Changing the Face of Politics Podcast

Episode 8: Fauziya Abdi Ali interviews Vera Jourová

In the eighth episode of the series, Fauziya Abdi Ali, President and Founder of Women in International Security in the Horn of Africa, interviews Vera Jourová, the Vice President of the European Union for Values and Transparency, about the successes and challenges for women’s political participation in Europe.






Introduction: Welcome to the National Democratic Institute's Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. In these candid conversations recorded from home, politically active women from around the globe interview each other about the male dominated world of politics. They're the best examples of why we need to move faster to reach political parity between men and women before the middle of the next century, and change the face of politics. In the eighth episode of the series, you will hear Fauziya Abdi Ali interview Vera Jourova, the Vice President of the European Union for Values and Transparency, about the successes and challenges for women’s political participation in Europe. 

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Hello. Welcome to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics podcast series by NDI. My name is Fauziya Abdi Ali and I am the President of Women in International Security in the Horn of Africa. We have a really good guest today, the Vice President Vera Jourová, who is the Vice President of the European Union for Values and Transparency. Welcome, Vera. 

Vera Jourová: Thank you very much. Thank you for inviting me. 

Fauziya Abdi Ali: So we will start off from what has been happening in the past couple of months. And this is the issue of COVID in particular. Has the COVID-19 crisis influenced your political views in any way? 

Vera Jourová: Well, we see that COVID-19 as a horrible thing, which we have to manage. Definitely we have to manage in a fair way, that the price for COVID will not be paid only by some. And this is about the asymmetric impact of COVID. While we clearly see that the groups of citizens, the parts of the society which already was in handicap position and with some kind of vulnerability, is now under even bigger pressure. It is not a surprise. COVID-19 has amplified everything - everything negative, but also positive, we have to speak about the digital revolution, which has been somehow pushed forward. So, we obviously see that in COVID-19 the need to to come with the policy which will decrease the burdens on some, especially, we speak to here about the women. So decrease the burdens on women and children and on everybody who is in vulnerable position, is a very key challenge and also imperative for our policies. 

And this is especially, this is exactly what we try to do in the European Union, because, as you know, we have - as you might know, we have been in the final stage of adopting the new budget for the next seven years, which includes big amount of money to decrease the negative impact of COVID-19 crisis. And that is a very important chapter, which deals with social impact and which also encourages all of us to come with the policies which will stabilize the situation in which you will help the people in need. We have done - we have to do a lot more things because what we see is the increase of domestic violence, which is again, of course turning against women and children. And when I say we, I mean men and women who are in the politics, and here comes our issue, that we still have in some parts of Europe politics as the almost purely domain of man, and the imbalanced politics, which is not reflecting the way of thinking and the needs of the women is I think very dangerous, especially in these times because now too much is at stake, the crisis is shaking all of us, and we need to promise the proper political response.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Interesting that you bring out the issue of imbalanced politics and the way it's also impacting women in particular. And the fact that in some instances, even the needs of women aren't necessarily met. You talk about the fact that there is policies that need to be put in place when looking at the issue of COVID. And one of the criticism that has always been put across now with various countries, looking at the stimulus packages, they seem to not necessarily have a gender lens to see what phase it can cover both men and women during this crisis. This year, we are celebrating 25 years of, you know, Beijing Conference and Platform for Action. What do you think, especially as a woman in political leadership and decision-making, has changed when it comes to issues of women? And what do you think, especially now with the issue of COVID, has stubbornly stayed the same

Vera Jourová: Yeah, let me say one last sentence on COVID. We, what we see is, the reality is that the women are often in frontline jobs in the healthcare and care sectors and shops selling essential goods, as well as in part-time and precarious jobs in the sectors most affected by the economic crisis. That's why we need to take proper decisions. Also to understand the role of women and support them in it because they are working for the whole society. And they also often face the heaviest share of the childcare and homeschooling burden during school closure. So the role of women in COVID is extremely important and we must not neglect their needs because it would not be only unfair, it would be very short-sighted. On your question. 

Well women - 25 years after Beijing Agreement, we saw some progress in the right direction. Many countries worldwide codified women's rights and implemented gender quotas for elected office, which helps to encourage the women to get to the decision-making position. However, progress has been slowed and uneven around the world with less than a handful of countries achieving gender balance in parliaments today. European Union is not an exception. We see some champions, the Scandinavian countries are traditional champions in putting women first, for a very good reason, and with very good results. When you look at how stable and prosperous the Scandinavian countries are, well, I believe this is the merit of the balanced decision-making. So let's take it as a good example. If we, if we have time, we have some, I have some figures for Europe here. 

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yeah, please go ahead.

