Arts & Culture

‘Hillary factor’ among topics at leadership and women lunch

5 min read

Is America on the verge of an explosion of “girl power” — a new level of female leadership in public life?

There seem to be signs everywhere. The Oct. 15 issue of Fortune magazine trumpeted the “50 Most Powerful Women” and proclaimed on its cover, “At last! One generation of women leaders is grooming the next.” And then there’s “the Hillary factor”: For the first time in American history, a woman is the clear front-runner for the presidential nomination of a major political party.

Still, Barbara Kellerman, James MacGregor Burns Lecturer in Public Policy at the Kennedy School of Government, suggested at a luncheon discussion at Bell Hall Oct. 10, there’s a long road ahead before women fully take their place at the table of power.

Kellerman is co-editor of “Women and Leadership: The State of Play and Strategies for Change,” published last month — in a provocatively pink cover. Introducing her panel, she quoted columnist Arianna Huffington, writing in Newsweek: “Women still have an uneasy relationship with power. … We are still working at trying to overcome the fear that power and womanliness are mutually exclusive.”

Kellerman commented, “The literature makes it seem that there are many differences between men and women. It turns out the differences are really negligible — but that is not to say they don’t exist.”

She then touched on a number of topics that are “generally avoided” in the literature in the field of women and leadership:

  • The lack now of a genuine women’s movement, and what that means for progress and change: “That word ‘pipeline’ is the deadliest word in the language of women and leadership.”
  • Work/life balance, and how this affects a woman’s leadership ambitions over the course of her life, especially as her children grow up.
  • The presentation of self, “the way women are in public,” including the issue of sexuality in leadership: Can a woman running for president reach out and touch a man on the shoulder the same way a male candidate can touch a woman?
  • The “mythology of sisterhood,” which she contrasted with the “reality” that “many women feel the women above them do not mentor them particularly and that the women who are their peers are not especially supportive.” Kellerman, introduced by Donna Kalikow, executive director of the Center for Public Leadership at the Kennedy School, appeared with three of her co-authors to talk through some of the findings in the book.Todd Pittinsky, associate professor of public policy at the Kennedy School, and his co-author, Laura Bacon, presented their chapter on what they called “the great women theory of leadership.”“There is quite a bit of energy out there” around the idea of women in leadership — in the popular press and elsewhere, Pittinsky said. This “women are wonderful” argument assumes that (a) women tend to be cooperative and collaborative, (b) that today’s problems seem to cry out for such leadership, and that therefore (c) “we’re opening the door for women leaders” to the extent that they will be a needful “feminizing” influence.

    “This is something that never sat quite right with me,” Pittinsky acknowledged: If women are invited into the public sphere because of their skill in collaboration, then how do we think about them in command and control situations?

    “What we argue for in the chapter would be getting past ‘regendering leadership’ and really thinking about the work of leadership and really open leadership up to women.”

    In her presentation, Pippa Norris, Paul F. McGuire Lecturer in Comparative Politics at the Kennedy School, suggested that the United States has a great deal to learn from other countries, including its next-door neighbors Canada and Mexico, with regard to women in leadership.

    She noted that the share of women in parliaments worldwide has drifted up only slightly over the past couple of decades — from 12.0 percent in 1985 to 16.6 percent in 2006. (The national winner here is Rwanda, which, with a parliament 49 percent female as of November 2005, beat out even the Swedes.)

    Norris presented three “fast-track” mechanisms by which women’s representation in legislatures can be increased — seats reserved by law for women in a legislature, statutory gender quotas for all parties, and voluntary quotas that parties adopt themselves. The first of these is most effective, she said, and the last, though very popular, especially in Europe, the least effective, because of lack of external accountability.

    Asked why the United States is reluctant to employ these mechanisms, Norris responded, “It’s the ‘quota’ word. When I use it in Cambridge, I’m just about OK, but when I use it elsewhere, well, it’s not a word you use in polite society.”

    Reserved seats in the parliaments of both Iraq and Afghanistan mean that both those national legislatures include more women than the U.S. Congress. The “critical mass” level — the point at which women in a legislature make a difference in its agenda — Norris put at 35 to 40 percent.