The Overlooked Evidence on Women's Leadership

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton smiles as she listens to her introduction at a campaign event in Athen
U.S. Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton smiles as she listens to her introduction at a campaign event in Athens, West Virginia, United States, May 3, 2016. REUTERS/Jim Young

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Einstein supposedly said that doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result is the definition of lunacy.  Yet over and over we've behaved as if men deserve a monopoly on authority and decision-making. So what are the facts?
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Women political leaders have passed more legislation and been able to bridge partisan divides more often than men. According to Bloomberg, women's willingness to spend time together outside the House and Senate chambers paves the way for policy-making efficacy. Even as the legislative process has been paralyzed by strident partisan divides and rampant ideological "purity," US Congresswomen co-sponsored legislation more often, and co-sponsored with other female legislators more than male legislators do with each other.

According to the World Economic Forum, closing the gender gap would dramatically boost GDP. The Center for Partnership Studies' social wealth economic indicators (SWEIs), show that gender parity in education, employment, and economic security drives economic expansion, broadens prosperity, and raises standards of living across the board.

Women in the upper echelons of management make companies more profitable. Ironically, most companies have no female board members, and a paltry 5% have a female CEO, even though increasing the percentage of women in top management has a strong correlation with boosting the bottom line. "An increase in the share of women from zero to 30 percent would be associated with a 15 percent rise in profitability," according to a study reported by The New York Times.

Philanthropy is another domain in which women have distinguished themselves. According to Stacey Stewart of United Way Worldwide, women volunteer more and contribute more to charitable causes even though they make less than men. "They speak up, unite and take action on issues that hit closest to home by giving, volunteering and using their voice to make change. Whether it's helping with literacy in Lafayette, Louisiana, teaching leadership skills in Philadelphia or supporting out of school time success programs in Winston-Salem, United Ways' women leaders are the drivers behind positive change in their communities. In some cities, they're achieving what many would have thought was impossible."

Rising income inequality, a middling economy, and racial tensions require a cohesive response.  When business and policy-making remain in the hands of a single gender, a single race, and limited perspectives derived from limited life experiences, we cannot hope to access the best available ideas.  It's time to disrupt old behaviors and stop expecting solutions from the same thinking that created the problems.

But aren't male leaders more likely to ensure national security? Here again data show that women at the helm actually make a positive difference. The US Council on Foreign Relations, for example, reported last month that post-conflict negotiations in which women are directly involved have a 35% greater chance of lasting 15 years or longer. Women's participation saves lives.

None of this means that men cannot also focus on relationship building, be empathic, or put aside their own agendas to work for the common good. But at this point in history, men are generally not socialized to manifest these "feminine" traits and behaviors, and we have all been taught that this is not what "real" leaders are like.

So instead of highlighting the benefits of diversity in leadership, our media tend to amplify sexist prejudices. along with the devaluation of the so-called feminine - even though we urgently need leaders who bring to the table "feminine values," such as caring for and empowering others.

Of course, women can be tough. Men can also embrace "feminine" values. And motherhood is excellent training for leadership. Effective mothers negotiate, motivate, and educate their children every day, at the same time that they juggle a million demands and steer their families through unexpected crises.

As Dr. Wanda Austin, President and CEO of The Aerospace Corporation and a major player in the US space security program, recently noted on BBC Radio: "Women lead from home all the time. They are the ones who set the schedules, set the priorities, and make sure that you've thought through everything that the family needs. They make big important decisions about what are we going to eat, where are we going to live, so that's another dimension of leadership."

These are ultimately the kinds of decisions good leaders must make for a nation's citizens in allocating resources and setting social and economic priorities. This is yet another reason, as shown in the SWEI Executive Summary, that the status of women is an especially important factor for both long-term economic prosperity and greater equity for all.

It's high time to abandon the old default setting that points inevitably to male leadership. We can't solve today's problems with the same old power structure. Women's leadership, while not yet widespread, has already proven effective in a variety of contexts, like keeping the peace, overcoming conflict, turning a profit and enacting legislation. We can only gain from expanding the field and diversifying the perspectives when it comes to putting together the next group of men and women to exercise authority on our behalf.

What are we waiting for?