Fareed Zakaria


S OMETIMES THE MOST IMPORTANT STORIES IN THE WORLD don’t really get much attention because they’re powerful but slow trends that can’t be easily covered. They provide no single great event for cameras to focus on, nor a powerful image everyone can easily grasp. (How do you televise globalization?) Last week, November 21st, 2005, however, something happened that gives us a rare opportunity to look at one such trend.

Ellen Johnson-SirleafOn Nov. 8, 2005, Liberians elected the Harvard-educated Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, 67, to be their next leader. This is news worthy by itself because Johnson-Sirleaf will be Africa’s first female president . But it’s an even bigger story because, on the world stage, it’s not an isolated event. One of the quiet, underreported tidal waves of the past decade has been the rise of women in public life. It could reshape politics as we know it.

Look at what’s happening elsewhere.

Next week, Angela Merkel will become the first female chancellor of Germany. In voting over the next two months, Michelle Bachelet will likely be elected president of Chile; if so, she will be the first woman elected to lead a major Latin American country. Since the 1990s, more than 30 women have become heads of government. In the 1950s there was just one. (I doubt anyone remembers: Suhbaataryn Yanjrnaa president of Mongolia.

It’s not just heads of state. Whatever else happens in the Iraqi elections on Dec. 15, we know one thing for sure, women will fill at least 25 percent of seats in the new Parliament. That’s because the Iraqi Constitution has a quota requiring it. (The current Parliament is actually 31 percent female, and six of the government’s 32 ministers arc women.) The Afghan Constitution has a similar 25 percent quota. And these are part of a global pattern.

Overall, 50 countries have quotas for female representation in their legislatures. In many countries, like Sweden political parties have adopted rules that force them to field a set number of women candidates. (Forty-five percent of the Swedish Legislature is female.) The world record for female representation is held by Rwanda, with women making up 49 percent of its lower house. The United States now ranks 67th in the world by this measure, with only 15 percent of the House of Representatives being female. The lowest representation by region is in the Arab world, with women making up only 8 percent of legislatures.

What difference does it make? Does it really matter that a president or a representative is male or female? Many voters seem to think so. A 2000 Gallup poll in Latin America found that 62 percent of people believed that women would do better than men at fighting poverty, 72 percent favored women for improving education and 53 percent thought women would make better diplomats. There is a lot of growing evidence that, at the very least, where women make up a significant percentage of government, they tend to hold priorities that are different from men’s. >The World Economic Forum found, in a study of just three countries, that women wanted more money for health care, education and social welfare, and less for the military. Across the globe, women are perceived as less corrupt.

This is consistent with growing evidence at a micro level that women are better recipients of aid than men. Around the world, if you give cash to a mother, she tends to use it to invest in children’s health and education. (A man, on the other hand, will often take it and head to the local watering hole.) “Studies from Brazil show that survival possibilities of a child increase by 20 percent if the income is in the hands of the mother rather than the father,” says the World Bank’s Mayra Buvrnic.

There is another perceived difference between men and women. Seven years ago, Francis Fukuyama published an article in Foreign Affairs in which he drew on the rapidly growing field of evolutionary biology to argue that “aggression, violence, war, and intense competition for dominance ... are more closely associated with men than women.” He concluded that “a world run by women would follow far different rules ... and it is towards this kind of world that all post-industrial societies in the West arc moving. As women gain power in these countries, the latter should become less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent.” He even asks the politically incorrect question, could some “female” traits have negative

effects for governance.

Fukuyama’s view was denounced by some feminists for ignoring the reality that war is a complex event produced by many forces—not just machismo—and for propagating a stereotypical view of women as “soft” and men as “hard.” But there does appear to be growing scientific evidence that certain basic distinctions between men and women are hard-wired. There are always the female exceptions— Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi—just as there are male ones—the Buddha, Gandhi—but there are some studies that support the general distinction between most men and women.

It is much too soon to be able to tell how different the world would he if women were equal partners in government. But it’s a trend that’s coming soon to a country near you, so keep watching.

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November 28, 2005. (Pg. 39)

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