. Because this is not about seating arrangements or protocol. This goes to the core of who we are.
“This goes to the values our union stands for. And this shows how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals. Always, and everywhere.”
President @vonderleyen calls out those who are discriminating against women!— EPP Group (@EPPGroup) April 26, 2021
What happened in Ankara is not acceptable and should not be repeated against any woman anywhere in Europe, or elsewhere in the world.#Turkey #EPlenary #EUCO #GenderEquality #Sofagate pic.twitter.com/DyKmjin8eF
It was therefore disappointing that the commission yesterday moved to dismiss the latest incident in which Ms von der Leyen was again overlooked.
Asked about the awkward moment, commission chief spokesman Eric Mamer said: “Who said that there was an incident? Did you hear the European Commission say there was an incident? Absolutely not.
While diplomacy may have been a factor in the response, the commission’s move to downplay the incident sends out a clear message that women should continue to put up and shut up, even when they occupy leadership roles.
The Reykjavik Index, which assesses attitudes towards female leadership, highlights how far we have to travel in tackling entrenched prejudice towards female leaders across 23 economic sectors globally.
Included in the survey are the G7 countries — Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Britain, and the US — as well as India, Kenya, Nigeria, and South Africa.
The 2021 research found societal attitudes have stalled in views of gender equality in leadership and, for the third successive year, the index for the G7 group of countries was stagnant on a score of 73. An index value of 100 would indicate a consensus across society that women and men are equally suited for leadership.
There are also countless studies demonstrating how men continue to leapfrog women into management roles.
Research published by Kelly Shue, a law professor at Yale Law School, found that more than half of entry-level workers (56%) at a large American retail chain are women.
But fewer and fewer women make it up the next rungs on the ladder, with women accounting for 48% of department managers, 35% of store managers, and just 14% of district managers.
“What is commonly talked about in terms of management and potential are characteristics such as assertiveness, execution skills, charisma, leadership, ambition,” said Shue.
Given how hard women often have to battle to be even considered for promotion, it’s particularly infuriating to see that when they do reach the top of their professions, in the eyes of some they still wear a cloak of invisibility.
As Ms von der Leyen told EU politicians after the #sofagate incident: “I am the first woman to be president of the European Commission. I am the president of the European Commission.
“And this is how I expected to be treated when visiting Turkey two weeks ago — like a commission president — but I was not.”