For decades, women have played a defining role in shaping the history of humankind. Not only have they contributed to science, politics and arts, but also triggered social changes by championing human rights and causes of equality. Thanks to their pioneering efforts, the 20th century witnessed the emergence of female role models such as Marie Curie, Indira Gandhi, Virginia Woolf and Mother Teresa among many others who continue to serve as inspiration for generations that have followed since.
Today, we have the likes of Kamala Harris, Tsai Ing-wen, Naomi Osaka, Sarah Al-Amiri — a few of the many women who have won the respect of the international community with inspiring leadership and achievements in their respective fields. Whether it’s showing how to effectively fight a pandemic, restoring peace in a polarised democracy, triggering important social movements or charting a new course in space exploration, here are some female world leaders who are giving us hope for a better tomorrow.
Kamala Harris, Vice President, US
Kamala Harris has been a trailblazer in US politics. She was the district attorney general of San Francisco from 2004 to 2011 and attorney general of California from 2011 to 2016; and she is the first woman and the first African American to hold both posts. During this period, she made headlines for criminal justice reforms.
A member of the Democratic Party, Harris became only the second African American woman Senator in US history when she won the election from California in 2016.
As her political profile increased, she threw her hat in the ring in the Democratic Party Presidential primaries. When Biden emerged as the Democratic nominee, he picked Harris as his running mate. The party won the elections and on January 20, 2021, Harris took oath as the 49th Vice-President of the United States of America. In doing so, she became the first woman, first African American and first Asian American to take office as V-P of the world’s oldest democracy. After her swearing-in, she also became the highest-ranking female official in US history.
Jacinda Ardern, Prime Minister, New Zealand
Jacinda Ardern joined the Labour Party at the young age of 17 in 1999. Soon after graduating, she began working for the offices of Labour MP Phil Goff and, subsequently, Prime Minister Helen Clark. In 2008, she entered parliament as the youngest member of the House of Representatives as a list candidate from her party.
As her profile rose within the party, Ardern was elected its deputy leader in March 2017 and five months later became the leader when Andrew Little resigned. At the age of 37, she took oath as the world’s youngest female head of government at the time and the youngest Prime Minister of New Zealand since 1856 after her party formed a coalition government with Green Party and New Zealand First following the 2017 general election.
In 2018, she became only the second elected prime minister in the world (after Pakistan’s Benazir Bhutto) to give birth while in office. As prime minister, she was praised globally for her empathic leadership in the aftermath of the Christchurch mosque shooting in 2019 as she denounced right-wing terror, imposed a ban on military-style rifles and showed support for the family members of the victims.
Recently, she has won plaudits for her successful handling of the COVID-19 pandemic. On June 8, 2020, the country was the first in the world to declare itself free of coronavirus. Though few cases have since re-emerged, the island nation has managed the crisis better than many others. This helped Ardern’s party win by a landslide in the elections held in October last year. As the Labour won 50 percent of the vote — a first for any party since 1951, Ardern took oath as prime minister for a second term on November 6.
Tsai Ing-wen, President, Taiwan
The Taiwanese President has been universally hailed for her outstanding handling of the coronavirus crisis. Taiwan went without a locally transmitted Covid-19 case for 255 days — a world record — between April 12 to December 22, 2020. She received praise for her leadership and governments of countries such as New Zealand have cited Taiwan as an example of how to successfully combat the disease.
Tsai, a PhD in Law from the London School of Economics and Political Science, is a former professor. She served as the Chief Legal Advisor from 1992 to 2000 during the period when Taiwan was bidding to join the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), which eventually led to the country becoming a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2002.
After serving in various advisory roles for the development of cross-strait relations, Tsai joined the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in 2004. Rising through the ranks, she became the first woman to chair a major political party in the country when she was elected the leader of DPP in 2008.
In 2012, she became the first female presidential candidate in Taiwan’s history. Four years later, Tsai was inaugurated as the country’s first female president after her party’s victory in the polls. With that, she also became the first female head of the state in Asia not born into a political family. Due to her phenomenal leadership, she won the 2020 presidential election with 8.17 million votes — the highest in Taiwan’s history.
Angela Merkel, Chancellor, Germany
The first female Chancellor of Germany, Angela Merkel has been in power since 2005 and is seen as the de facto leader of the European Union due to her country’s economic clout that she helped build.
Raised in East Germany, her political career started in the 1960s with state youth groups. After the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, she joined a new political group known as the Democratic Awakening. Her party was a member of the coalition government of Lothar de Maizière of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) which came to power in East Germany’s only free elections in 1990. She then became the deputy spokesperson of the government.
In August the same year, Merkel became a member of the CDU. Ten years later, she became its first female and non-Catholic head. She became the first woman ever to hold the office after she took over as the Chancellor in 2005.
