Geopolitics

Theresa May And The Global Rise Of Women Political Rulers

Theresa May outside the House of Commons.
Theresa May outside the House of Commons.
Leonid Bershidsky

Now that two of the world's five biggest economies - Germany and Britain - are headed by women, and the biggest one of all, the U.S., has a woman front-runner in its presidential election, the glass ceiling in politics can probably be declared broken, and it's time to consider what kind of change this brings to the world.

The overall statistics of female leadership do not look particularly encouraging. There are fewer women heads of government today than there were last year. Not even 5% of government leaders are women. Yet they are winning where it matters: If there were a way to weight women's influence by the might of the countries they run, the U.S., Germany and Britain would swing the balance in their favor. It's infinitely harder for women to break through to the top in big, fiercely competitive democracies than in smaller countries like the Nordics and the Baltic states, which have provided most female government leaders in recent years. And it's doubly hard for a woman to reach high office in a country with a conservative Catholic tradition like Poland - where Beata Szydlo is currently prime minister. Besides, in a number of other powerful nations women are important opposition figures or strategically placed one day to take over the leadership of governing parties.

Adding to the collective clout of Merkel, May and, potentially, Clinton, some important nations that aren't run by women have women strategically placed one day to take over the leadership of governing parties or win high office as strong opposition figures.

In Britain, Prime Minister Theresa May won the position after another woman, Andrea Leadsom, dropped out of the race for Conservative Party leadership.

In Germany, Julia Kloeckner is seen as a potential successor to Chancellor Angela Merkel, as is Ursula von der Leyen, the current defense minister. In Portugal, Assuncao Cristas is the first woman to lead the conservative party and the face of the country's center-right opposition. In Spain, Soraya Saenz de Santamaria has long been Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy"s second in command; though she's seen as a technocrat rather than a politician, she has been indispensable to the center-right Popular Party. In Britain, Angela Eagle is a contender for the top post in the Labour Party, and the Scottish Nationalist Party is run by Nicola Sturgeon, who may yet preside over another Scottish bid to leave the U.K.

Women, of course, have attained political heights before, but many of those were from political families or clans that were part of their countries' business elite. The current generation of leaders is different. Merkel and May are the daughters of pastors. Clinton"s father was a small businessman. Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydlo comes from a miner's family. Most of the opposition figures do not have an elite background, either -- Kloeckner's family are vintners, Eagle and Sturgeon come from working-class stock. Von der Leyen was perhaps the only one born into the political establishment: Her father was a senior eurocrat.

Some common characteristics of past women leaders still hold, though. Women of high political attainment tend to have few children. May, Merkel, Sturgeon, Kloeckner and Eagle have no children; Clinton and Saenz de Santamaria have one child each. Szydlo has two. Cristas and von der Leyen are exceptions, with four and seven kids, respectively.

The most striking similarity among the current crop of women leaders, however, is that they are mostly conservative, non-ideological and compromise-oriented. May is a star example: She was a mild supporter of the "remain" camp but is willing to make a success of Brexit. Merkel, Szydlo, Saenz de Santamaria, Clinton -- all of them are known for being flexible, versed in the workings of political machines and skilled, common-sense negotiators. No firebrands. Even Eagle, far from being a political conservative, has a Blairite past that some Labour supporters begrudge her: She served in the Blair and Brown governments, and she voted for the Iraq war.

This seems to support the (disputed) stereotype that women are more risk-averse than men. None of the current women leaders is a habitual risk-taker -- Merkel surprised everyone last year when she threw Germany's doors open to refugees, but even that wasn't a political gamble but rather a moral imperative for the preacher's daughter, who has since used her formidable political skills to scale back the initial generosity. That might explain why women have finally reached the top of the political hierarchy in some of the world's most powerful nations, but not the top positions in the world's biggest companies. Just as among world leaders, fewer than 5% of S&P 500 chief executives are women -- but not one of them leads a top-10 company by market capitalization.

Risk is more acceptable in business, and it is often required to stay at the top. In politics, especially in these contentious times, the ability to try for consensus and settle for a compromise is a more essential skill. Clinton has stressed this during her campaign while uncompromising Bernie Sanders was her rival. Merkel has proved to be an unsurpassed master of the deal that imposes equal pain on all sides; she's not loved for it, but arguably, nobody else would be as effective. May is known for being steadfast and even stubborn, but her very rise is based on a compromise, and her career depends on making it work.

