Leading like a woman

Dina Shehata
Tuesday 10 Mar 2020

A new feminine model of political leadership is promising to transform traditional models of power and authority, writes Dina Shehata

A new model of leadership that is typically feminine both in style and substance is being advanced by a new breed of female leaders including Angela Merkel, Jacinda Ardern and Greta Thunberg. With its emphasis on the values of care, empathy and inclusion, and on issues such as equality, climate-change and universal healthcare, this model might be our only hope for a brighter future for our societies and our planet.

Traditionally, women who reached top leadership positions in politics and business did so by setting aside their feminine qualities and behaving more like men. Women in leadership positions were assumed to be competitive, authoritative and single-minded. They were expected to give their careers the highest priority, as men did, and to put their domestic life second if they wanted to reach the top ranks of their organisations.  

Leaders like former UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher come to mind. Known as the “iron lady,” she was famous for her ruthless, authoritative and divisive leadership style. Other female leaders such as Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto were also known for being tough and authoritative leaders that were able to beat men at their own game. Women in leadership positions often felt compelled to prove their worth by acting in a competitive, assertive and authoritative manner. In fact, recent research suggests that women leaders need to act more aggressively than men during situations of crisis in order to be taken seriously by their counterparts. 

In a recent article in the Washington Post, US journalist Abigail Post maintains that her research has shown that “countries with women as leaders – prime ministers, presidents, etc. – participate in more violent disputes. Because most societies (including American) often stereotype female leaders as “weak,” female leaders often compensate for this perceived weakness by acting more aggressively.”

In her research, Post examined all female heads of state involved in military disputes with other nations between 1980 and 2010. Using a statistical model, she found that women were nearly 17 percentage points more likely than their male counterparts to face resistance to their threats from international opponents (i.e., other countries). Women consequently used more military force to overcome their opponent’s resistance.

As a result, in the recent past the rise of women to positions of leadership did not have a transformative effect on domestic and international politics as women were expected to fit into, and to advance, the leadership models of power and authority created by men. However, in recent years, a new generation of female leaders has begun to challenge masculine models of leadership that emphasise vertical structures of power and authority in favour of a new leadership model that celebrates values typically associated with the feminine, such as care, empathy, inclusion, compromise and teamwork. 

Moreover, these new leaders are emphasising issues that have long been marginalised by men and women in power, such as climate-change, gender equality and universal healthcare.

The most notable example of this new style of leadership is presented by Jacinda Ardern, the 37-year-old prime minister of New Zealand. Ardern has attracted the global spotlight on several occasions and has since become a global leadership icon. She’s one of the youngest leaders ever to assume power in New Zealand or elsewhere, and she became a mother during her first year in power and brought her baby with her to official meetings. 

In the wake of the Christchurch attacks on Muslims at prayer, Ardern showed care, empathy and solidarity, donning a hijab, crying in public, hugging the relatives of the victims and sending a global message of unity against hatred and intolerance. She was also quick to push for measures to limit access to guns in New Zealand.

She coined an alternative discourse on economic well-being and development by de-emphasising the constant quest for economic growth and capital accumulation if it comes at the expense of human well-being, equality and climate-change. Her government’s well-being budget passed in 2019 is the first of its kind globally. According to an article in the New York Times, “under New Zealand’s revised policy, all new spending must advance one of five government priorities: improving mental health, reducing child poverty, addressing the inequalities faced by indigenous Maori and Pacific Islands people, thriving in a digital age, and transitioning to a low-emission, sustainable economy.”

Ardern has thus become the new face of a new feminine leadership model. This is feminine both in style and in content: in style, by allowing for expressions of empathy, emotion and motherhood; and in content by prioritising issues of equality, well-being and sustainability. One publication declared in the wake of the Christchurch attacks that “Jacinda Ardern just proved typically ‘feminine’ behaviour is powerful.” 

Other prominent female leaders such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel have also embraced a leadership style that eschews masculine models of authority. One commentator has maintained that Merkel can only be considered a leader if “leadership” is something completely different, something based on networking, something that is female, and something that is cooperative. Another has written that “Merkel never indulges in grandstanding and she is never authoritarian. This is how she creates the space for a cooperative, reason-based, network-oriented style of leadership in Europe.”

Other female leaders who embrace this new model of feminine leadership with its emphasis on care, empathy, inclusion and cooperation include the 34-year-old Prime Minister of Finland Sana Marin who leads an all-female coalition government, and Gretta Thunberg who has become the face of a new global youth movement against climate-change and environmental degradation.

These new female leaders are carving out a new path away from the traditional models of leadership created by men that have marginalised women and female virtues. The new feminine model of leadership, with its emphasis on inclusion and empathy, promises to transform traditional models of power and authority and to open the political field to previously marginalised groups and issues.

This could not have happened at a more opportune moment. With climate-change and rising inequality becoming defining issues of the 21st century, and with the ascendance of populist strong men to the helm of power in many of the leading nations of the world, the very survival of humanity and civilisation might depend on the ability of this new feminine model of leadership to replace the old one that has inflicted unspeakably cruelties on our planet and societies.

Perhaps former US president Barack Obama hit the spot when he said in a recent event on leadership that “I’m absolutely confident that for two years if every nation on earth was run by women, you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything... [including] living standards and outcomes.”

The writer is a senior researcher at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.


*A version of this article appears in print in the  12 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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