She has been widely hailed by economists for helping the country steer through the euro-zone debt crisis and is being praised for her role in managing the Covid-19 pandemic better than many other nations. Merkel also played a defining role during the European migrant crisis by allowing over a million refugees, mostly from Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq, seek shelter in Germany between 2015 and 2016.
The third longest-serving Chancellor in German history after Prince Otto von Bismarck and Helmut Kohl, Merkel announced in 2018 that she won’t seek a fifth term. She topped Forbes’ list of the World’s 100 Most Powerful Women for the 10th consecutive time in 2020 and was also included in Time magazine’s 100 Most Influential People of 2020.
Nicke Widyawati, CEO of Pertamina, Indonesia
An engineer by training, Widyawati is the CEO of Pertamina — Indonesia’s state-owned oil and gas company. Appointed in 2018, she is the second female director of the company (after Karen Agustiawan).
Under her leadership, in 2019, Pertamina earned US$55 billion (approximately RM226 billion) in revenue and US$2.5 billion (approximately RM10 billion) in net profit. The company has over 32,000 employees around the world. In 2020, the government expressed its confidence in her leadership and signalled that she will be at the helm of Pertamina’s transition into a holding company with publicly listed subsidiaries over the next two years.
Fortune’s 2020 list named her the 16th most powerful woman in the world. Responding to the honour, Widyawati said, “The challenge of the future of energy is near, and we are still prioritising service for the nation, community service, and answering the global energy challenge. This position is the result of the hard work of all elements in Pertamina along with the support of all stakeholders and the Indonesian nation.”
She featured at number 25 in Forbes’ Power Women list the same year.
Ho Ching, Singapore
When Ho Ching was appointed the CEO of government-owned holding company Temasek in 2004, its portfolio, mostly in Singapore, stood at Singaporean $90 billion (approximately RM275 billion). Under her leadership, it has reached over Singaporean $300 billion (approximately RM919 billion) today.
Ho played a crucial role in transforming the company from a local investment major to a global investment giant. The company now holds assets in China (29 percent of the portfolio), Singapore (24 percent) and North America (17 percent).
Ho has had a long career in the business and financial world starting in 1976 when she joined Defence Engineering Service at Singapore’s Ministry of Defence. She was the president and CEO of Singapore Technologies group from 1997 to 2001 and the founding chairman of Singapore Technologies Engineering from 1997 till 2002 — the year she joined Temasek as the director.
She had originally planned to step down in 2009 but continued in her role after the CEO-designate, Charles Goodyear, decided not to take over the mantle.
Ho, who is the wife of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, will now retire from her post and also step down from the Temasek board on October 1, 2021.
Rihanna, Singer and Entrepreneur, US
One of the world’s most famous performers, the multihyphenated star is a nine-time Grammy Award winner. Apart from music, she also has acting credit in films such as Battleship (2012), This Is the End (2013) and Ocean’s 8 (2018).
Born in St. Michael, Barbados, as Robyn Rihanna Fenty, she was appointed “ambassador extraordinary and plenipotentiary” of her country in 2018 and has been actively involved in the promotion of investment, education and tourism on the island.
Rihanna is also a successful businesswoman. In 2017, she launched her own cosmetics brand — Fenty Beauty. Two years later, she partnered with LVMH Moët Hennessy — Louis Vuitton to launch the Fenty fashion line. This made her the first woman of colour to head a fashion house at LVMH. Her Savage X Fenty lingerie line posted revenue growth of over 200 percent last year and reached US$1 billion in valuation in February 2021.
In 2020, she donated more than US$8 million (approximately RM32 million) to coronavirus relief efforts. According to Forbes, she has also made contributions worth millions of dollars through her Clara Lionel Foundation to help the poor, abuse victims and other charities.
Oprah Winfrey, Media mogul, US
The renowned television personality was named in five Forbes‘ lists in 2020, including Power Women (rank 20) and America’s Self-Made Women (rank nine).
Starting as a news anchor at age 19 with CBS, Winfrey moved to talk shows in 1977 as the co-host of the People Are Talking. In 1984, she became the host of AM Chicago, which was renamed The Oprah Winfrey Show the following year and entered national syndication in 1986. Through its run of 25 years, this was the highest-rated talk show in America.
It helped Winfrey become a brand unto herself and establish her media empire, starting with Harpo Studios in 1988 and including Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN) — a joint venture with Discovery Communications founded in 2011.
Besides broadcast journalism, Winfrey is also an accomplished name in publishing and cinema. She launched O, The Oprah Magazine in 2000 and wrote her memoir, The Life You Want, in 2015. She made her film debut with a supporting role in The Colour Purple (1985), for which she received Golden Globe and Academy Award nominations. Her other prominent films include Selma (2014) and A Wrinkle in Time (2018).
