Forget a Woman as President. America Needs Two

It may be the second female leader of a nation, not the first, that shows how progressive its voting public is.

With Hillary Clinton’s defeat, the U.S. is still waiting for its first woman president in 228 years of nationhood. The world's largest economy can claim many landmarks, but on this score it’s lagging way behind. India, Israel, and Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) had female heads of government before the end of the 1960s. In the intervening decades, more than 60 countries have followed suit.

What do statistics like these tell us? Hardly everything, but not nothing. If you look closely at the data in October's World Economic Forum Global Gender Gap Report, they are more than an idle party game. The report sheds some light on a society's attitude toward women and leadership. 

It turns out only a third of the countries that have been run by a woman have gone on to put another woman in charge, in many cases not until decades later. Some social psychologists argue that the rise of a second female leader is a truer measure of a country's progress on the issue.

One reason the list has only 20 nations is the rather grandly named “moral self-licensing.” After achieving a deed perceived as noble, the theory goes, people may feel justified in returning to old habits: We’re not a sexist nation—we’ve had a female leader.

Dig into that a bit and there seems to be a measure of sense to it. “There’s research suggesting that if you see your past behavior as progress towards a goal, you won’t feel you have to put as much effort into achieving that goal,” said Daniel Effron, assistant professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.

If you don’t care a whole lot about female political representation, voting for a woman on one occasion may make you feel you’ve done as much as you need to. “But if you see your behavior as a signal of your commitment to achieving a goal, you may even increase your effort towards that goal,” Effron said.

Argentina, which elected Isabel Martinez de Peron in 1974, didn’t have another woman president until Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner took the job in 2007. In the U.K., where Theresa May was appointed Prime Minister in July, a quarter of a century has passed since Margaret Thatcher left 10 Downing Street. Four men have held the job in the interim.

“In the case of the U.K., there has been a normalization of female leadership across the political spectrum,” said Anne Phillips, professor of political science at the London School of Economics, noting that several British political parties now have, or have had, female leaders. She points out, however, that “the perception of the equation of ‘politician’ with ‘male’ remains unbelievably strong, particularly for the male electorate.”

May must still win a general election to become Britain’s second female leader elected by popular vote. She was appointed by her party in the wake of the Brexit vote and the resignation of her predecessor, David Cameron.

When the U.K. heads to the polls, possibly as early as next year, a win for May could signal another step forward in the country’s shift to greater equality. Perhaps one day Britain will reach the level of Norway and Poland, which, at least briefly, have had three female prime ministers. 

“The point at which it becomes unremarkable,” Phillips said, “is the point at which perceptions have really shifted.” 

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