This is what happens when you put a woman in charge

One of the things that drives me absolutely squirrel-burying nuts about how we choose political leadership is the fact that those decisions get made based on our personal evaluations of the candidates. For some reason, we can’t separate the qualities necessary for effective policy-making from the qualities necessary for bowling. Our news cycles get clogged with personal flotsam about whether or not this candidate or that one is affable, is nice, wears the right clothes… whatever. I’m not saying that there aren’t some personal qualities that are also required for effective leadership – I’m sure consensus-building and interpersonal skills are a necessary component of getting policy made – but they are certainly not the whole bag.

The part that especially grinds my gears is that our interminable evaluations based on the same handful of largely meaningless characteristics gives us, predictably, the same kinds of candidates all the time: people who are great at campaigning and lousy and governing. Because of deeply-entrenched attitudes about women, it also tends to give us a abundance of male candidates. Incidentally, because of similar attitudes about visible minorities, they tend to be white, but that’s a conversation for another time. This is, to be blunt about it, our society voluntarily shackling itself. While I am sure there are many white men who are incredibly competent politicians, I do not believe that political leadership is their exclusive province. Having more women in leadership positions probably makes us pass better policy.

Maybe you disagree with me. But you know who’s probably on my side? Germany and the rest of Europe:

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s step-by-step approach is panning out in efforts to save the euro while at home she has blunted the opposition to emerge politically stronger, analysts said. Although Merkel was earlier criticised for appearing slow to act and provide leadership in tackling Europe’s debt crisis, the 57-year-old physicist earned plaudits for her style at this week’s landmark EU summits.

In addition, Germany’s first woman chancellor has strengthened her position domestically, analysts said, midway through her second term after a string of stinging setbacks for her coalition government. “She now has a stronger position than before,” Merkel’s biographer Gerd Langguth of the Institute for Political Science and Sociology at Bonn University said.

I want to take a moment to comment on how awesome the picture accompanying this article is.

Chancellor Merkel appears to be saying to that disembodied man’s hand: “don’t touch me, dick! I’ve got shit to fix around here.” Either that, or she’s pointing over her shoulder to the pile of naysayers whose asses she kicked in a methodical, step-by-step fashion.

Angela Merkel, people might be surprised to learn (I certainly was), is a physicist. This fact is remarkable for two reasons. First, because there is a bias against women in the sciences – stereotype threat usually discourages women from achieving success. Second, because she is a politician – rather than electing a lawyer or a business tycoon, they elected a severe physicist. It is Germany, so maybe a degree in physics there is like owning a pizza chain here.

Now one should not interpret this as a blanket approval of Angela Merkel’s policies. I am stupid enough on global economics and finance to know which fights to stay out of. I have no idea if the deal she struck with the European Union’s financiers is a good one for economic recovery. Even if it is, I don’t know much about her other social policies (except when she declared multiculturalism a failure, and I disagree with her about that, but that’s a conversation for another time).

The point is that what Chancellor Merkel did took a great deal of grit, skill, and determination. It was not something that just anyone could have done. It might not even have had anything to do with the fact that she’s a woman – it’s entirely possible that the kind of wheeling and dealing required to pull off this kind of deal could have been done just as well by a man. The point is that she was equal to the task – a task that required a special skill set that Chancellor Merkel has.

Imagine a world in which no women were elected to high-ranking government positions. A world where no matter what your innate talents, your ovaries disqualify you from holding the office of chancellor. Run the tape forward, and Angela Merkel, with her distinctive talents, would not have been there to negotiate this deal. There’s a fair chance that, without her, things wouldn’t have worked out.

Imagine a different world in which sex is no barrier whatsoever to being elected. While not a complete meritocracy, this world is at least measurably better than the other one, insofar as talented women are not discriminated against because of their reproductive organs. Women can rise through the ranks of a variety of fields, resulting in a much more qualified mix of people at the top. This world would undoubtedly have more Angela Merkels running around, fixing problems (and fighting crime).

We don’t live in either one of these worlds. The world we live in lies somewhere in between the two. Unless you’re an unrepentant sexist (and I’d imagine there are precious few of those in this particular corner of the blogosphere), I’m sure you’d agree that the second is far preferable to the first. The world is served far better by a system wherein those who are best suited for a job rise to the top of their field than it is by one where otherwise able people are disqualified for reasons that have nothing to do with their ability.

