What Holds Women Back from the TIME 100?

Some of this year's female honorees embody the paradox that prevents parity

  • Share
  • Read Later
Cover Photograph by Mark Seliger for TIME

This year, 15-year-old Malala Yousafzai becomes one of the youngest females ever to appear on TIME’s annual list of the world’s 100 most influential people. Like Gabby Giffords and Aung San Suu Kyi — both also on this year’s list — the Pakistani schoolgirl shot last October by Taliban gunmen has come to represent bravery in the teeth of intimidation, optimism in adversity and the paradox of strength in victimhood, the three syllables of her globally famous first name resonating like a melody of hope: Ma-la-la.

Yet the injured activist, now living in England as she recuperates, also reminds us of the persistence of a dangerously stupid idea, one that every year depresses the number of women on the TIME 100: the fear still held by a startlingly large proportion of men that every advance for womankind takes away from their own power. In the past 12 months this idea has seen female progress come under fierce attack, all too literally in the case of Malala and many other girls and women. Some men not only oppose equality laws and initiatives designed to improve the representation of women in parliaments and boardrooms and in other positions of influence that more routinely deliver men than women to the TIME 100; these men also seek to block the entitlement of girls and women to basic human rights such as health care or to deny the parity of educational opportunity that Malala advocates.

(MORE: The 2013 TIME 100)

That parity is essential if women are ever to match men in attainment and influence. In many countries, girls are excluded from primary schooling; two-thirds of illiterate adults are women. But even education to postgraduate level doesn’t give women the earning power of their male equivalents. From sweatshop workers to senior executives, women take home less pay than men. They head a paltry 17 of the world’s 195 countries. They occupy only 19.6% of seats in national legislatures and 10% of seats on the boards of large corporations across the globe.

By contrast, just over a third of this year’s TIME 100 honorees are women — 35, to be exact. The number reflects our desire to highlight female achievement rather than the female condition. And the list provides a useful vehicle for highlighting the diversity of women making a difference, for good and sometimes for ill and sometimes for both. This year’s female honorees as usual include a good smattering of entertainers and icons, vocations more open than others to the fairer sex. But Lena Dunham, Mindy Kaling and Jennifer Lawrence have all helped to expand the range of images of womanhood populating film and television, while Peng Liyuan, one of China’s best known folk singers, is bringing an unusual luster and prominence to the role of First Lady of the rising economic powerhouse. (Her husband Xi Jinping took office as Chinese President in March.) Michelle Obama, also on the list, continues to explore the boundaries of what a First Lady can do, proving herself not only the strongest bulwark of her husband’s influence but using the force of iconography and eloquent interventions to expand her own spheres of influence.

(MORE: TIME Cover Story: Sheryl Sandberg: Don’t Hate Her Because She’s Successful)

The Duchess of Cambridge, a sort of First-Lady-in-waiting, takes fewer risks and says next to nothing. She is, however, the incubator for a historic change that will grant her royal baby, due in July, the same claim to the British throne whether it is a boy or a girl. She sits decorously on the TIME 100 alongside the literary lioness Hilary Mantel, whose measured analysis of the Kate phenomenon was refashioned by British tabloids into a catfight. Both women emerged looking cooler and cleverer than Kate’s defenders.

Female scientists and doctors feature; so do the Chinese tennis star Li Na and four-time U.S. world ski champion Lindsey Vonn, and entrepreneurs Marissa Mayer, Sheryl Sandberg and Roya Mahboob, the visionary founder and CEO of the Afghan Citadel Software Company. There are politicians and public servants and two of those rare female heads of government: Joyce Banda, the first female president of Malawi and Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea.

Park took office in February, amid the skepticism that often attends women who come to prominence through family connections. (Her father was South Korea’s Cold War-era president.) As she wrestles with a crisis provoked by North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, a leader who more obviously personifies the dangers of nepotism, she is challenging reductive views of Asian women but she is also being judged as a woman. How prepared her compatriots are to accept female leadership will help determine how well Park does — and her success or failure will, in turn, shape South Korean attitudes to female leadership.

(MORE: In Defense of Hilary Mantel: Royalty, Fashion and Fertility in the Public Eye)

There is a name you will not find in the 2013 TIME 100: that of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student who was brutally raped and tortured on a New Delhi bus last December and died from her injuries two weeks later. She cannot be identified for legal reasons, and she does not feature here because the TIME 100 is a forward-looking list, a measure not only of past impact but also of future potential, the commodity denied the victim by her attackers. Whether her death, like Malala’s near-fatal shooting, or Giffords’, or Suu Kyi’s imprisonment, may yet bring about lasting and beneficial change will depend on the efforts of women such as Vrinda Grover, a human rights activist and lawyer, cited in this year’s TIME 100 for her contribution to the debate that followed the Delhi rape and for her efforts over many years to reform not just laws but the attitudes that determine the treatment of women in India.

Malala, the human incarnation of the inhuman Nietzschean precept that whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger, has been catapulted to prominence and handed the resources and connections to campaign on a grand scale. Giffords has become the most persuasive voice for greater gun control in the U.S. Suu Kyi, released in 2010 after the best part of two decades under house arrest, now serves as an elected member of Burma’s lower house and part of a government that appears to be navigating cautiously from dictatorship to democracy. Her gain in real power threatens to diminish her symbolic force; speaking more freely, she more often fails to say the things people want to hear. Given space to act, she appears at times strangely passive. The right to imperfection, the right to complexity: these are also rights men tend to hog for themselves.

MORE: Rape in India: A Result of Sex Selection?