Female leaders, the 16th-century theologian and Reformation leader John Knox once wrote, were "repugnant to nature", incapable of ruling because they were "weak, frail, unpatient, feeble and foolish". In his diatribe The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, Knox opined female leadership of his day, from Mary, Queen of Scots to Queen Mary I of England.
More than four centuries on, the value of female leadership is a conversation we are still having. Earlier this week, former US president Barack Obama sparked debate by saying women made better leaders than men. At a forum in Singapore, he said: “You are not perfect but what I can say pretty indisputably is that you’re better than us [men]. I’m absolutely confident that if every nation on Earth was run by women [for two years], you would see a significant improvement across the board on just about everything, living standards and outcomes.”
In a world currently dominated by strongmen leaders, it’s food for thought. It is tempting to say we couldn’t possibly do much worse than the current status quo.
Yet his comments don't simply resonate because in the history of human civilisation, women often bear the brunt of decisions made by male leaders. What he said is founded in truth: women leaders do indeed have a strong track record when it comes to social and political leadership. Take the cases of Northern Ireland and Liberia. Women's participation and leadership in conflict resolution were key factors in ensuring a long-lasting peace settlement. More recently, New Zealand's Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern exhibited compassionate and strong leadership in dealing with the aftermath of the horrific Christchurch mosque attacks, in which 51 people died.
Mr Obama undoubtedly meant well and it is tempting to buy into his remarks and laud women’s talents. But his comments are no reason to cheer because if anything, they set back the long-term goals of ensuring female participation, representation, power and political leadership. Hyperbole about women’s leadership is, in fact, no help to women at all.
Couching a call for more female leadership in the political arena with blanket statements and pacifiers such as women being “indisputably better” allows critics to reject the idea that empowering women is a good thing, in and of itself.
Women are not bestowed with saintliness, wisdom or leadership skills through their chromosomes. Neither are men. Nor are women engineered to automatically have the upper hand over “old people, mostly men, holding onto positions of power”, whom Mr Obama described as the source of “most of the problems in the world”.
One of the methods used to control how women behave and how much power they should be allowed to have is to frame them within the angel/ devil archetypes. What Mr Obama is perhaps unintentionally doing here is playing to the same trope by placing women on a pedestal as inherently good. But ultimately that sets women up to fail – which some women inevitably will.
Male leaders fail all the time. However, characterising female leadership as inherently better gives women little room for manoeuvre and even less to make mistakes before their leadership is pronounced a de facto failure.
Women can be great leaders. They can also make terrible ones. And sometimes, they can be both. Two decades ago, Nobel Peace Prize-winner Aung San Suu Kyi was heralded as a leading political activist of our time and the brave new face of Myanmar. Last week she faced the International Court of Justice to defend her military against accusations of genocide against the country's Rohingya Muslim population.
I am not arguing for equal opportunities in bad leadership. We have enough of that already. What we need instead is a guarantee of equal access, opportunity and representation for both genders. This must go hand-in-hand with a nuanced understanding of leadership and the standards to which all leaders should be held to account. Such an understanding would give female leaders the chance for their talents to grow and shine, while ensuring they are held accountable – just as male leaders should be but too often, are not.
The author Margaret Atwood said: “We still think of a powerful man as a born leader and a powerful woman as an anomaly.” What we need to do is change that view, not by claiming that women are indisputably better but by asserting that they have the indisputable right to hold power.
Shelina Janmohamed is the author of Love in a Headscarf and Generation M: Young Muslims Changing the World