Of course women would make better prime ministers than men – they just haven’t had the chance to prove it

Men still run the world and yet research has repeatedly demonstrated that it’s women who are more likely to commit to addressing problems 

Josie Co
Saturday 08 June 2019 15:45
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Just like men, women can be birdbrained buffoons or expert negotiators
Just like men, women can be birdbrained buffoons or expert negotiators

I’ve quite frankly got no idea why anyone would want to be the leader of a country that has transformed itself into what could happily serve as a decent punchline for practically every joke for the next few decades. But clearly there are people who would disagree.

Whether driven by masochism, megalomania, ignorance or basic naivety, 11 people (at my last count) have now declared their intention to run for leadership of the Conservative Party. No doubt there are others vying for the top spot from beyond the reckless rubble of Tory misfits. And there’s one thing that stands out, in addition to the sorry state of affairs we’re in: most are white and most are male.

I’m obviously not blind to the mess left behind by Theresa May. She’s spent years perpetuating a political rift created by the referendum and has done little to make me proud of the country I live in. I’d be out of a job in a second if I genuinely believed that parachuting any old non-male person into No 10 was a panacea for this wreckage we’re desperately trying to muddle through.

Nonetheless, though, now’s as good a time as any to remember that it is quite often – though not always – men who get us into trouble, and women who at least contribute to getting us out of trouble.

In 2017, a study of nearly 3,000 managers led by Professor Oyvind L Martinsen of the BI Norwegian Business School concluded women are generally better leaders than men. Women scored higher than their male counterparts on four out of the five metrics against which the Scandinavian academics assessed them, including taking the initiative and communicating clearly, being open and able to innovate, being sociable and supportive, and engaging in methodical management and goal-setting. Men only dominated when it came to handling work-related stress and demonstrating emotional stability.

Professor Martinsen said that the findings “pose a legitimate question about the construction of management hierarchy and the current dispensation of women in these roles”. And you’ll be unsurprised to hear that I tend to agree.

Across the 149 countries assessed in the World Economic Forum’s most recent annual Global Gender Gap Report, just 17 had women as heads of state. Just 18 per cent of ministers and 24 per cent of parliamentarians globally were women, and women held just 34 per cent of managerial positions across the countries where data was available.

Men still run the world and yet research has repeatedly demonstrated it’s women who are more likely to commit to addressing problems that, if solved, would improve the way all of us live our lives.

According to Unesco, women in leadership positions tend to favour the equitable redistribution of resources. Research done by the UN agency shows that legislatures with a higher share of women tend to support health, education and social welfare spending at the expense of defence spending.

A paper published in the European Journal of Comparative Economics in 2010 found that across 103 countries, those that mandated a percentage of women in their legislatures spent 3.4 percentage points more on social welfare than those that did not. But, according to Unesco, “the continuing dominance of men in decision-making posts limits women’s voices and ability to influence policy design at international, central and local government levels, as well as at the level of schools and communities”.

It’s relatively well known that institutions with a more diverse management tend to do better financially. A study by EY recently showed that organisations in which women hold 30 per cent of leadership positions could add up to 6 per cent to their net margins. But it runs deeper than that.

In 2004, psychologists Michelle Ryan and Alex Haslam described a phenomenon which they dubbed the “glass cliff”, in response to a study of FTSE 100 companies which found that women tend to be appointed as leaders when an organisation is in crisis.

Boris Johnson Conservative leadership bid 'Back Boris' campaign video

There are plenty of success stories. Johanna Siguroardottir became Iceland’s first female prime minister in 2009 when the country was grappling with the disastrous fallout of the global financial crisis. By any account she pulled it back from the brink, stabilising the economy in a relatively short period of time. As an aside, she was also one of the world’s first openly gay heads of government. Anne Mulcahy, former CEO of Xerox, took the company from within a whisker of Chapter 11 bankruptcy to operating profit within a year.

I also happen to agree with Washington Post columnist Robert J Samuelson when he argues it’s not Donald Trump – or even Barack Obama – who should be praised for returning the US economy to its current robust state, but Janet Yellen (who served as chair of the Federal Reserve from 2014-18).

And then there’s Angela Merkel. Love her or loathe her, she’s achieved the remarkable by leading Germany through one of the most turbulent periods of its postwar history, navigating the grim triumvirate of global financial crisis, Eurozone debt crisis, and migrant and refugee crisis. She’s a principled consensus-creator with steely rationale, and perhaps her greatest ability is to champion diplomacy and humanity even during times of total chaos.

Just like men, women can be senseless, birdbrained buffoons. They can be disillusioned and incompetent. But they can also be expert negotiators and communicators, have a laser-sharp understanding of effective crisis management, and combine deep compassion with unwavering leadership.

For millennia, men have had the opportunity to prove they can be outstanding leaders. Some have succeeded, many have not. It’s now our responsibility to at least give women that same chance. They might even prove the theory true.

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