Should Women Run the World?

Is it time to think outside the box of an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth?

Posted Aug 05, 2020

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You have heard the conversation before. People wonder, especially with the recent Middle East crisis bordering on another possible war, is it time for people to recognize if the dominant, traditional male model of leadership is dysfunctional. Is it time to think outside the box of an eye-for-an-eye, a tooth-for-a-tooth?

Kathleen Parker, a Washington Post columnist, makes the suggestion, “Let women run the world.” Barack Obama is on board with this proposal suggesting that women could solve many of the world’s problems, most of which were caused by men. Obama’s approach was to wait things out, and this, in turn, earned him a bad rap with the hawks and pundits. Many felt this approach was refreshing: We don’t need to be trigger happy! Parker claimed “that if Bill Clinton was our first black president, then Obama was our first female president” because he was not impulsive and choose to be cautious and was not inclined to beating his chest. She meant this as a compliment. Waiting is a virtue and often the practical thing to do.

Can you make the argument that women are more naturally inclined toward patience and know the benefit of collective wisdom through listening and watching? Is war DNA hard-wired among men to accommodate the territorial imperative? As Kathleen Parker suggests, “war is primarily a male trait,” and it seems that war will always be with us, maybe women should rule the world.

A look at the workplace and leadership might be helpful here. We know what a world dominated by men — by male CEOs, management teams, and heads of state — looks like. Consider for a moment what the world might look like if female leaders were the norm. Research from McKinsey has found that firms that outpace their peers on the number of women in top management see a financial performance benefit of up to 15% over the industry median. Might a similar benefit be valid on the world stage?

Susan Perkins, associate professor at the University of Illinois and Kathleen Phillips, Vice Dean, and professor at Columbia, researched to answer the question: Are women better at leading diverse countries than men? To test this idea, they studied data from 188 of the 193 United Nations–recognized countries. Their research examined leaders in modern history (1950–2004) to find out whether economic outcomes differed for female and male leaders depending on the racial and ethnic composition of the country.

Examining country-level outcomes can be a complicated task, as there are many factors that matter. In their research, they considered macroeconomic factors and go further to focus on the behavioral relationships between country diversity, the gender of the leader, and economic performance outcomes, using a standard time-series approach.

To date, there have been 136 female heads of state (presidents and prime ministers — we excluded queens/governesses, as they are mostly symbolic). They examined over 5,700 annual periods of economic growth associated with each national leader’s regime. The analysis controlled for other indicators of national growth such as education, infrastructure development, and the rule of law to separate those well-established macroeconomic predictors of economic growth.

They saw patterns of inclusive leadership among the female heads of state that illustrate this point. For example, when President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf led Liberia, which is one of the most diverse countries in the world, and has a history of ethnic conflict, her vision was to unlock and leverage the benefits of diversity. She worked to create an “inclusive and tolerant government,” as her inaugural address put it, focused on reconciliation, making sure each ethnic group was included in proportion to its size. This was quite a feat, given that Liberia has more than a dozen prominent ethnic groups with no single group being the majority. She also set a goal of gender parity within her cabinet of appointed ministers, doubling the number of female ministers in her first year of office.

One lesson they learned from their research is that when the downsides of diversity — festering biases, discrimination, and racial/ethnic conflicts — are left unmanaged, they are associated with stunted economic growth and unrest.

If we had more women in leadership positions in the world, there might be less strife, inequity, and war.