Thursday, July 31, 2014

The concept of varying leadership styles caused solely by gender identification is a highly contested theory within political science. This is because if this theory held true, it would be expected that women leaders would only act on their group’s supposed inherent characteristics. Additionally, society furthers stereotypical expectations of women’s leadership through perceived characteristics, the double bind, and polarized media. This is incredibly debilitating to the wealth of diverse abilities and attitudes a woman might bring the political arena. 

A 1970s study done by Sandra Bem noted “adjectives that both men and women thought more desirable in one sex than another”. The adjectives used to describe femininity all fall into a harmful perception of a woman only in a supporting and secondary role who can be easily persuaded. Of course, preferred masculine characteristics all emphasize strong leadership traits and a dominant personality. If any of these thirty distinct characteristics are still valued by common society, it seems natural that women in politics would also be viewed through these lenses. Therefore, for women to garner the necessary votes to win elections, it would follow they would have to cater their campaigns and leadership styles to portray characteristics on this list. 

  • Masculine Characteristics: Acts as a leader, aggressive, ambitious, analytical, assertive, competitive, defends own beliefs, dominant, forceful, independent, self reliant, strong personality, willing to take risks.
  • Feminine Characteristics: Affectionate, cheerful, childlike, compassionate, does not use harsh language, eager to soothe hurt feelings, feminine, flatterable, gentle, gullible, shy, tender, warm.

In addition to prescribed and preferred gender qualities, women in leadership positions are typically also affected by the societal standard of treating men as normal and women as deviant. Within the realm of politics, this could come from a historical understanding of politics as a man’s world, one that women have only begun to breach. The above detailed masculine characteristics are preferred by the mass public for those in leadership positions, leaving women in a “double bind” situation, in which they must either act as ladies to be viewed as genuine, or act as men to be seen as leaders. Problems and inequality arise as women politicians who act tough are criticized for taking on masculine characteristics, while women who are emotional are harpooned for being incapable of leading assertively due to uncontrollable hormones. 

Media has more harmful consequences on woman leaders. This is because media constantly criticizes women for either acting too cold, distant, and witchy, or, on the other end of the spectrum, too diminutive and sensitive. Media also regularly falls into the trap of focusing on women’s physical appearances, instead of their lauded leadership capabilities. 

Angela Merkel is the successful current Chancellor of Germany. She has been elected twice in a row, and is currently ranked the fifth most powerful person in the world by Forbes; this is the highest ranking achieved by a woman. I believe that Merkel’s success is primarily due to a defiance of stereotypical gender roles in an unusual way; she does not embody solely male characteristics, but walks a fine line of traits that are gender unspecific. Nor does she allow the media much insider information or even fodder for stereotypical analyzing, which enables her to lead a very unglamorous and pragmatic regime.

After gathering data from several news databases and political journals I consolidated phrases and words that analysts and journalists used to describe Chancellor Merkel. The majority of these words focused on non gendered traits, while only a few noted feminine or masculine characteristics. In the beginning of her political career she was branded as “boring, provincial and rather dowdy”, and when she was running for office she was thought of by some as a “lightweight”. Out of these three negative terms, only “dowdy” is used more in reference to women. Not only are these criticism rather gender neutral, but Merkel was also careful to heed the critiques of the media and adjust; she started wearing “bright, colorful outfits and a new hairstyle to enliven her image. Because Merkel has historically avoided leading either as completely cold and calculating or soft and emotional has made it harder to classify her according to stereotypically preferred gender characteristics.

Furthermore, the words used to praise her leadership style do not focus on either feminine or masculine characteristics. She is considered a “prudent, pragmatic and down-to-earth leader”. This has helped her steer clear of the double bind. 

“Rumpled, awkward, with her de rigueur blazer and slacks (the former often just a touch too tight), Merkel can seem a study in orchestrated ordinariness, a brilliant creation of election strategists attuned to the post-traumatic German psyche. Perhaps it costs a lot of money to look this plain. But over time it becomes clear that she just is who she is, unchanged by power; a woman, like Margaret Thatcher, who is “not for turning.

This description of Angela Merkel notes carefully that for a powerful leader, she dresses and acts very ordinary. However, it does not seem as if the journalist is critical of her choice, but actually admiring of her ability to be unaffected by the public life she must lead. Along the same lines, Andrew Marr of the BBC commented that with Merkel, “there is no exhibitionism and grandstanding”. This comment further points to heightened respect because of her confidence in leading assertively while also showing a lack of grandiose. It is interesting to note that Merkel does not shy away from making tough policy decisions; early in her political career she decisively pushed to make abortion illegal in East Germany, and more recently she has “steer[ed] the EU through its most existential crisis ever. She resisted all pressures to flood the markets with ever more money, but insisted on her bitter prescription: assistance, in return for reforms”. It is crucial to note that neither the assessment of her actions, nor the praise and criticism focus on feminine or masculine characteristics, but rather objectively discuss her ability to lead pragmatically. Merkel’s ability to avoid the double bind has helped her lead without disparaging or harmful factions debating her leadership skills.

