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When Women Govern

By Michael A. Genovese

In 1993, I edited a book titled Women as National Leaders. It was a study of women who headed governments and was designed to begin to focus scholarly attention on gender and leadership at the highest level of government. At the time of publication, I could name all the women across the globe who headed governments. Spoiler alert: there weren’t very many of them. 

Twenty years later, a colleague, Janie Steckenrider, and I published an updated and revised version of that book under the title Women as Political Leaders. I am happy to say that today, I cannot remember the names of all the women who head governments. This is not so much a function of age but of advancement in the participation of women in political processes across the globe. There has been some progress in women rising in politics, and in women being placed in or elected to top offices in government. While women are still outnumbered by men in almost all countries in legislatures, cabinets, and executive positions, it is possible to point to measurable gains for women in governmental positions.

One might think that after all this time, and after all these women leaders, barriers would already have been broken, glass ceilings shattered, and the sight of a woman holding executive power might be rather humdrum. And yet, sadly, that is still not the case.  As the 2016 presidential election in the United States reveals, gender still matters greatly. When the male presumptive nominee of one party openly attacks women in general and his likely female opponent in particular—if Hillary were a man, Donald Trump asserts, she would only get 5 percent of the vote—we can see that sexist rhetoric is still prevalent and perhaps powerful. 

The ascent of any person to the peak of power is almost by definition an extraordinary event. But for women it is an even rarer phenomenon. Today, the story of a woman’s rise to power traces her encounters with the obstacles, restrictions, and deterrents (both formally and informally) unique to her rise in the public arena. Every political system limits opportunity and access to elite roles by tacitly or overtly erecting a set of initial hurdles based on background, gender, or other demographic traits. The career paths of successful women can illustrate the extent to which gender itself is a limiting condition in social advancement. The woman who reaches the top must have found ways around these exclusionary biases.

Gender may also have an impact on the leader’s performance while in office, especially to the extent that others—both allies and adversaries—perceive gender as a salient issue and change their behaviors accordingly. Was the 1971 Indo-Pakistan War made more likely because Prime Minister Indira Gandhi was a woman and might have been (mis)perceived as weak? Would Pakistan have been as bellicose and rigid had the Indian government been headed by a male?

What did my co-editor and I find in our study of women who governed? First, an unusually high number of women who governed came from or married into very prominent and politically powerful families, including Gandhi, Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan, Corazon Aquino in the Philippines, Isabel Perón in Argentina, and Violeta Chamorro in Nicaragua. This gave them instant name recognition, as well as some political legitimacy. Second, there is no one style of leadership practiced across the board by women leaders. Some scholars argue that, based on traditional gender norms, there is a “male” style of leadership (command-oriented, hierarchical, dominant) and a “female” style (collegial, cooperative, relationship-oriented). In this framework, Margaret Thatcher exercised a more male-oriented style that served at times as a strength and at other times a weakness. Corazon Aquino was seen as too reliant on a softer style of leadership, and had trouble adjusting to the demands of certain situations. Third, both male and female leaders who were able at times to be “gender benders,” practicing different styles of leadership depending on the circumstances or situations they faced, seemed better able to navigate in the choppy waters of political leadership.  Leaders who are flexible and adaptive, who fit their dance to the music being played, who can diagnose a situation and prescribe a leadership style most likely to successfully confront these challenges are more likely to succeed. Leaders with high emotional and contextual intelligence had the best chance of being successful. Leaders who practiced an “androgynous style” of leadership tended to fare better than leaders confined to a single style of leading.

Do women pursue different policies than male leaders? Are women more likely to empower other women? Support more funding for education and health care? Much of the research on such questions differentiates between constituent pressure and personal goals. It is more likely that a more liberal district would elect a woman and thus support more liberal policy positions. In this case, women seem more liberal than men, but part of this is explained as fulfilling constituent demands. No leader comes to office with a clean slate, so it is hard to say exactly what an individual’s personal goals are. However, one can make judgments based on which policies are pursued, with what level of enthusiasm, and at what cost to the leader’s political capital. Margaret Thatcher, for example, certainly did not work to empower women. In fact in over a dozen years as prime minister, she never selected a woman to her cabinet. However, most women leaders tend to be a bit more sensitive to issues affecting women than most male leaders.

Do women make better leaders than men? If so, these women must have found ways to overcome both the normal expected restraints on power and the additional restraints they encounter due to their gender. Looking broadly at the women who have governed, no clear pattern emerges. Some left their positions with records of success, while others were driven out of office. 

Overall, while the challenges women face may be greater than those of men who govern, the results are fairly uniform across the board. So, as Americans wrestle with the question of whether or not to vote for a woman for president, they would do well to remember that in many countries with many different political systems, women have already proven that they can govern, and govern successfully. Gender might be a particular restraint, but it is one of many other restraints. Successful women leaders have already found ways to meet the challenges posed by gender, but they can do so only if they have the opportunity to govern.

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Michael A. Genovese is author of over 40 books, holds the Loyola Chair of Leadership, and is President of the World Policy Institute at Loyola Marymount University. 

[Photo courtesy of Kleinschmidt/MSC]

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