Women Presidents Outperform Their Male Counterparts in Complex Economies

President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, waits to address the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N.
President of Liberia, Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, waits to address the 67th session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters, Wednesday, Sept. 26, 2012. (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow)

This post was co-authored with Susan Perkins, Assistant Professor of International Business and Markets at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University, and Katherine Phillips, the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics at Columbia Business School.

As President Obama delivered his fifth State of the Union address this past week, he may have had more female peers watching this time than any president in U.S. history. In fact, female heads of state are more common now than ever before -- the number has quadrupled since 1960 when Sri Lanka's Sirimavo Bandaranaike became the first elected female head of state in the modern world. Just this January, the Central African Republic joined a growing list of nations around the world led by a female president. Despite their increasing presence on the global stage, the relative effectiveness of women national leaders in growing the world's toughest economies compared to their male counterparts was largely unknown -- until now.

In the most ethnically diverse countries, women outperform their male counterparts when it comes to growing the gross domestic product (GDP), a globally significant measure of national economic progress, according to our recent findings just published in the Journal of International Affairs. In countries characterized by the highest levels of ethnic diversity (read: the most complex and divided, such as the Central African Republic and Liberia), having a female national leader is correlated with a 6.6 percent GDP growth rate in the following year, as compared to a rate of less than one percent with a male leader. For example, in Liberia and the Central African Republic -- countries which rank among the most ethnically diverse in the world -- the predicted GDP growth rate is near six percent with a female leader as compared to near one percent with a male leader.

This revelation, which is the product of a five-decade examination of 5,700 national leader observations in 139 nations, dispels the myth that women are too maternal, lack strength or are otherwise ill-equipped to provide senior-level leadership in trying times and amid complex circumstances. Our findings reveal that not only can women grow global economies, but that a little motherly sensitivity can go a long way in guiding a nation in need of healing to not only mend, but thrive.

Ethnically diverse nations suffer from more ethnic conflict and inequality, less inclusion and weaker economic growth than their more ethnically homogeneous counterparts. High levels of ethnic diversity make governing a more complicated high-wire act than in less complex societies. That women can not only succeed in these trying circumstances, but flourish runs counter to previous misconceptions and approaches to women leaders in the U.S. and worldwide, and begs a reexamination of the qualities associated with successful leadership. This is no easy task, as the myth that women are "too emotional" to lead nations is deeply ingrained in the U.S. and often perpetuated by the media, who seem apt to focus on Sarah Palin's reactions or Hillary Clinton's tears.

To be sure, care, compassion and "motherly sensitivity" do not immediately trigger thoughts of effective leadership, nation-building and economic might. We wanted to investigate whether there were times when that nurturing style of leadership is not only acceptable, but highly desirable for a country's future growth. Our evidence adds to an active scholarly and public conversation about the value of women's collaborative, transformational, inclusive leadership styles. We discovered that countries with the deepest ethnic divides perform better on average with women at the helm.

Perhaps its women's proclivity for inclusivity and collaboration that provides for such radical growth. Evolutionary social psychologists suggest that people instinctively select and follow leaders who are uniquely well-suited to solve the particular social coordination challenges faced by the group. We have seen this at work on the global stage in how nations select their leaders. For example, in Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf -- fondly regarded as the country's "Iron Lady" with a touch of motherly sensitivity -- was elected to nurture her war-ravaged, corrupt Liberia back to vitality. Or take the case of South Korea, which elected their first female president, Park Geun-hye, with the hope of laying "the groundwork for an era of harmonious unification" for a deeply-divided Korean peninsula.

The question is not whether Americans are ready to elect a female president, but whether the fractious nature of our politics in Washington, the deepening racial tension in our cities, and the growing socioeconomic gap between the haves and the have-nots creates a perfect storm for which a collaboratively-inclined leader can be the cure. The storm clouds have gathered. While it is well-known that the United States lags behind our global colleagues, we now have fresh evidence that speeding a woman to the Oval Office could not only revolutionize the office and our country, but may significantly grow the U.S. GDP. And in the words of Christine Lagarde, Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, "When it's messy, get the women."

What our nation needs in our next President is a leader who can repair the breaches that divide us, empower the disenfranchised and disinherited among us, and skillfully navigate our nation forward -- together. Perhaps a "she" will be our best hope.