The question remains: how hard are we willing to push to move ourselves into this second world? What are the consequences if we don’t? Thankfully, the world in which we currently live doesn’t have to wonder what European finance would be like without Angela Merkel, but who knows what life would be like if a woman like her had been in power 50 years ago?

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  1. khms says

    Let me start by pointing out that I don’t like a large percentage of the policies she stands for. But that is because she’s the leader of the Christian Democrat party, the larger part of the most important conservative party in Germany, and I’m certainly not conservative. Nor Christian.

    Another point worth pointing out is that she’s from East Germany. Oh, and her husband Joachim Sauer – another scientist – seems to manage to keep out of politics completely, very different from any other top politician spouse I’m aware of.

    In any case, what I really want to point out is that women elected to top political positions (or at least the first such) seem to often be conservatives (remember Thatcher?) – like “only Nixon could go to China”. A shame, really.

  2. Crommunist says

    Julia Gillard isn’t particularly conservative. Nor were Benazir Bhutto or Indira Ghandi. I’d suspect the split is about even between conservatives and non.

    As far as whether or not I agree with her policies, I’m on board with you – she may in fact be completely wrong. What I don’t think you can say, however, is that she is incompetent, which was the point I was attempting to make.

  3. khms says

    Of course[1] she’s competent … as a politician. (She learned from Kohl.) Or, for that matter, as a scientist, from what I hear. Which may or may not be related to her adopting various green policies, rarely without opposition in her own party, but often rather abruptly as a 180° turn-around, such as going from weakening the anti-nuke compromise to enforcing and strengthening it after Japan. She certainly knows what the common voter thinks.

    Her having learned from Kohl also shows in her using his infamous tactic of waiting out problems (“aussitzen”, literally sitting out). Before she announces a policy, she likes to be sure the party will be behind it … of course, that leads to the leader not leading, but actually following the crowd. She doesn’t do that always, but certainly often enough.

    As for her being stronger politically – I’m not so sure. The opposition has been delivering one success after another in recent votes, mainly to the detriment of her coalition partner – even if the conservatives don’t lose much ground, without the liberals (German liberals, very loosely like US libertarians, not any kind of left party) they don’t have enough votes.

    Of course, there are still the social democrats (with whom she had a coalition before the liberals) or the lately much stronger greens (they even managed to get a Ministerpresident (US state governor) for the first time), neither of which seem to like the idea of a federal-level coalition with the conservatives very much … or Die Linken (“the left”, mostly ex-communists), which they tend to use to paint the social democrats by suggesting they want a coalition with them, so pretty much politically impossible for them, plus the left would probably not be strong enough anyway.

    You never know in politics, but right now it doesn’t look so good for her party, I’d say.

    [1] I have no expectation of gender being relevant to competence.

  4. says

    I often wonder how much talent and resourcefulness our society is deprived of by prejudice against minorities.

    Unless you’re an unrepentant sexist (and I’d imagine there are precious few of those in this particular corner of the blogosphere)

    If only. I’m not sure about that. In my anecdotal experience, people in the atheist blogosphere tend to be more intelligent and articulate than average, and are used to being right. So when they hold ugly prejudices they tend to defend and justify them even more strongly than the average person: they are just being ‘rational’ and ‘objective’ unlike everyone else, who has foolishly subscribed to ‘politically correct’ ideology.

  5. Crommunist says

    Oh I am not denying, by any measure, the existence of people who are sexist or racist. I am saying that there are few who proudly identify as such. Most of the time it is as you say – all the de facto bigotry with increasingly convoluted explanations for why it’s someone else’s fault.

  6. says

    Oskar Lafontaine, former finance minister of Gerhard Schröder, and former chairman of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) is a physicist too (though he’s defected to an ex-communist cum protest party). He was also the SPD challenger of Kohl in 1989, a historian. Right now, the current vice-chancellor (male, born in Vietnam) is an ophthalmologist (though he likes to joke that his political skills are better than his surgical ones), and the labour minister is an MD too (female). Unfortunately, the science minister is a Catholic theologian, although technically her PhD is in philosophy.

    Now I wanted to make three points about your article.

