Do Female Presidents or Prime Ministers Make Any Difference?

Research finds "feminine" values make a difference. But do female leaders?

Posted Jul 09, 2016

The United Kingdom is going to be led by a female Prime Minister in the near future, as the only two candidates left competing for the post in the Conservative Party leadership contest are now both women; Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom.

Raj Persaud
Source: Raj Persaud

Meanwhile in the USA, Hilary Clinton stands a strong chance of becoming the next President of the USA, and Angela Merkel has led Germany over many years. Ulster Unionist Arlene Foster is the first woman to be First Minister in Northern Ireland while the Scottish National Party leader Nicola Sturgeon is first Minister for Scotland.

That the West appears to be gradually being taken over by women (according to the press), appears to have raised the question of whether female leadership results in any noticeable difference in the way we are governed.

A study examining all the countries involved in international conflicts around the world over the last 50 years found that the more women were involved in the leadership of a society, the less militarily aggressive that society was, and the lower the probability of violent conflict with other countries.

The researchers, Mary Caprioli and Mark Boyer, argue that their study, in the ‘Journal of Conflict Resolution’, is strong evidence for the proposition that, generally, women work for peace and men wage war. Women are more likely to use a collective or consensual approach to problem-solving, rather than focusing on the unilateral imposition of solutions.

Psychologically, at quite a profound level, the authors suggest, men tend to engage in power struggles for personal gain, whereas women tend to attempt to minimise power differences, to share resources, and to treat others equally. Yet despite these advantages of female leadership, Caprioli and Boyer found only 24 countries around the world, by the time the study had been completed in 2001, had placed a female leader in office since 1900.

The study entitled, ‘Gender, violence, and international crisis’, found only 16.6 per cent of these countries led by a woman were involved in international crises at any point during the period of female leadership, and none of these female leaders initiated the crises.

The researchers, who at the time of publishing their study were at the Department of Political Science, University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth and the Department of Political Science, University of Connecticut, used political equality, measured as the percentage of women in parliament, as a measure of gender equality within society.

Put simply, their finding is that as the percentage of women in the legislature of a country increases, the less severe is the violence between countries. Indeed, if the percentage of women in the legislature increases by 5 per cent, a state is nearly five times less likely to use violence internationally. In terms of the current warlike position of the USA compared with more pacifist Europe, it is interesting to note that the US had far fewer women in its legislature compared with most European countries – for the US the figure was just over 14 per cent compared with Sweden at 42 per cent at the time this study was published, which was 2001.

Indeed, Scandinavian countries generally take the top six consecutive spots in the world league table for highest female representation in parliament – followed by Germany with 32 per cent, at the time the study was published. The UK, which has arguably been more aggressive in recent conflicts than the rest of Europe, is down at 17.9 per cent, when the study was published.

One theory behind this, argue Caprioli and Boyer, is that competition, violence, intransigence and territoriality are all associated with a male approach to international relations. Women, on the other hand, are less likely to see crisis negotiation as a competition or to advocate the use of violence.

That said, female leaders are often perceived to be just as aggressive as men, Mary Caprioli, now Associate Professor of Political Science & Director of International Studies Program at the University of Minnesota, Duluth, and Mark Boyer, Board of Trustees Distinguished Professor at the University of Connecticut, argue in their study. Leaders of recent years such as Margaret Thatcher, Benazir Bhutto, Indira Ghandi and Golda Meir were seen as hawks rather than doves, and all were caught up in violent conflicts.

But perhaps female leaders must also contend with negative perceptions from male opponents.

For example, gender was a factor in the events and resolution of the 1971 Indo–Pakistan war in which Indira Ghandi had a key role. Caprioli and Boyer remind us that President Yahya Khan of Pakistan stated that he would have reacted less violently and been less rigid as the leader of Pakistan in the conflict with India if a male had headed the Indian government. Indeed, President Khan was quoted as saying: ‘If that woman [Indira Gandhi] thinks she is going to cow me down, I refuse to take it.’ So the behaviour of male leaders when faced with a female opponent becomes a factor – a sense of macho pride which makes them unwilling to ‘lose’ to a woman, lest their masculinity be questioned.

Female leaders who have risen to power through a male-dominated political environment may well need to be more aggressive than their male counterparts in crisis, argue Caprioli and Boyer. Although differences exist in male and female leadership styles, women in positions of power may find themselves compelled to convey their strength in traditional male terms. And they may also work harder to ‘win’ in a crisis for the same reasons, because to respond in a more feminine way would be seen as ‘weakness’ and would be political suicide.

Caprioli and Boyer’s research suggests that we don’t just need more women in parliaments and legislatures, but also to live in societies that embrace more feminine values, so that women who succeed will feel less pressure to be more like men.

This view is supported by Ruut Veenhoven of Erasmus University, a leading expert on happiness who recently published a study with Willem Arrindell, from the University of Groningen, Groningen, also in Holland, that found people in richer countries are happier in more feminine nations. In the study entitled, ‘Feminine values and happy life-expectancy in nations’, authors Willem Arrindell and Ruut Veenhoven define masculine cultures as those which expect men to be assertive, ambitious and competitive, to strive for material success, and to respect whatever is big, strong and fast.

In these cultures women serve and care for the non-material side of life, for children and the weak. Feminine cultures, on the other hand, define relatively overlapping social roles for the sexes: men need not be ambitious or competitive but may go for a goal different from material success; men may respect that which is small, weak and slow.

One sign that you are living in a more feminine society by this analysis is if there is less occupational segregation, for example, there are more male nurses.

So, the study published in the academic journal ‘Personality and Individual Differences’ found that in more masculine cultures (such as Japan, Austria and Venezuela) political and organisational values emphasise material success and assertiveness, whereas in more feminine cultures (like Sweden, Norway and the Netherlands) they accentuate other values, interpersonal relationships, and sympathy and concern for the weak.

If people are happier in feminine societies and if these countries tend to get involved in less conflict with their neighbours, maybe the key enhancement that will produce most well-being in the future would be for us to become in some senses more feminine.

This, in the sense conveyed by this research, means more empathic, kind and caring, more aware of others’ emotional states and more able to influence our own and others’ emotions.

Another theory about the possible benefit of more feminine values in a country, argue Arrindell and Veenhoven, is that it may create greater opportunities for combining multiple social roles (employment, marriage, parenthood). The possibility of combining multiple roles is likely to make life more satisfying, in particular for women. The occupation of multiple social roles has been found to be associated with good physical and mental health in both women and men.

The latest salvo in Theresa May's and Andrea Leadsom's battle for power, is the alleged accusation that while one woman has children and the other doesn’t, this somehow matters in how they are going to lead.

If the election of a female leader reflects a society embracing more feminine values then this, according to the latest psychological research, appears to bode well for that country’s future as regards waging war and general happiness. But the two candidates for the leadership of Britain appear to be descending into a typically masculine aggressive scrap.

Possibly a combative political system shapes our leaders more than their gender or any other factor. 

Given that Hilary Clinton appears unapologetic in her support for wars in the past, and has made aggressive statements regarding a future militaristic outlook, it looks like we should pay less attention to whether someone is a man or a woman as a guide on how they will lead.

Instead we could ask a deeper question – by what kind of woman or man are we being led?