Winfrey has received numerous honours throughout her career. She was awarded the Cecil B. DeMille Award (a Golden Globe for lifetime achievement) in 2018. For her humanitarian work, she was honoured with the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award at the 84th Academy Awards in 2012 and the US Presidential Medal of Freedom the following year.
Sarah Al-Amiri, Minister and chief of MBRSC, UAE
On February 9, 2021, UAE became the first Arab country to successfully launch a spacecraft in the orbit of Mars. Sarah Al-Amiri lead the historic mission, along with a team that comprised 80 percent women. The chairperson of UAE’s space agency Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre (MBRSC), she is also the country’s first Minister of State for Advanced Sciences — appointed in 2017.
Born in Iran, Al-Amiri obtained a B.Sc in Computer Engineering in 2008 from the American University in Sharjah. She then started working as a programs engineer on the country’s first two satellites — DubaiSat-1 and DubaiSat-2 — at the Emirates Institution for Advanced Science and Technology (EIAST).
While working as the Head of Space Science at Mohammed Bin Rashid Space Centre, she completed her M.Sc. in computer engineering in 2014 from the American University. Two years later she was appointed the head of the Emirates Science Council.
She also became the first citizen from the UAE to speak at an international TED event when she delivered a lecture at Davos 2019.
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer A. Doudna, Nobel laureates, France and US
Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna were jointly awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2020 “for the development of a method for genome editing.” Known as CRISPR/Cas9, the genetic scissors discovered by the duo in 2012 enables researchers to change the DNA of animals, plants and microorganisms which might help in curing intractable diseases, viral illnesses and genetic conditions such as HIV and Down syndrome. This was the first time a Nobel prize in a scientific field was awarded to just two women.
Born in France, Charpentier is an Honorary Professor at Humboldt University, Berlin. She has held research and teaching positions at renowned institutions including The Rockefeller University in New York, the New York University Medical Center, the University of Vienna and the Umeå University. She was also the director at the Max Planck Institute for Infection Biology in Berlin, Germany, from 2015-18 and founded the Max Planck Unit for the Science of Pathogens, Berlin, of which she has been the Managing Director since 2018.
Like Charpentier, Doudna has had a stellar career in scientific research. An American biochemist, she currently holds the Li Ka Shing Chancellor’s Chair in Biomedical and Health Sciences and is Professor of Biochemistry, Biophysics and Structural Biology at the University of California, Berkeley. She has also been a professor at Yale University. Since 1997, Doudna is also a Howard Hughes Medical Investigator.
Naomi Osaka, Tennis player, Japan
With total earnings of US$37.4 million (approximately RM153 million), Osaka was named the highest-paid female athlete of 2020 by Forbes. Born to a Haitian father and a Japanese mother, Osaka shot to prominence when as a 20-year-old she defeated Serena Williams to lift the 2018 US Open trophy making her the first Japanese player to win a Grand Slam.
She went on to win the 2019 Australian Open by defeating Petra Kvitová. It was the first time since Jennifer Capriati’s victories in 2001 that a player won a consecutive Grand Slam after her maiden major title.
In the 2020 US Open final, she defeated Victoria Azarenka for her third Grand Slam. During the tournament, apart from her spectacular play, she also made news for supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and wore masks with names of the victims of police violence printed on them.
On February 20, 2021, she defeated Jennifer Brady to win the Australian Open for a second time — extended her match-winning streak to 21.
Ellyse Perry, Cricketer, Australia
Hailed as one of the world’s greatest woman cricketers, the all-rounder was named the ICC Female Player of the Decade on December 28, 2020, along with ICC Women’s T20I Cricketer of the Decade and ICC Women’s ODI Cricketer of the Decade.
She made her international cricketing debut with a One-Day International (ODI) match against New Zealand in 2007 at the age of 16, making her the youngest ever Australian to debut in a senior cricket tournament.
Her stupendous bowling helped Australia win the ICC Women’s World Twenty20 (now known as ICC Women’s T20 World Cup) in 2010, 2012, 2014, 2018 and 2020. It was also during the 2018 tournament that she became the first Australian, male or female, to play 100 T20Is for her country and also became the first Australian to take 100 wickets in the format.
In between, her bowling performance in the final despite an injury led Australia to the 2013 ICC Women’s World Cup trophy. She has been named the Player of Series in both the 2014 and 2015 Women’s Ashes. During the 2017 Ashes, she scored 213 not out, the highest Test score ever by an Australian woman.
Perry is not only a cricketer, she’s a footballer too. In fact, she has the rare distinction of participating in both cricket and football world cups for Australia. In 2011, she played in FIFA Women’s World Cup in Germany. Her team’s campaign ended after the quarter-final loss against Sweden. She scored her side’s only goal — a magnificent shot from outside the box — which became one of the highlights of the tournament.
