Monday, February 11, 2008

Good Guy Nicholas Kristof Gets It Wrong on Female Political Leaders

Nicholas Kristof’s heart is always in the right place, but his mind is usually slightly off center.

In this well-meaning op-ed, he compares what he considers to be the relative lack of success (actually his perception thereof; but I’ll come to that later) by modern, elected female heads of government and state in comparison to historical female leaders, who in his view were disproportionately successful compared to their male colleagues. He brings up what he calls his “pet theory” to explain this, and uses a study of Indian village council leaders to back it up.

But the Indian study shows that the female leaders were more successful than the men, and that the problem lay with the lower perception of female, relative to male, performance. It also shows that the bias disappeared over time with familiarity. If the Indian study is true, the female leaders of democracy should be successful from square one but the perception thereof should be low, but such perception should improve over time.

Once in power, the female leaders in South Asia that Mr. Kristof gives as examples have tended to stay around for a long time; or have taken turns in power as rivals, mother and daughter, or both. However, it is hard to dispute that they also tended to have mixed records when it comes to results. Of course the story is different if you think that staying in power is the measure of success, but that’s not the point of the Indian study, and it’s not what he has in mind either.

Another flaw in his reasoning is that his examples are anecdotal and merely illustrate, a flaw that appears to be congenital to journalists. Unless you draw on comparable groups of leaders, there’s no way that you can make a meaningful argument about the relative success of female versus male, modern versus historical. Just think, how many successful male leaders in South Asia can Mr. Kristof name? How many successful Third World leaders from the sixties to the eighties, never mind the gender?

Besides, how can he call Indira Gandhi “mediocre”?* She had serious flaws and made many mistakes. But she enjoyed military success against Pakistan, maintained as much of the international prestige that Nehru had enjoyed as the times would allow, and bowed to democratic principles when the chips were down. How many of her male contemporaries could have made those claims? Her economic policies were a failure. But again, that was the legacy of Nehru as well as the common flaw of so many Third World leaders, all but a few male.

Mr. Kristof writes best when he writes straight from the heart. His op-eds on Darfur, for example, are moving. It’s when he starts thinking that he has problems. There is definitely a double standard when it comes to female politicians. But it is a line that he fails to illuminate.

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