Are women who act like men more likely to become leaders? Are quotas the only way to see more women in public roles? These were the two questioned that framed the debate about women in leadership organised by the BBC on Tuesday 1st December as part of their 100 women debate series.
In considering these questions it would perhaps be best to start out with an analysis of what leadership is and how this might be distinct from success. And if we are to debate how women can become successful, it would be worth asking upon whose terms? A key question here would be - is success as a rampant capitalist the only success our society can currently recognise? Secondly it is worth noting that in order to be successful within the terms of this patriarchal system in whatever field you find yourself, you will probably have to accept its conditions: you have to agree that the means by which assessments are made are somehow correct.
What was striking about the BBC debate was its focus on the corporate world. Somewhere along the lines earning tonnes of money has become synonymous with leadership. There as experts on the subject were figures from the corporate world such as Goldman Sachs, Dell and IBM as well as successful entrepreneurs. There were other speakers present, including Sophie Walker leader of the Women's Equality Party (and myself), but for both debates, the first on BBC world News, and second on BBC World Service radio, the focus remained on the high earners. While the BBC webpage has one of our favourite pin up leaders Aung Sang Su Kyi, it seems the question really was, how can some women, like other men, earn a huge quantity of money, and what qualities are best suited to this task?
However the premise of the debate remains interesting. Do women need to act like men in order to be leaders? If 'acting like a man' mean being bossy, dominant and not looking after your own children, parents or anyone else, I am not sure the world needs any more of them. Shouldn't we instead be pushing for men to be more like women? Wouldn't the world be better if there were more people listening and caring for each other? Since the election of Jeremy Corbyn this question of 'leadership material' comes up almost daily and while the political class may be out raged by the way he would like to lead, certainly it seems that many Labour members do not agree. There is no need for us to accept that that there is only one way of leading and often to do so is to accept the rhetoric of domination. It is not hard to see the way that this is dangerous and part of a larger and more destructive logic. The qualities with which women are most often associated, the ability to listen and concede when necessary, surely would be useful to any leader?
There is an underlying assumption here that women merely being present either in board rooms or in governments will somehow be better for the world, that this will be one step towards a more equal society for the genders. Here in the UK we don't need to be reminded that having a woman in a high place is not necessarily good for other women - particularly the most vulnerable: not all women are feminists. Quotas may be an expedient means by which to change the status quo and counter the implicit bias that sees mediocre men become leaders, but they do need to be accompanied by a commitment to valuing women's issues and recognising that they touch everyone's lives.
It is worth considering a few statistics here: Rwanda is a good case in point. Back in 2003 after the devastation of the civil war and genocide the new constitution set a 30% quota for women in government, however even in that first year of elections women won 48.8% of the seats. That number is now at 63.8%. Meanwhile the UK remains at 29.4%. However numerous pieces of research on Rwanda come to the same conclusion:
"high political representation of women in parliament has not translated in legislative gains for women"
Meanwhile in 2013 Ireland came 6th in the World Economic Forum's analysis of data measuring the gender gap along the lines of Economic Participation, Educational Attainment, Political Empowerment and Health. This is a country where women can't have abortions even in the cases of rape and incest. The UK came 18th. Much of this is down to their ranking on the "Political Empowerment" category. In this context I don't know about you, but if I had to choose a leader I'd far prefer a feminist man, than a sexist woman - such a shame that there are so few of them.