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POLITICS: Is There a Gender-Specific Leadership Style?

Miren Gutiérrez*

ROME, Jan 9 2008 (IPS) - Is there a female way to lead? Chilean President Michelle Bachelet has raised that possibility in saying that she tries to lead through consensus, not by imposition.

"While not wishing to generalise, many women have leadership styles that have been described as &#39empowering leadership&#39 or &#39consensual leadership&#39, where they build leadership structures that share responsibilities according to the &#39best fit&#39, and in doing so, often create new types of leadership," Ayesha Kajee, former researcher at the South African Institute of International Affairs and board member of Transparency International&#39s South Africa chapter, tells IPS.

"Since women also tend to discuss problems more openly and utilise &#39group-think&#39 to seek solutions, such solutions are often more acceptable to teams. Some have described these as inherently female ways of interacting, but these styles can and should be learnt by both men and women leaders."

An example, Kajee says, is Liberian President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, who has "clearly indicated that she intends to bring feminine qualities to the Liberian presidency, a very important component in a country which has been decimated and devastated by horrendous crimes and human rights violations.

"But this is not to say that these qualities negate the need for a strong leader in Liberia. She has both – the traditional strength of will, ambition and determination associated with African leaders, which will prevent her being abused by the old boys&#39 club because she can fight most battles on equal terms with them, and also the nurturing, reconciliatory and healing qualities that her shattered nation requires to rebuild the national spirit and collective human dignity."

Inevitably, a suggestion of any specifically female style of leadership is controversial.


Joanne Sandler, deputy executive director for programmes at the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM), says she is reluctant to buy into the "essentialist argument" that women have a different way of leading.

"Some evidence tends to be true, but you cannot say all women build consensus and men don&#39t. But I think it is also true that in countries whose parliaments have more than 30 percent of women, where women can more easily access positions of leadership, they tend to get outcomes that address women&#39s rights more frequently, and other types of rights, so political negotiation is probably vulnerable to gender difference to some extent."

In places where you have more than 30 percent of women in parliament or congress, "child care policy, security, education, issues that are often associated with women, begin to emerge. I don&#39t mean that men don&#39t care about them; but I think that there is evidence that the theory of critical mass is a valid one."

Charlotte Bunch, executive director of the Centre for Women&#39s Global Leadership at Rutgers University in the U.S., tells IPS that "there is a more collaborative style of leadership that more women like and find comfortable. And women are more likely to do that, but I don&#39t call it female&#39 because some men are like that, while some women aren&#39t… But it is a cultural construction our world needs more of."

Men can take the right decisions for women, too. "I think change comes about not only because of who the president is, but also because of who she or he appoints," says Sandler.

"In Rwanda, a male head of state (Paul Kagame) has been very supportive of a gender equality policy, and as a result Rwanda has the highest percentage of women in the low and high houses of parliament. The combination of a supportive president and more women in key positions transforms the political structure, and then you start seeing changes."

New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark, Johnson-Sirleaf and others like them are "leaders who haven&#39t just achieved the position, but also follow through on their commitments to raise other issues such as nuclear disarmament, global security, women&#39s rights. A woman leader is no guarantee (of positive change), but there are examples of some of them changing the status quo."

If they want to, that is. "When Johnson-Sirleaf entered politics, the public was desperate for a change, so she had a considerable impact," says Bunch. "Margaret Thatcher (British prime minister from 1979-1990) wasn&#39t elected to change anything; her party didn&#39t want change either. So what determines change is a political power base that wants it. And Liberia is a good example."

It is no mystery that Liberia has a minister for gender development (Varbah Gayflor), says Sandler. Or women ministers for foreign affairs (Olubanke King-Akerele) and finance (Antoinette Sayeh). "Because you have a strong woman president." And a strong leadership does not mean male leadership.

At its best, seeing women in leadership can inspire other women, says Bunch. "Watching women access power does change things for other women. It makes girls imagine being in power more, imagine women can be powerful. How much is that transformational depends on the women in power."

*The third of a three-part report on women in leadership by IPS Editor-in-Chief Miren Gutiérrez.

** Thanks to Caroline Keller in Rome for the charts.

 
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