Women Leaders could bring Compassion to Politics

Throughout recorded history, men have made the laws, even in democratic societies where both men and women can vote. True, there are a dozen or so women heads of state, and there is a society called the Council of Women World Leaders with 36 members, but try to think of a single democracy where the House of Representatives or Parliament has a majority of women.

Can’t think of one? That’s because there aren’t any. Sweden, probably the most egalitarian society in the world, has only 47 percent women in Parliament. Most of the remaining industrialized countries have 20 percent or fewer women in such positions of power.

Politics is viewed as a masculine pursuit not just because of its off-kilter gender ratio, but because it’s driven by society’s views on what makes a good leader. We believe that toughness, a perceived male trait, is a political essential. And we believe that caring, a perceived female trait, is a hazard. Politics is for men; they have what it takes. Women, with their “soft” feminine side, might buckle under pressure.

Study after study has shown that women do place greater value on caring than do men. The problem is that caring implies weakness.

Nell Painter, noted Professor Emeritus of African American Studies at Princeton University, commented recently on CNN that, “American foreign policy so often is discussed by journalists in terms of assumed masculinity. They talk about who shames whom and who’s going to take the fall for being wimpy.” These subtle media messages reinforce?masculine images within politics.

In May 2009, a firestorm broke out in American politics when President Obama suggested that judging should be based on empathy. His Supreme Court Justice nominee at the time, Sonia Sotomayor, repudiated his statement. That one small word packed a disproportionate punch and was met with derision, at best, by many in politics and the media.

A politics that demands that its leaders talk tough and hold the line isn’t bad in itself. It only becomes a problem when it neglects to also embrace the subtle, simple, and perhaps more powerful actions of careful listening and empathizing. This dual embrace is essential to strong and compassionate leadership. Without strength, a society risks being overrun or conquered. Without compassion, a society cannot flourish.

How can we begin to view strength, compassion, decisiveness, and empathy as leadership values, and not masculine or feminine characteristics? And how can we pass that view on to subsequent generations?

As with most things, change has to start at home, as parents eschew gender stereotypes and transmit their moral values to their young children. The responsibility, to some extent, then shifts to education where the notion of strength and compassion as human qualities can be reinforced through “character education.”

To continue to see “compassionate politics” as an oxymoron is to sentence the world to more of the same violence, destruction, disease, and dictatorship it has suffered for thousands of years. How much better to see those two words as the formula for a new world order.

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