Women Are from Mars Too

Why more female leaders won't mean less war.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Micah Zenko obviously doesn't know my mother.

Micah Zenko obviously doesn’t know my mother.

In his Foreign Policy column this week, he cites recent evidence of a gender gap in support for U.S. drone strikes and notes that a "female-male divergence of opinions is an enduring characteristic of polls on the use of military force." Specifically, studies of global polling data suggest that women are consistently less likely than men to favor the use of military force, leading Zenko, with whom I usually agree, to speculate that perhaps "force would be used less" if there were more women in senior national leadership positions.

I’m skeptical on this one. There are plenty of tough, not-exactly-pacifistic gals out there — have I mentioned my mother? — and there is a distinct dearth of evidence supporting the idea that "the world would be more peaceful if more women held political office." That’s a sentiment apparently held by 65 percent of the 43 women leaders polled by Foreign Policy in 2012, but at the moment it represents wishful thinking more than anything else. This rosy view reflects a misunderstanding of the existing evidence on gender differences and an even deeper misunderstanding of the complex web of cultural and institutional factors that drive decisions about the use of military force.

We hear all the time that men are different from women, and in certain crushingly obvious ways, it’s true. There are biological differences between the sexes. The life trajectories of men and women tend to differ in measurable ways. There are male-dominated professions and female-dominated professions. And, as Zenko points out, there are some persistent gender gaps in opinions on numerous issues, from the use of military force to health care policy.

We all know the stereotypes: Men are more "aggressive" than women; women are more "nurturing" than men. Those looking for evidence that these are enduring, hard-wired differences can find plenty of grist for the mill: Men commit the overwhelming majority of violent crimes, for instance, while women make up the overwhelming majority of early childhood teachers and daycare workers. See? Men are violent; women are kind.

Ah, but not so fast. It’s a big mistake to go from patterns of individual behavior to assumptions about inherent gender differences — and a bigger mistake to assume that gender differences translate predictably into different policy outcomes on the scale of an entire nation.

Recent research on gender suggests that men and women are far less different in their psychological makeup than most people think. In 2005, psychologist Janet Shibley Hyde analyzed dozens of prior meta-analyses of studies looking at gender differences in aggression, leadership, moral reasoning, communication, cognition, and a range of other psychological traits. By and large, she found, the effect of gender differences on most psychological variables was small: In fact, "78% of gender differences are small or close to zero."

In Hyde’s analysis, there were a few areas in which gender differences loomed larger, but these mostly related to physical difference, such as throwing speed and distance. Hyde also found "large" gender differences in "some, but not all, measures of sexuality," including attitudes towards casual sex outside of committed relationships (men were more in favor).

When it came to aggression, the evidence was more ambiguous: Hyde found a "moderate" gender difference in physical aggression (men were, on average, moderately more physically aggressive than women), but the picture was more complex when other forms of aggression were factored in: Women, for instance, may be slightly more "relationally aggressive." In certain contexts, different studies suggest, women may be as (or even slightly more) physically aggressive than men, although men’s greater strength makes them more dangerous when they become aggressive.

A study in the February 2013 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology generally confirmed Hyde’s findings. It noted that even when there are mean differences between men and women when it comes to certain characteristics, such as physical aggression, those differences are poor predictors of how any given individual is likely to behave.

Thus, note study authors Harry Reis and Bobbi Carothers, "The statement that men are more aggressive than women, for example, implicitly" — but wrongly — "assumes that there is one group of people who are high in aggression (men) and another group of people who are low in aggression (women)." Such an assumption would lead us to think that "Knowing only that a person was male, we could also infer that he would be relatively aggressive" — and that he would demonstrate other qualities on which there are, on average, small differences between men and women. For instance, he would be "good in math, poor in verbal skills, primarily interested in short-term mating, less agreeable, and so on."

But this, Reis and Carothers argue, is not the case: Any particular man may be far less aggressive than many women, and "Those who score in a stereotypic way on one measure do not necessarily do so on another." In other words, psychological traits are poor predictors of an individual’s gender, and an individual’s gender is a poor predictor of his or her psychological traits.

When it comes to aggression, the picture becomes even more complex if we take away the social context and cues that powerfully affect behavior. In one study, participants who believed that researchers would not know their names or genders defied standard assumptions about gender and aggression. In a simulated conflict setting, men chose to drop more bombs than women when they believed researchers knew their identities, but when study subjects believed themselves to be anonymous, women actually dropped more bombs than male participants.

