10/09/2012 06:26 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Are Female Leaders Better for the World's Women?


Nicholas Kristof, renowned New York Times columnist, recently asked an important, controversial question in his op-ed: Are female leaders better for the world's women?

One might naturally think "yes." Women like to help women, right? But we need to pause there. The news is actually different.

When I interviewed Nick last fall after the launch of the Half the Sky Exhibit in Los Angeles, he told me that while there have been a bunch of studies that have argued that male leaders tend to be more confrontational and conflict-oriented, and women more consensual, it has made no difference to countries whether they had female prime ministers or presidents on issues like female literacy or maternal mortality. In other words, evidence showed that so far women leaders at the national level weren't necessarily better for women.

I was surprised to hear this. But then I realized there is more to the story.

You see, solving the problems for women and girls around the world isn't just about more women coming into power. It's about more women (and men) coming into power who value the feminine. What I mean by this is that we need leaders who embody the nurturing characteristics of the feminine. This, I believe, translates into valuing the rights and dignity of individuals over political power for it's own sake. It also translates into leaders who acknowledge the interconnectedness of the planet, rather than leaders who pander to donors and warlords. In short, I believe we need leaders who are in tune with the mothering principle, who put the well-being of children ahead of amassing political capital.

Right now this is so clearly not the case.

You can't tell me that rape, genital mutilation, and stoning a woman to death are ways that honor the feminine. You also can't tell me that denying girls healthcare because they are girls, denying girls education because they are girls, and paying women less for the same work as men are ways that respect the feminine.

Stephanie Coontz, author of A Strange Stirring: The Feminine Mystique and American Women at the Dawn of the 1960s, also wrote a great piece in the Times about the reality of what's happening in the U.S. in terms of women and men's equality. She makes the point that while a number of recent books published (like The End of Men and The Richer Sex,) posit women as being on the verge of a new majority of female breadwinners, this doesn't paint true picture of what's happening.

For example, men still occupy most of the positions on the list of the richest Americans, continue to make more money than women who have similar skills and education, and hold 83 percent of the seats in Congress.

But is "the end of men" really going to take us to where we want to go? I don't think so.
In fact, I believe that type of thinking will lead to the same lack of respect that we have had over the last 5,000 years or so trying to "end women." To me, it's all about balance. More specifically, the balance between the feminine and masculine. And by that, I mean a balance between those qualities within each one of us.

Let's face it. We've been living in a very linear, masculine-oriented way of seeing and acting in the world. The masculine tends to be about accomplishment -- getting from point A to point B, with economic values as the bottom line. The feminine tends to be more holistic in view, more inclusive and compassionate -- looking at the greater good for all -- with human values as the bottom line. "Without a connection to the feminine principle, the inner landscape of the soul becomes a wasteland," says Jean Shinoba Bolen, M.D., Jungian analyst and internationally known speaker and author.

Can we agree that we could really use more of the feminine in our leadership?

So when Nick Kristof says, "... women in power can be every bit as contemptible as men," I think we really have to look at this closely.

There is no question that it is sad that girls' education and maternal mortality don't improve when a nation is led by a woman. But I think a nation needs to be more than just led by a woman. There needs to be a systemic shift where women and girls are seen as full human beings by both men and women themselves.

Right now this is clearly not the case as laws for women and men differ around the world. According to U.N. Women, it is estimated that 8 in 10 women worldwide have no access to their country's formal justice system. "Women are demanding justice because widespread impunity allows crimes against women to continue," said Michele Bachelet at a U.N. meeting of world leaders in September.

Kristof says, "It would be nice to think that women who achieve power would want to help women at the bottom."

Yes, it would be nice to think this. What I think needs to happen for this to be so is an excavation of all the deep-rooted unconscious beliefs about the feminine. For too long the feminine has been trashed by every major world religion. "She" is portrayed as second-class and not in the image of the Divine.

I think that by talking openly about how the feminine plays a role in our spirituality, we will see progress not just at home, but worldwide. So much of our moral imperative is based around our religions, whether we like it or not. So if we can start digging up the unconscious beliefs and having conversations, I think we will be well on our way to making the systemic shift where the feminine and masculine can live in balance -- with equal justice, liberty and peace for all.

To launch your voice as a feminine leader making change in the world, visit Your Voice Now.

Top photo of Half the Sky Exhibit panel by Tabby Biddle.