Women Politicians’ Heat Level: Blazing patriarchal values of violence little by little

  • Women politicians are slowly but blazingly promoting peaceful policies.
  • Female heads of government have been an outlier to peaceful trends.
  • Fighting patriarchal values can make a change in foreign policymaking.

Why is Women Politicians’ heat level Blazing?

Answer: Women politicians are incentivising less violent foreign policies.

There are currently 16 women in the highest position of a country’s executive power. In 1970 there were only 3 (out of 193 UN Member States). Most of the world’s countries have never had a female leader. Given that women represent half of the world population, these numbers are extremely low. Fortunately, we are on the way to progress. This is particularly the case in parliaments, and specifically in developing countries. Rwanda has 63% of women in Parliament and Cuba is second with 53%. This article’s “Hot or Not” bubble in Latin America is in honour of Mexico, which celebrated the Women’s march last Sunday with 80.000 protesters, and which ranks as the 4th country with most women in parliament.

As the following graph shows, so-called developed countries have much to improve if they want to be labelled as developed in gender equality.

An interesting (and hopeful) trend arises the more women enter politics: countries are becoming less belligerent in their foreign policymaking. For instance, when the percentage of women in the legislature increases by 5%, a state is nearly 5 times less likely to use violence during a crisis situation. The same pattern applies to expenditure on defence, which is reduced when more women enter parliament. 

Unfortunately, an outlier to this trend has historically been women in high positions of political power, such as heads of government. Contrary to the situation in parliament, when a woman becomes head of government, spending on defence increases by 3%. She is also more likely to increase violence severity and resort to using force during a crisis. Examples of these female hawks have been “Iron Lady” Margaret Thatcher, Indira Gandhi, and Hillary Clinton (as secretary of state). However, it appears this trend is changing: more often than not, we can find examples of women in high political positions that actively promote collaboration and non-violent solutions to crisis situations. 

What is driving this outlier?

Answer: Our patriarchal political system that favours violence and militarism.

It is a fact that our international system is patriarchal; our institutions have been designed by men, governed by men and controlled by men to serve male interests – as shown in the (low) historical numbers of women in politics. This system has traditionally encouraged aggressive policymaking during crises that follows what our society perceives as “strong”. Not coincidentally, these “strong” policies represent stereotypically “masculine” traits and values: statistically, men tend to prefer unilateral solutions and the use of violence as answers to conflict situations. 

On the other hand, women tend to prefer more collaborative and peaceful policies, which are stereotypically seen as “feminine”. Unfortunately, and reflecting patriarchal ideas of female inferiority, this type of collaborative policies are perceived as “weak” by our society. 

As a result, our international system that has historically incentivized “masculine” and “strong” policies has led to a culture of violence and militarism. Within this culture, women politicians are perceived as unfit to deal with conflict situations due to stereotypes of female weakness. These stereotypes have important implications for those women politicians trying to access the political system, as well as for those women that would prefer to promote collaborative policies.

Whenever a woman is running for office, she faces a selection bias from the electorate, and especially during a crisis situation. This is what happened in the US after 9/11: the electorate preferred more masculine traits in electoral candidates.  A survey showed that almost ⅔ of respondents do not believe that men and women officeholders are equally suited to deal with military affairs. Of the 64% of respondents that gender stereotype around this issue, 95% contend that men are better able than women to deal with military crises. 

This selection bias explains why politicians like Thatcher and Clinton have tried to emulate masculine traits when running for office: the aim was to overcome gender stereotypes of female weakness. Thatcher trained herself to lower her pitch of voice in order to sound more assertive and masculine. Clinton changed her language from feminine to masculine during speeches for the electoral campaign.

Once women reach high political positions, the obstacles continue. They will face a credibility challenge from their colleagues, opponents and the electorate. Gender stereotypes result in people making assessments of a female politician’s performance and policy preferences based on their gender. For instance, if a female head of government fails in a conflict situation, it is more likely for this failure to be blamed on her gender and her being “too weak” for such an important position. This may, in turn, lead to women fighting against this credibility challenge by pursuing more “masculine” foreign policies and trying harder to succeed in international conflicts. 

For instance, President Khan from Pakistan claimed that, in fear of losing to a woman, he acted more aggressively in the conflict with India. This credibility challenge may explain Gandhi’s level of aggressiveness in order to succeed in such conflict and not appear weak.

Overall, with this patriarchal system, we are left with two options: women elected for office have to forcefully become more aggressive to appear as fit for their position, or we are electing only those women that are aggressive enough for these positions. Whether one or the other applies, the outcome is the same: a more belligerent world for all of us.

Who is changing Women Politicians’ temperature?

Simple answer: Women politicians.

The outlier, however, appears to be changing when we observe current female leaders and their policies. For instance, Jacinda Ardern, who proudly waves the flag of a mother in office, has also been praised for her peaceful response to the 2017 terrorist attacks on a mosque and her tender policies. Another example is the Swedish Foreign Minister Margot Wallström, who set to follow a feminist foreign policy.

For example, she has denounced rape as a weapon of war and has called out Saudi Arabia for the flogging of a blogger, which cost Sweden a military deal (and loads of objections by business leaders). Last but not least, first democratically-elected African president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf won the Nobel Peace Prize for keeping Liberia at peace and promoting women’s rights.

What could be driving this change? Interestingly, both New Zealand and Sweden are countries with some of the highest ratios of women in parliament (40% and 46% respectively). It appears that the more women get involved in politics, the more the patriarchal pillars of our systems are being eroded. This also means that there may be a change in the society of these countries. Are they more used to seeing women as successful leaders? Are they evolving towards more “feminine” cultures?  

Famous culture expert, Geert Hofstede, has identified societies that are either feminine or masculine. Those that are masculine portray distinguished social gender roles of masculine aggressiveness, on the one hand, and feminine tenderness, on the other. Those that are feminine experience an overlap of these roles with both men and women adopting feminine values. Are societies with more women in politics shifting their preferences towards feminine values? These feminine societies are those that prefer collaborative policies during conflict and could explain the new trends pointed out above.

What does this mean for you?

Answer: Peace for all!

The reason why there is so much conflict and war in this world? Our patriarchal system that favours violence and militarism (stereotypically “masculine” strategies). And of course, this system continues to be primarily run by men with “masculine” traits that reinforce aggressive policies, as well as by a minority of female leaders that also reinforce these traits and policies. And let’s not turn a blind eye to us, the electorate: we reinforce these policies in our choices during national elections.

The solution? Eliminating patriarchy by fighting stereotypes of female weakness and promoting the peaceful values and policies that we want for our society (unless you don’t want these, for which I can write another article). And how do we fight these gender stereotypes? With more women in power that will be able to show their fitness for office. This will not only allow for women to promote peaceful policies, but also for men to safely pursue collaborative policies without being called “weak as a woman”. Indeed, both women and men politicians are influenced by a patriarchal system that favours violence.