Not for women
Last week, President Duterte regaled us with yet more of his thoughts on women. His proclamation that the presidency was not suited for women because of the latter’s “emotional set-up” was the latest in a string of events that make it very clear what the President thinks of the opposite sex.
One remembers that in June 2020’s Asean Leaders’ Special Session on Women’s Empowerment in the Digital Age, the President affirmed the Philippines’ commitment to gender equality. At the time, he admitted the challenges to women empowerment, including “structures and practices in society that perpetuate the discrimination against and oppression of women”—playing blind to the fact that his own words, and the culture of misogyny they promote, are part of those very structures. Nonetheless, the ill-thought-out proclamation has stimulated discussion on female leadership during the pandemic.
Vice President Leni Robredo countered the President’s views by citing women-led nations as “best performing” ones during the coronavirus crisis. It is a statement that requires some scrutiny, as there has indeed been much press about these countries, such as New Zealand under Jacinda Ardern or Germany under Angela Merkel.
A study published in July 2020, and often cited since, examined the performance of 19 women-led countries versus 174 male-led ones during the global catastrophe. Any analysis of female leaders, particularly on a global scale, is limited by the fact that they are in the minority; the study tried to overcome this small sample size by “matching” each female-led nation with a “near neighbor” in terms of economic and sociopolitical characteristics.
The study concluded that when women-led nations were compared to similar countries, they performed better in terms of total number of COVID-19 cases and deaths, perhaps linked to earlier lockdowns; researchers suggest that women seemed to be more risk-averse “in the domain of human life,” but more willing to take risks with their economies earlier on, with earlier lockdowns. Another August 2020 study concluded that women-led countries performed slightly better in terms of public health metrics for controlling the spread of COVID-19.
Experts commenting on the matter have attributed this success to other (sometimes woolly) concepts, such as authenticity and even “love.” While these nations’ achievements are to be celebrated, this type of press may do more harm than good for women’s empowerment. At best, the homogenous idea of a “female leader” is a nebulous one: All women, and thus all women leaders, are different. Women do not have the same leadership styles because of their sex.
The generalization that women-led nations do better exactly because of female leadership is a narrative that should be handled more critically, because their success is often simplistically linked to traditionally female characteristics of empathy and nurturing, yet again reinforcing the facile and false idea that Men are X while Women are Y.
Moreover, it is possible that women leaders are a symptom, and not the cause, of good governance: That nations progressive enough to elect diverse leaders in the first place were better off to begin with. The fake-progressive idea that female leaders would make better leaders, period, should also be retired, as we have plenty of examples of cruel, bigoted, out-of-touch female global leaders to go by. Still, the conclusion is simple—while no leader is perfect, we have evidence that women leaders are capable of competence in a global crisis.
The fact that President Duterte, himself a global leader, does not grasp this level of nuance is telling. The fact that he is unable to recognize the glaring flaws in the country’s leadership and pandemic response is equally telling. In 2013, Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic, writing for the Harvard Business Review, posited that women have been underrepresented in leadership not because of a lack of leadership characteristics, but because we are often unable to weed out incompetent men, often confusing confidence with competence, hubris with leadership potential.
Unfortunately, the events of 2020, and the disastrous consequences for strongmen-led countries, bear this out. The pandemic has exposed, more than the strengths of female leaders, the weakness, hubris, and lack of empathy of so-called strongmen leaders. If the presidency is “not for women,” then much less should it be for the narcissistic, intellectually weak, corrupt, and incompetent men who are at the forefront of our current leadership.
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