The Rise of Women Leaders

The clouds of gender inequality in politics are about to clear.

Posted Aug 26, 2020

The ascent of Kamala Harris to the Democratic presidential ticket means that a woman has a decent chance of becoming president in 2024. Why has this taken so long? What does it mean for the future?

In the past, women were largely excluded from political leadership globally and had to fight long and hard even for the right to vote. This phenomenon reflected pronounced gender differences in social status in agricultural societies.

Gender Differences in Social Status

In hunter-gatherer societies, there were only minor gender differences in social status. For example, some groups were led by head women.

It is worth pointing out that these leaders lacked real political power and that the job mostly involved settling endless disputes between individuals after the fashion of modern social workers.

Following the Agricultural Revolution, societies became much more unequal with storable food, such as grains, acting as a source of wealth and power.

Agriculture elevated muscular strength in the context of farm work. Men played a more important role in food production and often controlled the technology of farming in addition to inheriting land.

This system of food production gave greater power to men and took power away from women who had played a key role in food collection in hunter-gatherer societies, sometimes contributing more to the food supply than men did.

In agricultural societies, women were generally treated as unpaid domestic workers who lacked legal rights or political power.

In modern economies, women's economic power rose along with entry to the paid workforce and increased earning power. This economic power led to the establishment of greater legal equality and political representation.

Consequently, there has been a greater representation of women in leadership positions, including heads of state.

While female political power is clearly associated with economic development, women do not have the most power in more developed countries. Surprisingly, there are more female political representatives in comparatively underdeveloped countries than in the most developed countries in Europe.

African Women as Leaders

In a ranking of female political leadership, Rwanda ranked as first in the world whereas the US ranked 96th. European countries ranked higher with Sweden occupying the number 2 slot.

One reason that there are so many female leaders in Rwanda is that approximately two-thirds of the population is female. This anomaly is due to a prolonged and deadly civil war.

In Rwanda, 64 percent of the seats in parliament are held by women.

Having a predominantly female population generally has a profound effect on social life as women take an active role in trades, professions, and businesses and assume a higher social profile, whether one studies classical Sparta or 21st -century Rwanda (1).

Yet, women are well represented in other African countries, including Senegal and South Africa where they make up 40 percent of parliamentary representatives despite having more balanced populations by gender.

One possible reason that African women play a larger role in government could be that they played a larger role in the agricultural economy by tending domestic animals and raising crops making them more economically self-sufficient than their European counterparts (2).

Greater participation in farm work has been used as an evolutionary explanation for the smaller gender difference in height in African populations compared to Europeans. In other words, taller stature brought greater strength and was an advantage in heavy agricultural work by women (2).

Of course, greater height is also associated with higher social status in developed countries by a variety of measures, including earning capacity (3).

So there are many possible reasons that women are better represented in leadership in African countries Why are there so few female leaders in the US compared to either the developed countries of Europe or the less developed countries of Africa?

Why America Lags in Leadership Equality

The issue of why the US lags the world in female leadership in politics is not simple but reflects other broad patterns, including a relative lack of female business leaders.

America is a highly unequal country in many other ways, from income inequality to racial injustice, inhuman working conditions, voter suppression, and unequal pay for women and minorities.

In the past, employers often infringed on female reproductive rights, firing workers as soon as they became pregnant, or even got married. This set up an artificial conflict between careers and family.

Many Americans are derived from countries like Germany and Ireland that had encouraged women to devote themselves to domestic responsibilities rather than independent careers.

The list of possible factors is long including the harshness of frontier life, religious conservatism, the commodification of women as sex objects, and unequal assignment of domestic work by gender.

Whatever the causes, we can celebrate a break in the clouds and anticipate the emergence of a lot more promising female leaders, many drawn from the ranks of minority groups.

References

1 Guttentag, M., & Secord, P. F. (1983). Too many women: The sex ratio question. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

2 Holden, C., and Mace, R. (1999). Sexual dimorphism in stature and women's work: a phylogenetic cross-cultural analysis. American Journal of Physical Anthropology,110, 27-45.

3 Case, A. & Paxon, C. (2008). Stature and status: Height, ability and labour market outcomes. Journal of Political Economy, 116, 491-532.