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Column: US out of step when it comes to women in leadership roles

  • German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during a media conference at the end of an EU summit in Brussels, Tuesday, July 21, 2020. Weary European Union leaders finally clinched an unprecedented budget and coronavirus recovery fund early Tuesday, finding unity after four days and as many nights of fighting and wrangling over money and power in one of their longest summits ever. (John Thys, Pool Photo via AP)

  • New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern addresses a press conference after the 2020 budget at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand, Thursday, May 14, 2020. New Zealand's government plans to borrow and spend vast amounts of money as it tries to keep unemployment below 10% in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. (Hagen Hopkins/Pool Photo via AP)

  • The Prime Minister of Iceland Katrin Jakobsdottir speaks during a press event at U.N. headquarters Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2019. The countries were announcing a new initiative on climate change and trade. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

For the Valley News
Published: 7/25/2020 10:30:15 PM
Modified: 7/25/2020 10:30:12 PM

It’s a man’s world. This cliché has shaped our thinking for so long that we easily fall prey to the conceit that women are not fit to lead and that we need a man to take charge and make the tough decisions. Women, the cliché continues, are likely to exhibit “soft skills” like empathy, communication and listening.

But such stereotypic thinking runs contrary to current knowledge about leadership. In a Forbes column last year, organizational psychologist and Equilibria Leadership Consulting CEO Nicole Lipkin wrote: “we know that a ‘strong’ leader isn’t necessarily a man who stands alone, making all the tough choices by himself, but rather a servant leader, who gathers all points of view in a collaborative effort in order to arrive at the best course of action.”

The implication is that women are every bit as capable of being good political leaders as men. In fact, according to a 2015 Pew Research Center survey, “most Americans find women indistinguishable from men on key leadership traits such as intelligence and capacity for innovation, with many saying they’re stronger than men in terms of being compassionate and organized leaders.”

Let’s not fool ourselves. We lose a host of talented leaders if we perpetuate our stereotypes. Look at the world. Dozens of women have come to power this century as prime ministers, presidents or chancellors. Two notable examples: Angela Merkel, who in 2005 became the first woman to serve as chancellor of Germany, and Jacinda Ardern, who was named prime minister of New Zealand in 2017.

Oklahoma State University political scientist Farida Jalalzai has found that women in positions of political leadership produce a number of benefits to the political system, including expanding trust and legitimacy in the system, increasing interest and participation in politics among the populace, and creating constructive role models.

In her March 9 article for The Conversation, Jalalzai notes three examples: Finnish Prime Minister Sanna Marin and her coalition expanding gender roles by passing a generous work leave measure, and Ardern and Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir of Iceland setting forth budget plans for their countries that put an emphasis on family and green policies.

The United States is out of step with the world. We have entrenched negative attitudes toward woman as leaders. It is not for lack of qualified women. Witness Hillary Clinton winning nearly 3 million more votes than Donald Trump in 2016, along with the record number of women now serving in the House and Senate and a record of six women candidates seeking the 2020 Democratic Party nomination for president. As Sen. Elizabeth Warren observed at a January debate: “The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women” — meaning herself and Sen. Amy Klobuchar.

I thought this might be their time to break through the “glass ceiling.” It was not to be. The public, the media and our political leaders continue to believe that women’s leadership capabilities are inferior to those of their male counterparts. Why?

Most explanations can be grouped into three categories: electability, views of gender roles and the nature of the political system.

At this moment, the major objective of the Democratic Party is to beat President Donald Trump. Electability becomes key. As Democratic political consultant Stephanie Cutter told Politico in March, “It’s not that voters don’t see a woman doing the job of president; they just don’t think she can win an election to become president.”

Despite the successes of women leaders in other nations, we continue to be heavily influenced by gender biases. We are captive of tradition, believing a woman’s place should be in the home, in domestic roles that are far less threatening to men. Polls often show that ambitious women in positions of power — Clinton, Warren and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for example — are viewed more negatively by men and women alike.

Another factor blocking women from leadership roles is our political system, in which women encounter sexism and stereotypes directly and on a large stage. American politics has embraced a “culture of celebrity,” with personality more important than policy in picking candidates, which tends to work against women. Campaigns in other countries are shorter and media coverage often less circus-like. As a result, elections are more often decided over policy distinctions. Also, a parliamentary system like that of Germany, the U.K. or Finland may make it easier for women to achieve executive roles. Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, told Time magazine that, in a parliamentary system, voters don’t directly choose the prime minister. Instead, that happens within institution of parliament. “The party becomes the majority, and then the parties can do more structurally for women to attain leadership.”

We have a long way to go. Though not a certainty, hope for a woman leader of the U.S. is on the horizon. With a victory in November by former Vice President Joe Biden, the woman he has promised to select as his vice president can demonstrate the leadership qualities that may convince American voters that she can handle the top job effectively — if given the opportunity.

Bob Scobie lives in West Lebanon.

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