Manasi Joshi, Para-badminton player, India
Joshi started playing badminton at the age of six. In 2011, she was working in Mumbai as a software engineer when she lost her left leg in a road accident. She continued playing badminton with a prosthetic leg as a rehabilitation process and was able to defeat able-bodied players at a corporate tournament. A chance meeting with Pullela Gopichand while Joshi was working at a bank in Ahmedabad led to the start of her training with the legendary Indian badminton coach.
She then went on to win a Silver in mixed doubles at the 2015 Para-Badminton World Championships and a Bronze in women’s singles of the 2017 edition of the tournament before clinching the gold in 2019 at Basel, Switzerland. She has also won bronze medals in the 2016 Para-Badminton Asian Championships, 2018 Thailand Para-Badminton International and 2018 Asian Para Games.
Her numerous successes led to her appearance on the cover of Time Magazine’s Next Generation Leader in October 2020. The same month, she became the first Indian para-athlete and the second Indian woman, after Dipa Karmakar, to have a Barbie doll modelled after her.
Nicol David, former squash player, Malaysia
The retired squash legend was named World Games Greatest Athlete of All Time in February 2021. In her distinguished career, David won two Commonwealth Games gold medals, seven Asian Games gold medals (including two in a team), eight World Squash Championship gold medals, three World Games gold medals and five British Open titles.
She started playing at the age of five and in 1999, when she was 19, David became the youngest woman to win the World Junior Championship. Her successful defence of the title two years later made her the first woman to capture the junior championship title twice.
Her prolific victories over the next few years made her the world number one female player in her sport in 2006 — a first for an Asian woman. She held on to the top spot for 108 months, which is the longest for any squash player. Inducted into the World Squash Federation Hall of Fame in 2011, David retired from the sport in 2019.
Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, Founder BLM, US
The three activists founded the Black Lives Matter (BLM) as a project in 2013 in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman, who had fatally shot 17-year-old African-American high school student Trayvon Martin in 2012. BLM is today a powerful international movement against police atrocities and any form of discrimination against people of African origin in the US, the UK and Canada, and has also influenced similar movements in other parts of the world. BLM has been nominated for the 2021 Nobel Peace Prize.
Cullors is an educator, artist, and abolitionist from Los Angeles. She has led multiple LA-based organisations, including Justice LA and Reform LA Jails, and is the Faculty Director of Arizona’s Prescott College.
Tometi, a daughter of Nigerian immigrants, was moved by the plight of refugees at the US-Mexico border and became an activist. Before starting BLM, she was the Executive Director at the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) for eight years. The organisation helps immigrant Blacks to come together for social and economic justice.
Garza has been a rights activist for over two decades and besides BLM, also founded Supermajority — an organisation that is focussed on women’s activism. She is also the Strategy & Partnerships Director for the National Domestic Workers Alliance, which fights for the rights of dignity and fairness for domestic workers in the United States. She is also the host of Lady Don’t Take No, where topics ranging from politics to pop culture are discussed.
Panusaya Sithijirawattanakul, Pro-democracy activist, Thailand
In Thai society, the royals are treated like gods and any criticism of the king, the queen, the heir-apparent or the regent can land the person in jail for up to 15 years. Even as a child, Sithijirawattanakul opposed this exalted status of the royals. She challenged this system in August 2020 with a presentation of a 10-point manifesto calling for reform in Thailand’s monarchy in front of a huge gathering of students. The student-activist has since become a prominent face of the ongoing pro-democracy protests in the country.
Inspired by her father to learn more about politics following the Thai coup in 2014, she transformed from a shy student to a confident activist after spending five months in the US as part of a student exchange programme. She then entered the prestigious Thammasat University and joined the student union political party “Dome Revolution” in 2018.
Since her August speech, Sithijirawattanakul has been under the scanner of both authorities and royal supporters. According to the BBC, she was arrested along with two other protesters on October 15, 2020. Four days later, the Bangkok Post reported that all three had been granted bail.
Greta Thunberg, Climate activist, Sweden
The climate activist became globally famous for her ‘school strike’ protest outside the Swedish Parliament in August 2018. It has now developed into the Fridays for Future campaign involving thousands of students from around the world.
In a short period, Thunberg revolutionised the debate on climate change and brought increased political attention to the issue while inspiring thousands of students around the world to participate in the cause.
She addressed the 2018 United Nations Climate Change Conference and to attend the 2019 UN Climate Action Summit, she sailed across the Atlantic Ocean from England to the US in an emission-free racing yacht.
Named Person of the Year by Time magazine in 2019, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize the same year. She was nominated again in 2020 and a third time in 2021.
(Main and featured image: Sikarin Fon Thanachaiary/Foundations World Economic Forum/CC 2.0; Saul Loeb / Getty Images; AustralianOpen / Twitter)