My older daughter, Sarah, currently a college student, earned praise for her essay on the leadership role of women. With her permission and no small measure of pride, I share it with you.
The assignment was: Some theorists have suggested that the world would be a much better place to live (i.e., fewer conflicts, wars) if women held all the positions of leadership. Do you agree? Why or why not? Do women in positions of power tend to behave in more stereotypically female (caring, nurturing) or male (aggressive, dominant) ways?
Would the world be better off if it was run by women? This deceptively simple question is best broken down into components: Are individual women better leaders than individual men? Does the culture of leadership drive women in positions of power to behave in stereotypically male ways? And, What is the effect when the majority of leaders in the legislative space are female?
The first two sub-questions are related. Are individual women superior leaders? Perhaps not, because for every Jacinda Ardern or Angela Merkel there may be a Margaret Thatcher or Marine Le Pen. Perhaps the character traits expected by the electorate, and the strategies employed by powerful women to attain and defend their status, weeds out individuals who behave in a cooperative, nurturing manner. It is quite plausible that the culture of power, or the traits demanded of leaders regardless of gender, is so pervasive that the theoretical advantages of female leadership are eliminated. What does the data show?
A Forbes analysis indicated, and an academic analysis later confirmed, that the countries which fared best during the pandemic were led by women: Germany, Taiwan, New Zealand, Iceland, Finland, Norway and Denmark all took the pandemic seriously and took early steps to safeguard health. This association has been found to be systematic among a sample of 194 countries (Garikipati & Kambhampati, 2020). Iceland’s Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir instituted free testing, while Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen instituted 124 pandemic-curbing measures early, in January of 2020, and by April were sending face masks abroad. Their success is punctuated by the expression of traditionally feminine traits: Norway’s Prime Minister Erna Solberg went on live television to reassure children that it was okay to feel scared. Just try to catch a strong-man leader such as Bolsonaro or Putin doing that! (Wittenberg-Cox, 2020)
Female leadership was a clear advantage, and life-saver, during the pandemic. However, the benefits are less clear-cut when it comes to warfare. Though the perception that women would be less likely to go to war is popular and widespread, the counter-examples of Margaret Thatcher ordering the sinking of the Argentine ship Belgrano in 1982 and of the “dangerously aggressive” North Korean President Park Geun-hye who was in office 2013-2017 prove that gender is not entirely protective against military aggression. (Elsesser, 2022) The authors of “Why Leaders Fight” determined that 30% of male leaders initiated at least one militarized dispute, while 36% of female leaders did so; however, in part due to the disparity of sample sizes, these statistics are misleading: this 36% of female leaders equates to 13 acts of aggression and one war, while the 30% of male leaders who did so equates to 694 acts of aggression and 86 wars (ibid). Writing for Cambridge, Schwartz & Blair (2020) found that female leaders “combat gender stereotypes that women are weak by acting ‘tough’ during international military crises.” They also found that female leaders experienced greater “inconsistency costs” when backing down from threats than their male counterparts, which may pressure them to follow through. In military action at least, we do find that the cultures of power and of male leadership pressure female leaders to behave in more stereotypically masculine aggressive ways, and they are less able to back down from threats.
The behavior of female leaders in military situations appears to be an effect of conforming and performing to masculine leadership culture. What happens when the leadership environment is female-majority? Here we turn to the example of Nevada, the legislature of which became female-majority (51%) in 2018. In 2019, this legislature took action to compensate firefighters who develop breast, uterine and ovarian cancer; required companies of a certain size to provide 40 hours of paid leave; specified fines for companies which knowingly practice gender pay discrimination; made critical reforms to their abortion laws and restrictions; and passed a series of laws addressing sexual assault and domestic violence. (Cheung, 2020) Even though female legislators were barely in the majority, they immediately made life substantially better for Nevada women and workers.
Therefore, although female executive leaders in military situations currently feel pressure to conform to masculine stereotypes to defend their leadership worth, we may conclude that a world leadership stage which is female-majority would be beneficial to the globe. Female leaders made superior decisions during the pandemic, and female-majority legislative spaces (or at least, the sole example currently available) take care of their residents in arenas long neglected by male representatives. Therefore, the world would indeed be better off if it was run by women.
Cheung, Helier. “Did First Female-Majority Legislature in US Make a Difference?” BBC News, 4 Mar. 2020, bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-51623420.
Elsesser, Kim. “Sheryl Sandberg Says Female Leaders Don’t Go To War. Here’s What Research Says.” Forbes, 8 Mar. 2022, forbes.com/sites/kimelsesser/2022/03/08/sheryl-sandberg-says-female-leaders-dont-go-to-war-heres-what-research-says/.
Garikipati, Supriya, & Kambhampati, Uma. “Leading the Fight Against the Pandemic: Does Gender ‘Really’ Matter?” SSRN, 3 June 2020, papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3617953.
Schwartz, J., & Blair, C. (2020). Do Women Make More Credible Threats? Gender Stereotypes, Audience Costs, and Crisis Bargaining. International Organization, 74(4), 872-895. doi:10.1017/S0020818320000223
Wittenberg-Cox, Avivah. “What Do Countries With The Best Coronavirus Responses Have In Common? Women Leaders.” Forbes, 13 Apr. 2020, forbes.com/sites/avivahwittenbergcox/2020/04/13/what-do-countries-with-the-best-coronavirus-reponses-have-in-common-women-leaders/?sh=229b60233dec.