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When Women Rule

'Columbia Ideas at Work - Connecting Research to Practice',
Summer 2014

"...Women in top national leadership positions - president or prime minister - have more
than quadrupled between 1950 and 2004, from four to 18.  Recently, women have been elected to top posts in every corner of the globe, including Chile, Germany, Liberia, and
South Korea...Earlier this year, Catherine Samba-Panza was chosen to lead, on an inter-
im basis, the Central African Republic, which is in the midst of a civil war. 

Professor Katherine Philips* worked with Susan Perkins and Nicholas Pierce, both of
Northwestern University, to look more closely at global trends in female leadership since 1950, including evidence that having a female rather than a male leader of ethnic-
ally diverse nations leads to different outcomes.  "A nation's leaders have a lot of power to shape policy, including economic policy," Philips says.  So we wanted to know: Do women leaders have a different impact than their male counterparts?  And are there some circumstances under which women might be more effective leaders than men?"

Social unrest often goes hand in hand with economic woes, and economists have shown that nations with higher ethnic fractionalization - a measure of the likelihood that a fel-
low citizen is from a different nationality - experience more inequality and conflict.  That makes governing particularly complex since leaders must navigate and balance conflicts of interest between different ethnic groups.  And nations with a lot of ethnic diversity have historically experienced lower GDP growth: the impact of going from no diversity to full diversity is a loss of 2 percent of GDP growth.  To learn the precise rela-
tionship between economic performance and national leaders, the researchers com-
pared data for national leaders in 139 nations between 1950 and 2004 with annual Penn
World Trade GDP growth data.  They included Gapminder measures that signal GDP health, including infrastructure investment, postsecondary schooling, and rule of law.

Philips and her co-researchers found that when troubled nations elect women to the key national leadership office, their economies experience a significant rise in GDP com-
pared with their male counterparts leading similar nations...For the most ethnically diverse nations having a woman in the top national leadership position was correlated with a 6.9% greater increase in GDP growth in comparison to nations with a male leader.

Why might people choose a woman to lead when a nation is facing enormous strife, and why do these leaders perform better under trying conditions than their male counter-
parts?...Studies show women leaders tend to have a more participatory, democratic style than men and that when people perceive a threat and need for change in their en-
vironment, they prefer female leaders; they choose men to lead during times of stabili-
ty.  In short, women may simply be seen as better at managing different situations that require more inclusionary or cooperative approaches..."Women are perceived to have qualities needed to improve the lot for everybody," Philips says.  "And they deliver."

*Senior Vice Dean and the Paul Calello Professor of Leadership and Ethics in the
 Management Division at Columbia Business School

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