Women should be judged on character and ability, not identity politics

By Ioannis Gatsiounis – – Tuesday, March 5, 2019


Growing calls for more women in leadership are based on the legitimate claim that many talented women have been held back in our male-dominated society. But in this age of acute identity politics, the push often includes the belief that more women in positions of power will make the world a better place. We’ll see fewer wars, the theory goes, because women are less violent than men. They’ll be better listeners, communicators, collaborators and so forth.

This notion is reflected in the record number of women running for president and who ran and were elected in the midterms. And it has gotten no less than an endorsement than from former President Obama, who told a leadership group in South Africa last year that “empowering more women” will help mend government and policies.

To be sure, erasing the gender gap has the power to be a force of good, giving greater representation to issues that matter most to women, from sexual harassment to paid work leave, and to positively restructure our cultural norms of what it means to be a leader in the 21st century. But doing so on the assumption that “female” energy or characteristics — none of which captures the sum of individual women — will solve our social and political ills will in fact just reinforce the status quo, as evinced by a recent spate of women who have attained pinnacles of corporate and political power amid high hopes for change only to disappoint in ways strikingly similar to men.

Within just the last few years, the first elected female presidents of Brazil and South Korea, Dilma Rousseff and Park Geun-hye of South Korea, were impeached for abusing their power. Facebook’s Sheryl Sandberg went from poster girl for female self-empowerment to a face of greed and arrogance in the tech sector. Burma’s de facto leader and former democracy icon Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma, once known as “The Lady,” now stands accused of doing nothing to stop the rape and murder of the country’s Rohingya people, while Ellen Johnson Sirleaf became Africa’s first elected female head of state only to be expelled from her party on allegations of vote-tampering and nepotism.

Last month came news that Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who is running for president, has been abusive toward her staff, a month after a report that another presidential hopeful, Sen. Kamala Harris, whose website describes her as a progressive “speaking truth, demanding justice,” had a punitive track record as attorney general of California.

While reporting on political power in Asia, I found women often to be no less susceptible to abusing power than their male counterparts, and not discernibly better at advancing the national interest. Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo of the Philippines and Yingluck Shinawatra of Thailand were charged with abuse of power. In Malaysia the wife of disgraced former Prime Minister Najib Razak, Rosmah Mansor, was seen by many as the power behind the throne, and has since been charged with 17 counts of money laundering and receiving bribes of $45 million. Megawati Sukarnoputri’s short rein as Indonesia’s first female president was characterized by indecisiveness and rampant corruption.

Even the Women’s March, whose mission is to harness the political power of women “to create transformative social change,” has not been spared, with the group’s co-chair, Tamika Mallory, coming under fire for calling known racist and anti-Semite Louis Farrakhan the greatest of all time, casting doubt on the group’s future?

None of this is to suggest that women have less integrity or competence than men. Indeed, my list leaves out many prominent women who have avoided making headlines for all the wrong reasons, and sometimes have made them for all the right ones, including Janet Yellen, Angela Merkel, Mary Barra, Kristalina Georgieva and Michelle Obama, to name a few. Discount the ability for women to lead your company or community in the right direction and you may, well, get the wrong man for the job.

But most women don’t reach the apex of political and corporate power through all those wonderful traits we loosely ascribe to women. They do so by and large the same way men do: by conforming to and being morally compromised by the institutions they enter — if not also through an ambitious pursuit of power. Why then should we expect them not to be tempted to abuse power once they obtain it, and to rewrite the course of human history in the process?

In this age of fanatical identity politicking, it’s easy to miss all the ways in which women are all too human; we’re susceptible to overstating the virtues of our in-group and the shortcomings of the out-group, feeding the utopian illusion that if only our group replaced them in positions of power the world would be transformed into a better place. So we end up missing the destructive characteristics that unite us as humans — vanity, envy, greed, fear, ignorance, self-certainty, tribalism and so forth — and that have ensured limited human progress over the centuries.

The danger in this romanticized view of the fairer sex is that it encourages us to judge candidates more superficially, to look less at character and ability than an identity marker in determining who is qualified. This will help us reach the noble aim of more women leaders but leave us with far less than women leaders are capable of delivering.

• Ioannis Gatsiounis has reported on race and gender issues around the world.

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