Vera Jourová: I always say that the European Union is a good address for the women, but there is a but. We still, we are not there yet. So average EU last year figures, 22.5% in participation of women in lower houses of the parliaments. Only 7% of the member states achieved gender balanced coverage, which is, which we account around or above the 40%. 39% of women in local assemblies. The smaller the towns, the more the women. Like us, they are universal. The bigger the towns, the more men because they are women to work around that. Sorry, but sometimes I have to be a little bit politically incorrect. We have 31% of senior ministers in the member states governments. Nine member states, at this moment, have a gender-balanced government - so it means more than 40% of women. We have 14% prime ministers. We have fantastic women leaders in Europe. We have Angela Merkel. Whenever I see only men around the table, I am very nervous. And when, for instance, the memory of the crisis in Ukraine, there were negotiations in Minsk and there were only men around the table. I remember the relief when Angela Merkel entered the room, because I knew that she will bring the necessary approach, which will pay full attention to the needs of the people, very good understanding of what good compromise is in the interest of people,, somebody who will offer cooperation instead of confrontation. You know, these are the elements which we women always come with when it comes to political debate. We have fantastic women and leadership in Finland. We have the new president in Slovakia, Zuzana Čaputová. We now, when we look around, Kamala Harris, this is quite a hope.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Absolutely, good hope.

Vera Jourová: I'm really happy. We have Greta Thunberg. We have also, you have to mention Malala Yousafzai. A great example of somebody who is fighting a real battle for education for women and children and for emancipation of women in pretty dangerous environments. So, fantastic examples of fantastic leadership. And I think that we will do the best thing to encourage women, not to convince the men to empty the space for women, no. To encourage the women, to harvest opportunity, to go for it and not to wait for somebody to give her some, I don't know, a helping hand is fine, but it should not be something which will degrade the self-confidence of the women. We can be very self-confident. I, dear Fauziya, I forgot the question, which is always the case when I'm getting emotional.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: It is really fine because we get to see your passions when it comes to issues of political leadership, which brings me to a question about you. What motivates you to get politically involved? I see the passion around, you know, having all the great women that you've been talking about, giving us examples, you've even cited young women in your examples, Greta and others, but what really motivates you, Vera? That will be interesting for everyone to hear you as a political leader. What motivates you?

Vera Jourová: I always have to get upset properly to go and do something. But yeah, my career was very, very stable. I worked first for the city as a city manager, then for the region, then for the state as a minister. And then I ended up in the European politics and European Commission. My inner compass was put in sight, maybe you will be surprised, by my father. Maybe it's because he wanted me to be a boy. But he was always encouraging me to study to be courageous and to act when I see injustice. And he was really a very strong driver for me. He died 30 years ago, so he never saw me in politics. But whenever I am going to take some important decision, I go to the cemetery to consult with him because I really need to get some energy still from him, even after 30 years. So I was a very bad entrepreneur, because for me, the motivation to make money was never strong enough to engage fully. So, but this was, this was a useful experience to go step by step because when we work in politics we simply have to work for the people and with the people and to have first the experience in the municipality. It was a very good time for fine tuning of how the communication should look like.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: So you actually served as the EU Commissioner for Justice, Consumers, and Gender Equality. Let's talk about what are your thoughts on gender equality and democracy? What do you - how do these two work together in your mind?

Vera Jourová: Well I think democracy is the best system ever, which the people invented to have peaceful and prosperous life, where everybody should have the same value of the voice. And we are not there yet. Because what we see, also I got the European figures. Women are more than 50% of European population. 60% of university graduates are women. I told you the figure as for the representation in politics.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yes.

Vera Jourová: 5% of CEOs, but you didn't ask about maybe so much about business. 16% average pay gap. And I can continue. And it is amazing that we are still not able to get rid of this heritage of the past.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Why is that though?

Vera Jourová: Having that, having the chance to go and vote and go and be voted. So I think that in democracy, in modern democracy we should all do everything to encourage the women to go to decision-making positions, to forget about all that past bias, to be self-confident enough to have a clear goal, to have convincing arguments. Because the men when they go to politics, this is what I notice. They have a tendency to sell and promote themselves. 

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yes. 

Vera Jourová: When we go to politics, we are promoting the ideas rather than ourselves. We should make it a strength instead of weakness. And without achieving the balance in decision-making positions, our democracy will always have some critical features like imbalance, biased decision-making, unfairness. So of course we have to act together to encourage the women to take a stronger voice. We are trying to finance projects in Europe to encourage women to study technical subjects at school, to get paid positions in IT sector, but we are also encouraging the young women to enter the politics, especially at the, first at the municipal and regional level. Some parties are introducing the quotas for the women, which sometimes work, sometimes not because it is also, it's not welcomed everywhere because quota in some parts of European Union is seen as the unnecessary, how to say, artificial support. So there are many ways to encourage people to get better positioning in positions, in politics. We desperately need them.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yeah. One of the arguments, every time I talk to women who are trying to run for office, or are actually running for office, or even business, and so on, is they say women too are barriers to other women. Women sometimes don't vote for other women if they need to vote for other women, they still, other than the women who constantly go out and actually talk about the fact that gender equality is important, especially in a democratic space, there are those who still feel as women that gender equality is not as important. How do we bring all women on board, for one? And then secondly, there's also the issue that we talk to each other. They say sometimes we are engaging in our own silos, and that is why the agenda around women issues is not moving as fast as we want it to move. How do we improve that? Would really like to hear your take on those two issues. 

