A more peaceful world if women in charge?
February 8th, 2012
07:34 PM ET

A more peaceful world if women in charge?

Editor's Note: Joseph Nye is a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense, is a professor at Harvard and the author of The Future of Power.  For more on Nye, visit Project Syndicate or follow it on Facebook and Twitter. The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joseph Nye.

By Joseph NyeProject Syndicate

Would the world be more peaceful if women were in charge? A challenging new book by the Harvard University psychologist Steven Pinker says that the answer is “yes.”

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Pinker presents data showing that human violence, while still very much with us today, has been gradually declining. Moreover, he says, “over the long sweep of history, women have been and will be a pacifying force. Traditional war is a man’s game: tribal women never band together to raid neighboring villages.” As mothers, women have evolutionary incentives to maintain peaceful conditions in which to nurture their offspring and ensure that their genes survive into the next generation.

Skeptics immediately reply that women have not made war simply because they have rarely been in power. If they were empowered as leaders, the conditions of an anarchic world would force them to make the same bellicose decisions that men do. Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, and Indira Gandhi were powerful women; all of them led their countries to war.

But it is also true that these women rose to leadership by playing according to the political rules of “a man’s world.” It was their success in conforming to male values that enabled their rise to leadership in the first place. In a world in which women held a proportionate share (one-half) of leadership positions, they might behave differently in power.

So we are left with the broader question: does gender really matter in leadership? In terms of stereotypes, various psychological studies show that men gravitate to the hard power of command, while women are collaborative and intuitively understand the soft power of attraction and persuasion. Americans tend to describe leadership with tough male stereotypes, but recent leadership studies show increased success for what was once considered a “feminine style.”

In information-based societies, networks are replacing hierarchies, and knowledge workers are less deferential. Management in a wide range of organizations is changing in the direction of “shared leadership,” and “distributed leadership,” with leaders in the center of a circle rather than atop a pyramid. Former Google CEO Eric Schmidt said that he had to “coddle” his employees.

Even the military faces these changes. In the United States, the Pentagon says that Army drillmasters do “less shouting at everyone,” because today’s generation responds better to instructors who play “a more counseling-type role.” Military success against terrorists and counterinsurgents requires soldiers to win hearts and minds, not just break buildings and bodies.

Former US President George W. Bush once described his role as “the decider,” but there is much more to modern leadership than that. Modern leaders must be able to use networks, to collaborate, and to encourage participation. Women’s non-hierarchical style and relational skills fit a leadership need in the new world of knowledge-based organizations and groups that men, on average, are less well prepared to meet.

In the past, when women fought their way to the top of organizations, they often had to adopt a “masculine style,” violating the broader social norm of female “niceness.” Now, however, with the information revolution and democratization demanding more participatory leadership, the “feminine style” is becoming a path to more effective leadership. In order to lead successfully, men will not only have to value this style in their women colleagues, but will also have to master the same skills.

That is a trend, not (yet) a fact. Women still lag in leadership positions, holding only 5% of top corporate positions and a minority of positions in elected legislatures (just 16% in the US, for example, compared to 45% in Sweden). One study of the 1,941 rulers of independent countries during the twentieth century found only 27 women, roughly half of whom came to power as widows or daughters of a male ruler. Less than 1% of twentieth-century rulers were women who gained power on their own.

So, given the new conventional wisdom in leadership studies that entering the information age means entering a woman’s world, why are women not doing better?

Lack of experience, primary caregiver responsibilities, bargaining style, and plain old discrimination all help to explain the gender gap. Traditional career paths, and the cultural norms that constructed and reinforced them, simply have not enabled women to gain the skills required for top leadership positions in many organizational contexts.

Research shows that even in democratic societies, women face a higher social risk than men when attempting to negotiate for career-related resources such as compensation. Women are generally not well integrated into male networks that dominate organizations, and gender stereotypes still hamper women who try to overcome such barriers.

This bias is beginning to break down in information-based societies, but it is a mistake to identify the new type of leadership we need in an information age simply as “a woman’s world.” Even positive stereotypes are bad for women, men, and effective leadership.

Leaders should be viewed less in terms of heroic command than as encouraging participation throughout an organization, group, country, or network. Questions of appropriate style – when to use hard and soft skills – are equally relevant for men and women, and should not be clouded by traditional gender stereotypes. In some circumstances, men will need to act more “like women”; in others, women will need to be more “like men.”

The key choices about war and peace in our future will depend not on gender, but on how leaders combine hard- and soft-power skills to produce smart strategies. Both men and women will make those decisions. But Pinker is probably correct when he notes that the parts of the world that lag in the decline of violence are also the parts that lag in the empowerment of women.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of Joseph Nye.
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Topics: Women

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  7. Tomi

    Nye writes as if all leadership skills are turning feminine. From this argument he then tries to figure out why women aren't in power more. False. Actually, there is (according to Nye) a trend towards more feminine skills. But only a trend. Lets' say their importance has grown by 20% in, say, the last decade or two. Let's further say that these skills are 20% more likely to show up in women than men. If everything else remains the same the number of women in powerful positions should have risen with a few per cents (which is is what it has done). Right?

    June 26, 2012 at 12:57 pm | Reply
  8. ZimbaZumba

    Possibly the most facile and thin discussion on this issue I have ever heard. CNN at its 'best'.

    June 26, 2012 at 1:29 pm | Reply
  9. Anonymous


    – Margaret Thatcher
    – Benazir Bhutto
    – Indira Ghandi
    – Golda Meier
    – Catherine the Great
    – Elizabeth I
    – Mary Queen of Scots (a.k.a. "Bloody Mary")
    – Cleopatra

    And wasn't it Queen Isabella of Spain who instigated the Inquisiton?

    August 16, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply
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  11. bettyhill

    I hope that this is right as the significance has far more bearing than is indicated here. For an understanding of why, visit http://thewif.org.uk and click on the 'Women in Management', Talk and Presentation – viewed in Tandem.

    Dr David Hill
    Chief Executive
    World Innovation Foundation
    Huddersfield, UK – Bern, Switzerland – Arlington/Washington, USA

    November 27, 2012 at 2:59 pm | Reply
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    Reblogged this on Flip It Right Side Up.

    July 10, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Reply
    • jason taylor

      That is a statistical error. You can just as easily say men are more in demand in places where there is high violence and so rise to the top. Or for that matter you can say it is a loop; the violence creates a demand for men which creates violence and so on.

      March 10, 2014 at 1:23 pm | Reply
  13. Deep Think

    Once again in this blog as well as most blogs dealing with getting more women into leadership positions the author makes the mistake of bashing the male gender in his zeal to get more women promoted to leadership positions. He fails to say anything positive about male leadership. There doesn't seem to be any shortage of men rushing to the microphone to announce the inferiority of their own gender! Joseph fails to understand human nature.He thinks that by promoting women as susperior leaders more women will be promoted. He doesn't realize that the majority of people in position to promote leaders are males. He doesn't realaize that leaders male or females don't promote people who are susperior to themselves for fear of loosing their jobs to the susperior leaders they themselves promoted! The more you tell males that women are susperior to them in leadership the less likely it becomes that males will promote females.

    Instead of trying to sell female susperiority which is counterproductive instead say it like this. We need more women in leadership roles not because women are susperior leaders but because women have a different style of leadership that when added to the male style of leadership creates diversity which in turn leads to greater productivity. thus it is not female susperiority that women bring to the table but women create diversity which is why we need more women in leadership roles. Said this way the male gender is not being made to feel inferior. Neither gender is being glorified at the exspense of the other.

    August 7, 2013 at 10:26 pm | Reply
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