Angela Merkel has also garnered success through mastering the media and using news outlets to her advantage. Early in her political career, she turned against her mentor, Chancellor Helmut Khohl, publishing a piece about his private scandal. This led to his dismissal and allowed her to take his place as the front runner in the upcoming elections. Her ruthless use of the media to begin the downfall of a friend was described as “Machiavellian”, but this did not prevent her from continuing the tradition of eliminating her opponents. Remarkably, German citizens do not seem alarmed by this aspect of her leadership. 

Merkel has not limited her media involvement to publishing editorials. As Chancellor she has broadcast podcasts on policy issues since 2006; when a journal author remarked that “a clearly uncomfortable Merkel holds forth each week on such topics as federal reform, key points of health policy reform, and retirement funding." This effort has allowed her presence to be felt in the common household, and prevents a highly polarized media from criticizing superficial aspects of her rule. This type of outreach makes her leadership style even more successful because she is seen as wanting to inform the German populace about policy decisions.

Angela Merkel has been able to avoid stereotypical gender roles, the trap of the double bind, and harsh media criticism by maintaing a very unusual leadership style. This has made her very successful as German chancellor over the course of three elected terms. 

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Representation of Women in Rwanda

As of September 2013, “women [hold] an unprecedented 64 percent of seats in Rwanda’s parliament, more than any other country in the world” [1], a status that is still valid to the present day. This figure is shocking when considering that globally, women comprise only 21.9 percent of parliamentary seats [2]. It is even more astounding when taking into account the civil war and genocide that ravaged Rwanda in the early 1990s.

Photo: Parliament of Rwanda

The Rwandan civil war began as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) attacked the government in 1990, hoping to liberate the country from President Habyarimana. When Habyarimana was killed in 1994, the Hutus and the Tutsis (rival ethnic groups residing in Rwanda) plunged into a genocide, while the RPF simultaneously resumed the civil war with the government army. Eventually the RPF took control of the country and instituted a transitional government, although the terror did not end. By 1998, the RPF began to ‘democratize’ by establishing the Ministry of Gender and Women in Development and grassroots women’s councils, in order to educate women about political participation and promote women’s issues. However, few women understood the purpose of such councils [3]. By 2000, the RPF established quotas that require women to occupy one-third of the seats in decision-making bodies in an effort “to practice positive discrimination” in a new Rwanda [4].

Clearly, at first glance, the quotas have been a success; Rwandan women representatives have exceeded occupying one-third of parliamentary seats. However, scholars seem unsure that the intentions behind the quotas are genuine. Many, such as Jennie E. Burnet, believe that the RPF established the quotas in order to “quell protest from the diplomatic and international aid communities,” and to mask its “increasingly authoritarian governance” [3]. As Elizabeth Powley notes, it is ironic that the only country that has more women than men in its parliament is “less than democratic” and is still operating under a single-party regime [5].

While there has been a significant increase in women’s representation in Rwanda, this has had little effect on policy outcomes [7]. Though there are a significant number of educated, well-off women in parliament, the majority of Rwandan women are poor, uneducated, and experience gender-based violence [6]. So while Rwanda is excelling in representing its women in a descriptive sense, it remains unclear to what degree Rwandan women representatives accurately represent the interests of the female population, since quotas cannot guarantee that this will be the case. This is of significant concern, as Rwanda shifted demographically after the genocide [3]. There are now more women than men in the total population, and many women have had to take on the responsibilities of being the head of the household. These women need to be accurately represented for their circumstances to improve (of course, it is entirely possible for women to be accurately represented by men, but with so many women in parliament, it is hoped that many of the women representatives will be vying for women’s concerns).

While the motivation behind the quotas may not be sincere and how well the female population is actually represented is unclear, Rwandan women’s level of representation can still have a positive impact for shifting gender norms and improving women’s lives as the country continues on the path of healing and progression.

Washington Post/Getty Images

[1] Gogineni, Roopa. 2013. “Rwandan Parliament’s Female Majority Focuses on Equality.” Voice of America, September 26.

[2] Inter-Parliamentary Union. 2014. “Women in National Parliaments.” Last modified June 1, 2014.

[3] Burnet, Jennie E. 2008. “Gender Balance and the Meanings of Women in Governance in Post-Genocide Rwanda.” African Affairs 107, no. 428 (July): 361-386.

[4] United Nations. 2007. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women: Rwanda. 35-36.

[5] Powley, Elizabeth. 2005. “Women in Parliament: Beyond the Numbers.” International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance. 154-163.

[6] Wallace, Claire, Christian Haerpfer, and Pamela Abbot. 2008/2009. “Women in Rwandan Politics and Society.” International Journal of Sociology 38, no. 4 (Winter): 111-125.

