At the end of 2019, 34 year old Sanna Marin became the Prime Minister of Finland and the youngest government leader in the world.
Marin was selected as leader of the Social Democrats, the largest party in Finland’s five-party governing coalition. Even more impressive, four of these five parties are now led by women under the age of 35.
This is no small achievement. Finland and other Nordic countries have had comparatively better representation of women in politics for years and remain strides ahead of many other nations. However, when it comes to the intersection of age and gender many countries, including Australia, are lagging.
The absence of young people in public decision-making is not unique to Australia, nor is it only a challenge in the political space. I recently attended a global meeting of not for profit organisations focused on the empowerment of girls and young women. Given this intention, I was surprised (and a little disheartened) by the ageism present in some of the discussions, especially in an environment that should have been a safe space for youth leadership. This was topped off by a text I received from a friend last week reading “Finland has a 34 year old Prime Minister?! I’m so amazed and impressed…I feel like there’s such a culture of young people don’t know anything in Australia. This is amazing.”
Now, it’s no surprise that our politics here in Australia continues to overwhelmingly attract and celebrate a particular profile, with the majority of politicians being older and male. Of course we do have some exceptions to the rule – until recently the ACT legislative assembly was majority female and at the Federal election in May, we saw the election of a Senate which was 50% female. However, something remains missing: the voices of young people, young women in particular.
In Australia, we continue to emphasise the connection between age and wisdom. Not only does this overlook the expertise of younger Australians, but it also means that our public institutions – the bodies designed to represent us and make policies for our wellbeing and future – do not include nor reflect our voices or experiences, with the idea that people older than us know better. Too often, young women remain excluded from these decision-making spaces.
Already, we’re seeing young people – and young women in particular – lead the way. We’ve seen young women on the forefront of the protests in Lebanon, holding the government to account for being slow to reform. We’ve seen young women overwhelmingly lead the climate marches and the climate movement globally, spurred on by the incredible passion of Greta Thunberg, a young woman who’s become synonymous with the climate movement. In the US, we have seen Emma Gonzalez leading a series of gun reform protests after her friends were killed in a mass shooting Parkland, Florida. Since 2013, we have followed the work of Malala Yousafzai on the forefront on the campaign for gender equality. And here in Australia, we’ve seen leadership from girls and young women including – but in no way limited to – Amelia Telford, Georgie Stone, Sally Rugg, Renee Carr and countless others.
Yet the leadership of young women continues to largely exist in civil society and informal spaces, overlooked by formal systems which pre-select, hire and promote on “merit” – a system which has been challenged repeatedly, which favours and encourages traditionally masculine characteristics, and which generally sees higher ups (still largely older and male) promote people who exist in their image. Studies have shown the traditional merit system does not promote diversity, and after all, how can we make policies for the population if our public institutions fail to reflect us as a community?
It’s not to say young people know everything, we don’t. Frankly, we would be kidding ourselves if we said we knew even a fraction of everything – but the same is true for people of all ages.
This is why it’s absolutely key to work with young people (particularly young women, who experience the double marginalisation of both their age and gender) in intergenerational partnership, recognising their skills, value-add and abilities as leaders while supporting them to reach their full potential and be able to contribute fully as recognised leaders in formal decision-making structures as well as civil society.
So, please, stop referring to young people as the leaders of tomorrow. We are the leaders of today – just ask Finland. Yes, the future is ours, but so is the present. It is crucial to have young women at the table lending their voices to decisions that impact their future. Embrace our participation, celebrate our value add and you never know, you might even learn a thing or two.
Ashleigh Streeter is a youth activist and award winning gender equality advocate. She’s been named in the Forbes 30 Under 30 Asia, a 2019 100 Woman of Influence and the ACT Woman of the Year 2018. She tweets at @ashstreeterrrr