Vera Jourová: I think it requires continuous effort to get out of the bubble And it is more difficult now when we, you are my beloved bubble, I am happy to be with you. But you feel it yourself that we are kind of speaking with the convinced ones. And maybe there will be some unconvinced ones who will listen to the podcast and they will say Jourová is either naive or fanatic. I don’t want to be neither of those. I would like to stand both feet on the ground and keep promoting the logical and obvious things. That if we do not have women in decision-making positions there will be something important missing. I already - for the balance, the development and for achieving fairness and some kind of balance in distribution of fairness in the society. We have some member states in the EU where it is a kind of a shame to get the helping hand. I come from such country. When I speak about the quotass in my country, it has a very sharp reaction. And it's maybe because of the communist past. That the communist woman, she was a heroine. Yeah? She, there was a declared equality, only declared one, but it demands that the women had to retain all the family duties, and on top of that, they have to work as much as the men to make the money for living. And was it, was it equality? Well, but we were taught in the society, that are educated in the society when complaints were seen as weakness, as something inappropriate. Yeah, so there are big cultural biases and traditions, and also it is connected with how the churches are strong in each society. So it's a very complex issue. And the first question was?

Fauziya Abdi Ali: So encouraging other women to support other women.

Vera Jourová: The examples are important. I think that they should have also some certainty that the society will help you, will help them if they want. For instance what we see in the last 10 years with what is growing is hate speech online against women who want to engage in politics. It's not about only against the politicians. It's about the journalists, about the women judges, we see it everywhere. So I think that there should be more efficient help of the society - the legal aid, also the action of law enforcement side. Yeah, because this is a crime to attack somebody and to incite violence against concrete people, this is a crime, or might be qualified as crime, so there should be crime and punishment also in online world. And so I think that the society is still not doing enough to support the women and to give them more certainty that if they engage in public matters, they will not face the danger them and their families because the women are never alone. Yeah. I remember very well, how difficult for me was to start the political career, but I always was aware that there are my children will suffer, but they are not complaining. They are encouraging me.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: So are you optimistic about, like in the next 10 years, that we probably will have even an increased acceleration of more women joining political leadership?

Vera Jourová: I don't want to paint a gloomy picture, but we will see in some parts of Europe and in the world a lot of backsliding. And under the headline of, let's come to the traditional values.Which the people want. Part of the society is so nervous about the quick changes, the digital revolution, and now COVID, that they have a tendency to believe those who are promising good, old, normal. But old normal was not good for women. That's why we have to be aware of these tendencie, do not underestimate them, and to everybody who can do something against that should go and do that. And it's not only about women activists, it's about the women in all decision-making positions. I remember a lot of interesting discussions with the few, but very strong women who are nowadays the captains of industry, who have also influence. We have to join forces and work continuously for new, good normal. And the COVID is a real misery, which is now endangering all of us, but it could be also a chance to start something new. And we adopted the gender strategy, which is focusing on several important priorities. And we mean it seriously in Europe that we have to join forces and not to come back to the 19th century.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: I think that's really well said. Especially looking at the fact that we have new opportunities that can be harnessed now even though we are within a pandemic to actually push for the gender equality and democracy.

Vera Jourová: By the way, after the financial crisis. 

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Yes. 

Vera Jourová: Can you imagine much more or many more women entrepreneurs started to do the business because they could harvest the opportunity? I think the flexibility and dynamism is very strong on the side of the women to understand the opportunity and to go for it. And also the companies which had in the leadership, the women, they sniffed earlier the crisis coming and they took measures. So I think that the women are great survivors in the times of crisis. And I don't want to sound prophetic or naive that I believe that this crisis could push us forward, let's all do what we can. I know you wanted to end it up. So, thank you.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: No, absolutely that gives it a really good ending because I too am a strong believer that yes, women did step up during this pandemic. Actually I go around saying when people are doing what we call a me first approach, we need to really protect ourselves and not do anything. Women were stepping up trying to innovate and find ways to, you know, encourage people to actually support others, create communities where people can engage and not only just provide the initial services, but also looking at mental health in particular, like, you know, the connectivity that is really important, especially in this day and age where we can't even meet and hug as we used to before. So we probably would have been doing this in person, and now we have to this online. So thank you. Thank you very, very much. This has been a really interesting conversation and I look forward to continuing to engage and good luck as you take on such a really, really tough agenda. And I do look at things optimistically that they will be a change coming soon, especially ensuring that women still and the gender equality per se is still going to be achieved in one way or the other in the next coming years. 

Vera Jourová: This world desperately needs active women to achieve the cure. So let's keep the fingers crossed and thank you very much. Thank you, Fauziya.

Fauziya Abdi Ali: Thank you.

Closing: Thank you for tuning in to this episode of the Changing the Face of Politics Podcast Series. To learn more about the series and NDI's initiative, please go to NDI's website at 

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