Women Leaders and Their Role in Advancing Women’s Issues

Last week, in the wake of the 100th anniversary of International Women’s Day, I read an article by Nicholas Kristof in his column for the NY Times “On the Ground” and thought it might be appropriate to discuss that article here. The article was entitled “Do Women Leaders Matter?” and it attempts to address the uncomfortable truth that women in power often do a poor job of promoting women’s rights or key women’s issues within their own countries.

Kristof answers his own question here, but it’s a complicated answer. “Women leaders do matter. But it’s less obvious to me that women leaders at the top of a country, at least initially, go out of their way to improve things for women citizens at the bottom.” Kristof’s view seems to be that, generally speaking, women leaders in high-level government positions have had relatively little positive impact on women’s issues such as maternal health or education.

But why?

Kristof offers a few answers. To begin, he uses the example of the female Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina as the sort female leader who has not served the best interests of her female population by doggedly persecuting Muhammad Yunus, the Nobel Peace Prize winning founder of the Grameen Bank, who’s global contributions have aided impoverished women worldwide. While Kristof hastens to add that Prime Minister Hasina should not be considered representative of all female political leaders, he uses her story to show that being female isn’t enough to ensure that a leader will do right by the female population in her country. As Kristof says, “it’s a reminder that the struggle to achieve gender equality is not a battle between the sexes, but something far more subtle. It’s often about misogyny and paternalism, but those are values that are absorbed and transmitted almost as much by women as by men.”

It is this complicated struggle that makes Kristof’s question here so interesting. How much responsibility does a female leader have to advance women’s issues just because she’s a woman? Should it be different for a female leader than a male leader? Why or why not?

Kristof points out that it is often women leaders at the grassroots level who are most influential, as they seem to be the ones to push for important local women’s initiatives. But he doesn’t really address why women at this level seem to do a better job than their more high-ranking female counter-parts. He suggests that is possibly an issue of critical-mass: even if there is a female prime minister, she may be one of very, very few females in the government and therefore less likely to prioritize female issues. But that’s not a very satisfying answer, at least to this reader.

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