Empathy and flexibility, in various combinations, are the qualities that have helped these women beat men at their own game. They haven't shown much flash or charisma, but they've been practical, resilient, patient.

These qualities are not essentially or universally feminine, of course, and nor are risk-aversion and a lack of showmanship. There are different paths to success for women. Virginia Raggi, who recently became Rome's youngest ever mayor and who is seen as a threat to establishment politicians such as Prime Minister Matteo Renzi (who ran a smaller city before taking top office), is as charismatic as they come, and she's a populist from the irreverent Five Star Movement. Marine Le Pen, the scourge of France's political elite, is a rabble-rouser and a risk-taker who loves a scrap.

The general rule, though, appears to be that women are called on to lead when division is too bitter and men are prone to turning every discussion into a contest of wills. Merkel, May, Clinton are tough women -- but they prioritize getting the job done.

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Society

Debt Trap: Why South Korean Economics Explains Squid Game

Crunching the numbers of South Korea's personal and household debt offers a glimpse into what drives the win-or-die plot of the Netflix hit produced in the Asian country.

In the Netflix series, losers of the game face death

Yip Wing Sum

-Analysis-

SEOUL — The South Korean series Squid Game has become the most viewed series on Netflix, watched by over 111 million viewers and counting. It has also generated a wave of debate online and off about its provocative message about contemporary life.

The plot follows the story of a desperate man in debt, who receives a mysterious invitation to play a game in which the contestants gamble their lives on six childhood games, with the winner awarded a prize of 45.6 billion won ($38 million)... while the losers face death.


It's a plot that many have noted is not quite as surreal as it sounds, a reflection of the reality of Korean society today mired in personal debt.

Seoul housing prices top London and New York

In the polished streets of downtown Seoul, one sees endless cards and coupons advertising loans scattered on the ground. Since the outbreak of the pandemic, as the demand for loans in South Korea has exploded, lax lending policies have led to a rapid increase in personal debt.

According to the South Korean Central Bank's "Monetary Credit Policy Report," household debt reached 105% of GDP in the first quarter of this year, equivalent to approximately $1.5 trillion at the end of March, with a major share tied up in home mortgages.

Average home loans are equivalent to 270% of annual income.

One reason behind the debts is the soaring housing prices. In Seoul, home to nearly half of the country's population, housing prices are now among the highest in the world. The price to income ratio (PIR), which weighs the average price of a home to the average annual household income, is 12.04 in Seoul, compared to 8.4 in San Francisco, 8.2 in London and 5.4 in New York.

According to the Korea Real Estate Commission, 42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s. For those in their 30s, the average amount borrowed is equivalent to 270% of their annual income.

Playing the stock market

At the same time, the South Korean stock market is booming. The increased demand to buy stocks has led to an increase in other loans such as credit. The ratio for Korean shareholders conducting credit financing, i.e. borrowing from securities companies to secure stock holdings, had reached 21.4 trillion won ($17.7 billion), further increasing the indebtedness of households.

A 30-year-old Seoul office worker who bought stocks through various forms of borrowing was interviewed by Reuters this year, and said he was "very foolish not to take advantage of the rebound."

In addition to his 100 million won ($84,000) overdraft account, he also took out a 100 million won loan against his house in Seoul, and a 50 million won stock pledge. All of these demands on the stock market have further exacerbated the problem of household debt.

42.1% of all home purchases in January 2021 were by young Koreans in their 20s and 30s

Simon Shin/SOPA Images/ZUMA

Game of survival

In response to the accumulating financial risks, the Bank of Korea has restricted the release of loans and has announced its first interest rate hike in three years at the end of August.

But experts believe that even if banks cut loans or raise interest rates, those who need money will look for other ways to borrow, often turning to more costly institutions and mechanisms.

This all risks leading to what one can call a "debt trap," one loan piling on top of another. That brings us back to the plot of Squid Game, "Either you live or I do." South Korean society has turned into a game of survival.

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