    1. In a parliamentary system with a proportionate electoral system, parties matter more than people. What determines your success is how you fare in the inner-party power struggles.
    In that respect, Merkel has achieved something truly remarkable from the perspective of power politics. Here we have someone who lacks privilege in four crucial aspects within her own party – she is a woman in a party dominated by men, a protestant in a party dominated by Catholics, an East German in a party dominated by West Germans, and she entered politics in her 30s whereas usually people start joining the youth organisations of political parties in their teens (of course she started as early as she could, in 1989, which might have helped her rise, but all her inner-party rivals had had the opportunity to form life-long alliances – in fact there was one called the Pacto Andino, which was forged in 1979 by 12 aspiring young politicians, all men, most of them Catholics, during a trip of the Conservative Party (CDU) youth organisation. They had expected that post-Kohl the chancellorship would go to one of them. Today each one of the original 12 Pacto Andino members has been sidelined by her, one of them even elevated to the position of ceremonial president). So that’s quite remarkable. (And the menz brigade within the party is still bitter. Her nickname is Mutti, or “mom”, might also be a swipe at her not having kids. One of the most prominent politicians of her party, who would’ve been a good economics or finance minister has even left politics and said he won’t return as long as she’s in power)

    2. I don’t think her being a scientist was ever much an issue, though it did incense academics when she defended a top minister accused of plagiarising his PhD thesis (she said “I didn’t hire a research assistant, but a defence minister”), because she should have known better, having actually worked in academia. Anyway, during the 2005 campaign, the SPD camp did exploit bias against academics, by dismissing her tax adviser, a former constitutional court judge, as “der Herr Professor aus Heidelberg”. The tax plan was probably one of the reasons why she almost lost the elections in 2005, and had to enter into a Grand Coalition with the SPD (Gerhard Schröder tried to trick her into letting him stay on as chancellor, even though his party had a very slight numerical disadvantage, but she stood her ground. To this day I wonder whether he would have tried the same maneuver if the CDU candidate had been a man)

    3. Now to my last point. I’m not sure if her leadership style has been actually an asset to her. Many people have been criticising that she hates to take decisions. Luckily, as far as I’m aware this wasn’t usually tied to her being a woman, but to her being a scientist. Someone likened her political style as that of a scientist repeating experiments in a deliberate manner. But that might ultimately be over-psychologising, after all, Kohl was a historian and the master of not deciding anything.

    Let’s not be hasty with the evaluation of her leadership skills, I think it’s still too early to decide. You cited an instance in which her leadership was praised. However, at the beginning of the Greek crisis, on another occasion, her wait-and-see approach was condemned, with some critics alleging that it might have cost the EU tens of billions of Euros. I think we need to wait at least 10-20 years. Historians will then hopefully be able to better assess how her leadership style influenced European politics in these turbulent times, for better or for worse.

  7. says

    ngela Merkel, people might be surprised to learn (I certainly was), is a physicist. This fact is remarkable for two reasons. First, because there is a bias against women in the sciences – stereotype threat usually discourages women from achieving success.

    as someone upthread pointed out, she’s from East Germany. This matters, because pretty much every woman I’ve known who has been in academia in the Eastern Block (including my mother, who also studied physics) have reported levels of harassment and “girls suck at math” sexism much lower than what women experience today in the West.

    IOW, it seems women in the Eastern Block studying in STEM fields in the 70’s seem to have (anecdotally) faced less bias and experienced less stereotype threat than women studying in these fields today in Western countries (I have no idea how women in the former Eastern Block fare now in these areas).

  8. neptis says

    as someone upthread pointed out, she’s from East Germany. This matters, because pretty much every woman I’ve known who has been in academia in the Eastern Block (including my mother, who also studied physics) have reported levels of harassment and “girls suck at math” sexism much lower than what women experience today in the West.

    Apart from the matter of sexism, the former GDR simply had much higher rates of female students in STEM, close to 50% – today, more than 20 years later, it’s only 20% for the whole of Germany. There are probably numerous reasons for that. Science and engineering were held in highest regard in the former GDR, there were better child care facilities, a political culture that endorsed equality, female role models and a highly secularized society that dumped the christian ideal of women == obedient childbearing automatons.

    While the former GDR most certainly wasn’t perfect and a lot of really bad stuff happened there, it’s still pretty sad that today a girl is much less likely to have a career like Merkel’s.

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