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Obama once said that if women ran the world, there’d be less war

Here’s what the research says.

- December 22, 2019
Allied foreign and defense ministers at NATO July 2023 Vilnius summit, women leadership meeting (cc) NATO

Editors’ note: In this archival piece, Good Authority contributor Abigail S. Post shares her research on gendered leadership — and how female prime ministers and presidents face gender stereotypes that can constrain their efforts to pursue peace. This analysis was previously published in the Washington Post in late 2019.

In December 2019, former president Barack Obama remarked, “If more women were put in charge, there would be less war, kids would be better taken care of and there would be a general improvement in living standards and outcomes.” Obama has made similar comments in the past. For example, he discussed the importance of “putting women in power, because men seem to be having some problems these days.”

My research, co-authored with Paromita Sen, suggests that Obama is both right and wrong. While research indicates that more women in legislatures increases peaceful policies, we find that countries with women as leaders — prime ministers, presidents, etc. — participate in more violent disputes. Because most societies (including Americans) often stereotype female leaders as “weak,” female leaders often compensate for this perceived weakness by acting more aggressively.

Why can’t a woman be more like a man?

A woman knows that her leadership role demands strength, but her gender demands a gentler tactic. Women in powerful leadership roles thus face a “double bind” — critics condemn a gentle approach (such as compromise) as weak, but call a strong approach (such as military force) too aggressive.

Women are likely to face two stereotypes that hinder them from pursuing peace over war in office. First, people see women as more communal (warm, gentle, nurturing), but leadership stereotypes demand agency (aggressive, ambitious, dominant), which are traits often associated with men. When women take on agentic roles, people view them as less competent.

This is exacerbated by the stereotype that women are more emotional than men. Richard Nixon once noted: “I don’t think a woman should be in any government job whatever. I mean, I really don’t. The reason why I do is mainly because they are erratic. And emotional. Men are erratic and emotional, too, but the point is a woman is more likely to be.”

Because of these stereotypes, audiences view women as ill-suited to handle situations related to national security. In one study done in 2002, 61 percent of respondents said they believed men were better prepared to respond to a military crisis than women, while only 3 percent answered that women are better able to handle a military crisis. The rest viewed men and women as equally capable.

Much of this bias operates at what psychologists call the “implicit” level. Implicit bias refers to the attitudes and stereotypes that affect people in an unconscious manner. Most of us don’t realize we carry around these biases as they affect our day-to-day interactions.

How women approach crisis bargaining

In our research, we argue that women face these implicit biases even more when they manage foreign policy and national security. The perceived strength of women — their ability to strike a compromise — is seen as weakness during a military crisis. Women must escalate the disagreement to establish resolve.

We examined all female heads of state involved in military disputes with other nations between 1980 and 2010. In a statistical model, we find that women are nearly 17 percentage points more likely than their male counterparts to face resistance to their threats from international opponents (i.e., other countries). Women consequently use more military force to overcome their opponent’s initial resistance.

We argue that gender bias within the foreign government causes them to resist women’s threats. We propose that women escalate the disputes only after they cannot accomplish their goals peacefully. Women are not intrinsically more violent but use military action to push back against gender stereotypes.

We find historical evidence to support both initial resistance and subsequent military escalation during the lead-up to Bangladesh’s civil war in 1971. Indira Gandhi, India’s first female prime minister, made it extremely clear that India would wage war unless Pakistan liberated Bangladesh. Pakistani President Yahya Khan’s response to Indian threats was one of disbelief: “If that woman [Indira Gandhi] thinks she is going to cow me down, I refuse to take it. If she wants to fight, I’ll fight her!” Pakistan resisted Gandhi’s threats, but India defeated Pakistan’s army in 13 days.

Consider how this cycle might translate to future decisions about war and peace: A female U.S. president condemns Russia for its aggression. To demonstrate resolve, she threatens military action. The Russian president decides it’s a bluff — because she’s a woman. Russia continues to invade and the United States goes to war to avoid looking weak.

What this means for the future of women in power

Obama makes a big leap when he assumes that women can so quickly overcome the biases of “old people, usually old men” who just won’t get “out of the way” to affect issues of war and peace. Society perceives women as good at compromise, but few voters want a leader to compromise on issues close to the national security.

More women in key leadership positions might be the answer, but this shift also calls for a reduction in gender bias globally. While it’s difficult to eradicate bias completely, studies find that simply being aware of bias reduces its effects. As more women achieve the highest levels of office, will our views of women in leadership change as well?

Abigail S. Post is an assistant professor of national security and political science at Anderson University in Indiana.