[7] Devlin, Claire, and Robert Elgie. 2008. “The Effect of Increased Women’s Representation in Parliament: The Case of Rwanda.” Parliamentary Affairs 61, no. 21 (April): 237-254.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Ballroom Dancing and Traditional Gender Roles

            When you walk into a ballroom dance studio to take your first dance lesson the first thing that you learn is that the man leads and the lady follows. Ballroom dance is an art form that at its core represents traditional male and female roles. Men and women are placed in heterosexual partnerships and expected to carry out their very different roles on the dance floor. It is the synchronization of these two different parts that is what makes it so enjoyable to watch. When the two parts do not mesh together the performance looks disconnected and holds less entertainment value.
            The great success of reality TV shows “Dancing with the Stars” and “So You Think You Can Dance” has brought ballroom dancing into the public view. The portrayal of ballroom dancing on these shows is often from a much more traditional standpoint. The women are in feminine clothing, and the men are in tuxedos that are supposed to portray power and wealth [1]. This only furthers the view that ballroom dancing encourages traditional gender roles and stereotypes to the public[2].
While teaching in Manhattan I attended a lecture given in Albany, New York in October of 2012 by a woman who owned a dance studio in Montreal. Her lecture was all about the differences between men and women and how to address them when you taught. For example women have more peripheral vision than men which is why their head is turned more to the left in dance position[3]. They are also not in charge of the direction they are moving in general, but have the ability to direct their partner if they are about to run into someone despite having their head extended further to the left. Even within this lecture there were subtle cues as to how to treat women differently while teaching them, they need more corrections because they like to multi-task or that men have the job to lead so they can’t be overwhelmed with technique in the beginning because they have to think about the steps. Although she herself owned a studio and was a working businesswoman and did not necessarily fit into traditional female stereotypes her teaching was full of subtle cues about how to treat male and female students differently.
Female dancers are constantly being told not to “back-lead” or take the leading role away from their partner. The role of “leader” is restricted for men. This serves a practical role as well. It is impossible for both partners to lead while they are dancing. Someone has to take on that role in order to generate synchronized movement together. It is likely that men have received that role because of the societal roles that existed when partner dancing was first invented. The synchronization of two people is what makes the dancing beautiful. However, because men are leaders women are often portrayed in the softer, more submissive role. The technique books for ballroom dancing include information on steps and roles. There are columns for different elements of dancing including direction of movement, footwork, amount of turn, and rise and fall. The steps are labeled with a “man’s part” and “lady’s part”. The men have an extra column entitled “lead”, to tell them how to lead a step correctly. This adds to the responsibility of men while they’re dancing. Indicating that they are capable of more responsibilities while on the floor than women.
Upon delving into the specific techniques of the craft the differences in the technique of ballroom dancing are much smaller than might be portrayed through a performance. The woman is not a passive contributor to the performance. She needs to participate as much as her partner does. When the international community speaks about couples that compete they call them “teams” which places the woman an equally important footing with her partner. In fact if you were to interview the top competitors in the world it is highly unlikely that any of them would ever view their partner as submissive. The greatest difference is in where the responsibilities of each movement lie.
It has been mentioned at countless lectures that I have attended that it only takes three years to make a good female dancer; however, it takes up to five years to make a good male dancer. This is an indication of the level of difficulty involved in being the “leader” while dancing. This could acknowledge one of two things, that women pick up their parts faster, which is an indication that they could take on more, or that their jobs are easier in relation and thus do not take them as long to master. The latter might seem like it would be the more likely of the two, especially if ballroom is coming out of an era where women were not thought of as equal to the task of learning the same amount of information or responsibilities as men. However, if you dig down into the technique behind the steps in the syllabus for ballroom dance that is international recognized by the International Society of Teacher’s of Dance (ISTD) you would notice a significant difference in the level of difficulty between the man the lady’s parts, especially in Latin American Dancing. Women have steps that are significantly more difficult to teach as well as learn. Men might have more responsibilities on the floor, but women spend much more of their time learning technique and dealing with the difficulties of the figures themselves, while often men repeat a basic action over and over only changing the leads for the steps. This is evidence that would indicate that women and men have jobs that are equally as challenging, and so a woman cannot lead the synchronization of the steps as well as have the more challenging actions to dance.
However the roles of men and women play out on the dance floor the culture of ballroom dancers is much more complex. There are many instructors that might be considered more progressive that promote the idea of unity while you are dancing and that men ask for permission to lead and women allow it so they can have freedom of expression within their movements while not worrying about where they are on the floor. Others, are more traditional and explain dancing as putting the man in a more dominant role and women in a much more submissive one. Whichever way you view it likely depends on the story you believe and want to tell within your dancing. The popularity of ballroom dancing today is likely due to the push for men and women and to explore and define their own meanings of gender roles and how they interpret the older values and create their own meanings while they dance [1].

[1] Yamanashi, Allison and Robert C. Bulman. 2007. The Choreography of Gender:
Ballroom Dancing and the Complexity of Gender Identity. Submitted to the meetings of the American Sociological Association. Saint Mary’s College of California.
[2] 2011. Strictly Come Dancing 'popular because of old-fashioned gender roles. The Telegraph. UK.
[3]  Contenta, Patty. 2012. “Teaching Men and Women.” Lecture given at Arthur Murray Region I conference.