From president to prime minister, women have held the highest office in nations across the globe.

But does that mean the glass ceiling is truly shattered in those countries?

Farida Jalalzai will pursue the answer.

Jalalzai, the associate dean for global initiatives and engagement in the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, earned a Fulbright grant to conduct research in nations with a history of women in leadership positions.

“We often think that if a woman has become a president or prime minister, then gender no longer presents an obstacle to women’s political empowerment,” said Jalalzai, a political science professor who is also an expert on the role of gender in politics. “Studying countries that have had the most women in these positions could reveal whether people have moved beyond gender when choosing leaders.”

Recognizing the importance of her research, the prestigious Fulbright Program awarded Jalalzai with a global fellowship to conduct research in Iceland, New Zealand, and Poland — nations that have had multiple women serve as president or prime minister.

“This fellowship aligns with how I’ve conducted my research on a global scale,” said Jalalzai, who has authored or co-edited several books about women’s political leadership. “I’m thrilled to serve as a Fulbright fellow and contribute new research.”

Jalalzai, who joined Virginia Tech in July, planned to begin her research in Poland this summer. But the rise of the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the project. In the summer of 2021, Jalalzai hopes to spend several weeks in Iceland. This will be followed by Poland in the fall. In 2022, she plans to complete the travel portion of her project in New Zealand.

To better understand the effects of women’s political empowerment in each nation, Jalalzai will ask questions of current and former leaders through the method of elite interviews.

“I will seek to ask those who hold or have held political positions about how gender shapes perceptions of women in power, and if electing the first woman paved the way for other women,” she said.

Jalalzai also plans to conduct a series of interviews with citizens of each nation before surveying a representative sample of the countries’ citizenry. Through the Fulbright Program, Jalalzai can coordinate with political experts at host institutions in each of the three nations. The experts can provide her with preliminary contacts and resources.

Jalalzai said her research could result in implications for the United States. She noted the significance of Hillary Clinton’s run for the presidency and the election of Kamala Harris as the first woman vice president in U.S. history as exemplars of a potential sea change.

“While the vice presidency is a stepping stone to the presidency, the rise of Kamala Harris to the office is a groundbreaking moment in American history,” said Jalalzai. “This comes on the heels of a Democratic primary battle in which multiple women vied for the presidential nomination. Was there a direct correlation between Hillary Clinton’s clinching of the Democratic nomination in 2016 and a record number of women running for the presidency? If so, what influence could a woman vice president have on the future of political empowerment?”  

As part of the Fulbright fellowship, Jalalzai will assist in recruiting scholars at other institutions to learn more about the program’s opportunities.

Jalalzai plans to finalize her international research through the Fulbright fellowship in 2022.

Written by Andrew Adkins