Richard Eichenberg, whose research Zenko cites, looked at attitudes towards the use of military force during six recent U.S. conflicts (from the Gulf War to the war on terror), and found that, on average, 51 percent of men and 43 percent of women supported the use of force. Consider these numbers in the context of recent psychological studies, however: This means that 49 percent of men did not support the use of force, while 43 percent of women did. That’s a lot of men opposed to force, and a lot of women who favor it. Would this relatively small difference truly translate into significant differences in national policy if there were more women leaders? That’s anyone’s guess.

We also don’t know the degree to which context and cultural norms influenced the answers of those polled (perhaps more women than men felt they were "supposed" to tell pollsters that they opposed force, given prevailing stereotypes about women). If the same women who were polled in these surveys were sitting in a room full of military and national security officials, would that affect their responses?

This, too, is anyone’s guess — and it has some bearing on the assumption that more women leaders would bring us a more peaceful world, since at the moment, any given woman leader operating at the national level will find herself in a male-dominated setting. In such a setting, will a woman with "average" female attitudes about aggression and force be driven by those attitudes? Or will women leaders find themselves influenced and co-opted by the contexts in which they find themselves, and end up, like the women in the study mentioned above, choosing to drop more bombs than the men?

Yet another thing we don’t know is whether those women who seek and obtain national leadership positions have psychological traits that differ in measurable ways from those of the "average" woman. Maybe women foreign policy and national security leaders will think and act just like women who choose to be preschool teachers or doctors or accountants — but maybe the women who seek out national leadership positions are less likely to conform to "typical" gender norms than other women.

Certainly, history is replete with examples of women leaders who presided over aggressive foreign policies (consider, for instance, Britain’s Queen Elizabeth I and Queen Victoria, neither of whom were noted for their pacifistic, nurturing approach to decisions about military force).

Ah. It’s time to get back to my mother.

Not just because she’s a woman who rarely shies away from a scrap (she’s pretty tough), but because her own work on the origins of war (Blood Rites, by Barbara Ehrenreich, a.k.a. "Mom") offers a final important reason to be skeptical of claims that more women leaders would make the world more peaceful. Zenko briefly quotes her assertion that "women in the past two centuries have more than adequately demonstrated a capacity for collective violence," but he overlooks her more important point: You just can’t extrapolate from individual personality to the actions of nations.

As she wrote in the article cited by Zenko, "There is little basis for locating the wellspring of war in aggressive male instincts — or in any instincts, for that matter. Wars are not bar-room brawls writ large, but, as social theorist Robin Fox puts it, ‘complicated, orchestrated, highly organized’ collective undertakings that cannot be explained by any individual impulse."

In other words, nations don’t use military force simply because individual policymakers, male or female, happen to be "aggressive": Wars are the products of thousands of individual decisions that are driven and enabled by complex institutional arrangements and patterns of behavior. Leaders don’t operate in a vacuum, imposing their individual preferences on national decisions large and small. Instead, they are shaped and constrained by past decisions and practices, by politics and ideology, by the availability of different capabilities and resources, by the decision-making structures they create or inherit, and by path-dependent bureaucracies.

That is to say: President Obama doesn’t preside over drone strikes because he’s a naturally aggressive male. He presides over drone strikes because the United States has developed an elaborate military and paramilitary structure designed to use military force against terrorists. An array of past decisions about research, development, training, resource and personnel allocations, law, and targeting procedures lies behind current U.S. drone strike policy. Could President Obama change course? Yes — but he, like any other leader who wants to change an entrenched practice, will find himself working against the tide.

In the end, of course, I wholeheartedly agree with Micah Zenko that the underrepresentation of women in senior national leadership positions is a crying shame. As a card-carrying member of the female sex — and frankly, as a citizen — I’d love to see more women in national leadership positions. For one thing, there are a whole lot of talented women out there, and the complex structural factors that keep most women out of senior positions deprive the nation of talent we surely need. It’s also about basic fairness: Right now, for reasons I’ve written about previously, it’s just harder for most women to gain entry to the highest echelons of power.

But let’s not kid ourselves: There’s no solid evidence supporting the notion, pleasing as it is, that more women leaders will translate into a foreign policy that’s all sweetness and light.

Can you say "Margaret Thatcher?" Or, for that matter, "Dianne Feinstein," or "Sarah Palin"?

Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and a senior fellow with the New America/Arizona State University Future of War Project. She served as a counselor to the U.S. defense undersecretary for policy from 2009 to 2011 and previously served as a senior advisor at the U.S. State Department. Her most recent book is How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything. Twitter: @brooks_rosa

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