Saturday, June 5, 2010

Lead Her Ship

"A woman is like a tea bag- you never know
how strong she is until she gets in hot water."

Eleanor Roosevelt (1884-1962)

It’s arguably certain that many don’t firstly think of Mrs. Kamla Persad-Bissessar as a woman Prime Minister but simply as the Prime Minister: a person who is now leader of our country. Admittedly, it has now become more difficult at times to discuss successes in the context of such traits as race, gender, and religion, given the opportunities and successes that have become more commonplace among greater levels of diversity (note: typically, socio-economic status gets a pass, whereas, sexual orientation, once it begs the question, still has some ways to go in terms of acceptance in Trinidad and Tobago and the wider Caribbean). But in terms of, particularly, political leadership, despite successes, women ascending to the highest political office is still enough of a rarity that compels attention.

Within the Caribbean, Mrs. Persad-Bissessar has only two such predecessors: Dame Eugenia Charles, Prime Minister of Dominica from 1980-1995 and Portia Simpson-Miller, Prime Minister of Jamaica from 2006 -2007. Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s, ascendancy to office now makes her eligible for membership to the Council of Women World Leaders (CWWL) an international network of current and former women prime ministers and presidents, whose mission is “to mobilize the highest-level women leaders globally for collective action on issues of critical importance to women.” There are now roughly two dozen women heads of State and government across the globe.

Similar to CWWL, within the region there is CIWiL (Caribbean Institute for Women in Leadership) whose participating member countries are: Antigua and Barbuda, Belize, Haiti, Jamaica, Saint Kitts & Nevis, and Saint Lucia. CIWiL’S mission, in part, aims to “advance women’s transformational leadership and increase the number of women in politics, leadership and decision-making at all levels in the Caribbean.” Locally, we have the well-established Network of NGOs of Trinidad and Tobago for the Advancement of Women, which, according to their Web site, consists of a network of 102 civil society organisations, making them the largest “umbrella organisation” in the country.

So does gender in leadership matter? Should we care whether or not women are in leadership roles? Does this issue matter at all with respect to growth and development? The essence of such questions was the theme of a speech “Women and Leadership: The Missed Development Goal,” delivered in October 2007 at the Ministry of Community Development and, Culture and Gender Affairs’ Distinguished Lecture Series (notably, about a week prior to this event the then UNCA- United National Congress Alliance - held its election rally where it was reported that the current Prime Minister received the loudest applause among a slate of candidates presented, with her as the only woman).

In the speech, delivered by UNDP (United Nations Development Program) Gender Team Director, Winnie Byanyima, one of her first and fundamental points was that equality of politics is a human right (this of course relates to Article 3 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights which explicitly codifies this right), and that the UNDP’s focus for promoting increasing women’s political participation was to help ensure attention to women’s issues and thus potentially reduce gender inequality gaps. This too is all tangential to the United Nations’ CEDAW, the Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women, to which Trinidad and Tobago is a signatory. Another reason for women’s political participation offered by Byanyima, was that their participation has a positive impact on governance. She alluded to three studies which showed a positive correlation between women’s participation in public life and reductions in levels of corruption. Ms. Byanyima also went on to present other arguments for women’s leaderships roles in the private sector as well.

In the United States, a Pew Research Center report, A Paradox in Public Attitudes: Men or Women: Who’s the Better Leader?: a survey sample of 2250 telephone interviews, published in August 2008, it was found that while respondents rated women superior to men in traits such as honesty, intelligence and “a handful of other character traits they value highly in leaders,” only a meager 6 percent related that women make better political leaders than men. However, 69 percent said that men and women equally make good political leaders.

But notably in the survey, for job performance skills, women got “higher marks than men in all of the measures tested: standing up for one’s principles in the face of political pressure; being able to work out compromises; keeping government honest; and representing the interests of "people like you."

The survey also focused on four traits typically viewed as negative with regard to leadership: women (85%) were the more emotional than men (5%) and women (52%) were more manipulative than men (26%). On the other two traits, men were deemed more arrogant (70%) and stubborn (46%) than women.

Relative to the world of business, the Harvard Business Review in its Women CEOs: Why So Few? published December 2009, it points out that for the article, while “we studied the leadership of 2,000 of the world’s top performing companies, we found only 29 (1.5%) of those CEOs were women.”

With the recent global onset of the global financial crisis, with many still scratching their heads trying to find the reason why so many ‘smart’ financial experts helped take the world so close financial oblivion, some researchers have been looking towards a gender influence as well. John Coates, a former Wall Street trader turned researcher now at Cambridge University, believes that testosterone lies at the root of the irrational exuberance that leads to bubble markets (note: "irrational exuberance" is a term credited to Alan Greenspan, former Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve Bank and is also the title of Yale University professor Robert Shiller’s book, first published in 2000 after the bubble. A second edition was published in 2005, where Shiller essentially warned of the current economic crisis). Coates conceptualized and developed his theory from observing the excited behavior of his fellow male traders on the market floor. His findings, for some, seem to beg the question “Would women make for more level-headed traders?”

In light of this too, we may also wonder whether with more women political leaders if we would have a more peaceful world. This has long been an argument put forward by many. Fukuyama, the noted American academic, in his "Women and the Evolution of World Politics," published in the Sept/Oct issue of Foreign Affairs magazine in 1998, writing off of anecdotal evidence from researchers on chimpanzee behaviour, notes that the researchers essentially observed murders between different chimpanzee groups. Fukuyama notes that intra-species violence in the animal kingdom is a rare occurrence, limited to infanticide to be rid of a rival’s offspring. Only chimps and humans, according to Fukuyama, seem to have an inclination for murdering their peers. Among chimps’ social interactions, he reminds us that like humans, chimps cajole, plead and bribe in building their social connections with the males being the primary actors of violence. However, Fukuyama acknowledges that:

“Female chimpanzees can be as violent and cruel as the males at times; females compete with one another in hierarchies and form coalitions to do so. But the most murderous violence is the province of males, and the nature of female alliances is different.”

Moving away from the primate comparison Fukuyama also notes that “In every known culture, and from what we know of virtually all historical time periods, the vast majority of crimes, particularly violent crimes, are committed by men.”

Fukuyama’s article did generate some criticism from several writers also within Foreign Affairs magazine (Jan/Feb 1999) some months later. ("Fukuyama's Follies: So what if women Ruled the World?").

One critic writes “Whatever our genetic and prehistoric cultural legacies, women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence. They have played a leading role in nonmilitary violence such as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century bread riots and revolutionary uprisings, in which they were often reputed to be "foremost in violence and ferocity.”"

Another Fukuyama critic states:

“He [Fukuyama] argues that men are more violent than women. Someday he may provide actual evidence that this is a biological rather than social tendency. But even if women are innately less violent, they are plenty violent enough to call into question Fukuyama's claim that more female political power would mean more peace.”

Another notable criticism presented is that while women primarily may not be the actual doers of violent acts, does not rule them out as instigators, supporters or enablers of such acts.

Violent crime, with such including violence against women, certainly has become a central issue for us in Trinidad and Tobago. And if the participation of more women in public life can help to abate it, surely even the most chauvinistic males among us might be in agreement.

In Trinidad and Tobago, as elsewhere, women have made enormous strides in closing the gender gap: Mrs. Persad-Bissessar’s achievement represents a significant mark in such progress. According to the last available census reports, women constitute roughly half of the population. Maybe this is a sign for us men and women, boys and girls, to be equally committed in the progress of our country.

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