Women should run the world, claims historian

Women of the world: A new documentary series explores the history of gender inequality. © BBC

Despite women’s liberation and the global rise of feminism, there is still a clear gender imbalance in politics. What should we make of claims that women would be better leaders than men?

If women were in charge, the refugee crisis in Europe might have played out a little differently, argued the historian Dr Amanda Foreman this weekend. “It’s not in the female make-up to stand there idly by while women and children die like flies on the beach.” This, she said, is why Germany’s chancellor Angela Merkel has been most compassionate towards the desperate families seeking a new life, and has argued for a shared housing responsibility between nations.

Some people argue that Foreman’s vision of a more matriarchal society is closer than ever before. There is a growing number of women at the top of politics: along with Merkel in the EU, Hillary Clinton remains the favourite to win next year’s presidential election in the USA, and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf has been one of West Africa’s most effective presidents since she was first elected in Liberia in 2006.

But these well-known women mask a clear gender imbalance in politics. Although the percentage of women in Parliament has doubled over the last 20 years, they still make up just 22% of those in governments. Out of almost 200 countries, only 22 have female leaders.

Women have not always been unequal, as Foreman points out in her new BBC documentary series, The Ascent of Woman. Sumer — now modern-day Iraq — is often called the “cradle of civilisation”, and it was a society which treated women as equals. There, they could hold positions of power, study writing, and apply for divorce. It was only after Sargon the Great invaded in 2,300 BCE that women began to be restricted in society and excluded from leadership.

Thankfully, the last century has seen huge advancements for women in much of the developed world. In Britain during that time, they have gained equal legal rights to men, and anti-discrimination laws help to protect them from sexism in the workplace.

But modern feminists believe that the job is far from over. Without more women in power, they argue, issues such as childcare, equal pay and domestic abuse do not get the attention they deserve. This means that ordinary women continue to suffer.

Girl power

It is not just a matter of “women’s issues”, some argue. Women are best equipped to lead in the 21st century. They are often more compassionate and collaborative, so they make better decisions. In a world which values peace over war, compromise and communication are two of the most important skills — and they are usually found in women.

Others object to such sweeping generalisations about either gender; there are good male leaders and bad female leaders. Why cause conflict by dividing people? In a truly equal world, governments would be chosen based on ideas and experience, regardless of gender.

You Decide

  1. Should women be “in charge” more often?
  2. Is it ever fair to make generalisations about the differences between genders?

Activities

  1. Choose a woman who inspires you, and explain your reasons to the rest of the class.
  2. Pick a country, and research its history of women’s rights. Write 200 words on some of the key developments.

Some People Say...

“The only thing holding women back is themselves.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Hang on — not all men are bad at communicating!
Of course not. And plenty of men are just as capable of compassion as women — and vice versa. When researchers and feminists talk about gender differences, they are not saying that everyone must act in the same way. Instead, they are looking at overall trends and trying to find a cause.
So, what is the cause?
That’s up for debate — some might argue that differences are biological, based on hormones such as testosterone. Others believe that people are conditioned to behave in certain ways by the society they live in. That’s why in a world dominated by men, women are more likely to suffer.

Word Watch

Refugee crisis
More than 19.5 million people have been forced to flee their home countries due to war and oppression, mostly from the Middle East and sub-Saharan Africa. Germany, which has said it will take in 800,000 refugees this year, welcomed around 10,000 people this weekend alone.
Hillary Clinton
The former US secretary of state is still the bookies’ frontrunner, despite some recent polls which indicate that the ‘democratic socialist’ Bernie Sanders is pulling ahead in the Democratic nominations. Republican candidate and US Apprentice host Donald Trump is leading the Republican polls. But there are still months to go before Americans vote for their parties’ candidates, let alone the final election.
Ellen Johnson Sirleaf
The Liberian president was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 for her work with women’s rights. Many believe that her strong leadership helped to eradicate Ebola from her country earlier this year.
Sumer
The ancient civilisation invented forms of writing, governance and technology which would help to shape the world for thousands of years.

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