Misconceptions: “Female Leaders Who Express Dominance are Acting Male”

by Benjamin Studebaker

Recently, I listened to an argument claiming that female leaders like Hillary Clinton, Condoleeza Rice, Margaret Thatcher, or Angela Merkel do not represent significant improvements to gender equality because they “act male” in that they are perceived have dominant personalities reminiscent of those of males. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of how leadership works and what it is to be male or female. Today, I aim to dissect, identify, and pick apart this misconception.

There are two assumptions made by the argument that female leaders have to “act male” in order to succeed with which I have a problem:

  • There is necessarily a “female” leadership style distinctive from the “male” style
  • It is gender prejudice that plays the dominant, determining role in how leaders lead

I will take each assumption in turn.

First, by arguing that there is necessarily a “female” leadership style distinctive from the “male” style, the argument reinforces the concept of gender roles, boxing men and women into stereotypical behaviours. There are many men who do not fit the classical male stereotypes and many women who do not fit the classical female stereotypes. Gender equality is meant to free the sexes from the sociological influences that guide men and women away from their individual personalities and toward those socially accepted norms. By arguing that expressions of dominance, rationalism, or other traits stereotypically associated with men indicate a lack of femininity on the part of female leaders, this argument implies that the opposite of these traits are feminine–submissiveness and irrational emotionalism. Consequently, it is an extremely sexist and reactionary position, despite being held by many radical feminists. True equality of the sexes, just like true equality of the races, exists when one’s physical appearance is not assumed to tell us very much at all about one’s personality or intellectual capabilities. In a society of true gender equality, there are no expressly “feminine” or “masculine” traits, allowing individuals to choose their own paths free of social pressure to conform to traditional norms of behaviour.

So why would radical feminists adopt this argument? These radical feminists are not truly feminists at all. They do not stand for gender equality–they think there are elements of the traditional female stereotype that are superior to elements of the traditional male stereotype and wish to see women put into positions of power for that purpose. When women become powerful but nonetheless exhibit behaviour that is traditionally male, these radical feminists exile these women from their movement and accuse them of “acting male”. It is not at all dissimilar from African Americans who are accused of “acting white” when they get educated or exhibit socially responsible behaviour. The African Americans who make those accusations are holding back other African Americans and perpetuating racial stereotypes–they are every bit as bad for racial progress as the traditional racists themselves. The same goes for this particular breed of radical feminist. In both cases the goal of equality and social cooperation with the other gender or races has been abandoned by radicals in favour of an unproductive and unreasonable combative, competitive stance.

What about the second assumption? It is common for ideas and ideologies to assume themselves at the centre of all issues. Marxists tend to see capitalist exploitation everywhere, libertarians tend to see oppressive government everywhere, and feminists tend to see gender prejudice everywhere. When female leaders do not display extremely different leadership styles from their male counterparts, some radical feminists assume that this is evidence of assimilation. Rather than acknowledge that neither gender is inherently superior, that leaders of either gender will sometimes behave in ways we consider undesirable, these people assert that women really would lead differently if only they were given the opportunity, that real female leaders who do not “act male” would do a better job and lead to better government, all to further this anti-egalitarian position that women are better leaders than men or have a distinctive leadership style that is exclusive to themselves. In reality, the nature of our leaders has very little to do with gender at all, but is really determined by the structure of the political system. To illustrate with an extreme example, if you were to create a state in which only radical feminists could vote, you would get a very different sort of leader from the one current states provide, not because any of the prevailing attitudes toward gender had changed, but because the fundamental governing structure would not be the same. The structure of the state can be plutocratic, meritocratic, democratic, oligarchic, sophiarchist, a wide variety of things, and under each model, with the very same population, you get a distinctly different government with different tendencies. A king, an emperor, or some other figurehead would behave very differently from a democratically elected president or prime minister, regardless of their genders. Queen Elizabeth I or Queen Isabella were arguably more traditionally “male” in their policies than our modern democratic leaders because they were autocrats, not because of different gender roles. Our politicians and leaders behave the way they do not because of gender issues but because they are elected by a broad cross-section of the population and must therefore appeal primarily to the average voter and the average voter’s notion of what constitutes a good leader. The primary consequences of this is that leaders are expected to display strength, charisma, likeability, dominance and other factors that persuade the average voter that the policies advocated are desirable ones. Much of this revolves around making the average voter feel appreciated, comparatively intelligent, good about him or herself, and superior to those with opposing views and candidates. Very little of it concerns the intricacies of policy or theory. Very few voters are even familiar with feminist authors, feminist literature, or even the traditional big name political theorists, and even if they have heard of them, they often have extremely distorted, limited knowledge, which can sometimes be worse than no knowledge at all.

It is the nature of political structures and political offices in democratic states and the sort of leadership required to attain those positions that make leaders in democratic states near-universally mediocre. You are not going to get serious theoretical or policy debate from democratic politicians about feminism or about anything else. You will continue to get carbon copy vanilla candidates with more or less the same personality traits as long as you persist in selecting them via the same process with a population which, if anything, gets even more poorly informed every election. This is the issue which those of us who take issue with modern political leadership should be attempting to deal with. Angela Merkel is not running Europe into the ground because of gender inequality, she is running Europe into the ground because the democratic system precludes her from doing anything else or being anyone else. These people are exhibiting the traits of democratically elected leaders, not male leaders.

So let us stop pretending that the world would be such a better place if only our leaders exhibited feminine qualities. Let us move past this gender dichotomy and allow people to be themselves and to display their own personality traits, whatever they may be, without sociological pressure from other people to conform to outside norms. Finally, let us start looking at the real problems and issues that have resulted in the consistently mediocre government that has so drastically underperformed in this time of global economic crisis.