Ethnic diversity, gender, and national leaders.

Author:Perkins, Susan E.
Position:Beyond Exclusion - Report

National leaders have the ultimate responsibility to balance the needs of a diverse set of constituents in society while using their country's unique set of resources to grow the economy and gain comparative advantages. Ethnic diversity is known to be an extremely challenging factor to reconcile nationally and is negatively associated with GDP growth; in fact, high levels of ethnic diversity are associated with a 2 percent decline in GDP growth. (1) In most countries throughout modern history, the role of the national leader has been played by men. Women historically have had limited opportunities to lead their countries and in many early cases, only by the failing of their husband's health or his death did they ascend to power In the last decade, however, more women have been elected to lead their countries, such as Ellen Johnson Sirleaf in the Republic of Liberia; Angela Merkel of the Federal Republic of Germany; and most recently, Park Geun-hye in the Republic of Korea, under the political platform of harmonious unification with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. With the rise in female national leaders, it begs the question whether there are some conditions in which women might be more effective leaders than their male counterparts. This study examines the intersection of ethnic diversity, gender, and leadership to explore the effectiveness of male versus female leadership in highly diverse societies, as compared to more ethnically homogeneous ones. We examine a unique dataset of 5,709 observations of national leaders in 139 nations over more than five decades. We find that in more ethnically diverse nations, the presence of a female national leader is correlated with a 6.9 percent increase in GDP growth in comparison to having a male leader. We offer some plausible rationales for these patterns and discuss the policy implications of our findings.


National leaders have the ultimate responsibility to balance the needs of a diverse set of constituents in society while using their country's unique set of resources to grow the economy and gain comparative advantages. Salient to many observers, the United States of America, the world's largest economy, has never had a female president or vice president and has had only forty-four women serve in the 224-year history of the U.S. Senate. Moreover, if women do make it into top-ranked government leadership positions, whether or not they perform notably differently from their male counterparts still remains unknown. Though studies presented by several psychologists validate that women's leadership styles differ from their male counterparts--as being more democratic, inclusive, participative, and transformative how this plays out nationally in terms of setting national policy agendas and making key decisions for society is explained only anecdotally. (2) For example, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, affectionately known to her countrymen as the "Iron Lady," was said to bring a "motherly sensitivity" to post-war torn Liberia; Michelle Bachelet, the Republic of Chile's first female national leader, won in 2006 on a campaign championing gender equality and inclusion; and most recently, Park Geun-hye won the presidential election in the Republic of Korea under the political platform of "disarming vicious cycles of distrust and building peace" with the Democratic People's Republic of Korea. (3) These anecdotes all suggest an association with a gender-specific perception of governance, as well as a gender-specific expectation for substantive policy changes with a female taking the lead at the national level.

To develop a better understanding of the unique contributions of female national leaders, this article uses global cross-national comparative leader data from 188 countries to explore the following questions: How have global trends of national female leadership changed over time? Is there evidence that having a female as compared to a male leader has differential consequences for economic growth as ethnic diversity increases?


Early civilizations had no shortage of great women leaders of dynasties, empires, and tribes, such as Cleopatra of Egypt and Julia Augusta of the Roman Empire. The legacy of women in national leadership continued through the 1800s, which featured queens at the helm of burgeoning sovereign states. However, in the recent era of democratization, with the introduction of representative government and equal voting rights, there has been a dearth of female national leaders. Not until 1969 was the first female elected as prime minister--Golda Meir of Israel--after the death of her predecessor. It took yet another decade for the second woman to be elected to lead her country as prime minister--Margaret Thatcher of the United Kingdom. (4) The probability of a woman reaching the top leadership ranks of society is slim; less than 5 percent of the national leaders across the 188 countries we examined since the 1950s have been female. Given how few women have risen to these national leadership positions over time, our interest here is to document if and how this trend has changed over time. We shall then further explore whether women's attainment of leadership is associated with differential economic outcomes depending on the level of ethnic diversity in the country.


We first examined data on national leaders to see which nations have or have not had female representation in that category, To satisfy this inquiry, we compiled national leader data from two key data-sets--Archigos and the Worldwide Guide to Women in Leadership--to examine 1,338 national leaders who cumulatively ruled over 10,340 leader-years in 188 nations from 1950 to 2004. (5) We used these data to research the patterns of women's presence in national leadership positions as queens, presidents, or prime ministers. (6) Fifty-four of the 188 countries had at least one female national leader between 1950 and 2004. Of the 1,338 total national leaders in this fifty-five year period, less than 5 percent (sixty-one leaders) were women, including thirteen queens, eighteen presidents, and thirty prime ministers (see Table 1 below for the full list). (7) While the majority of these women were either elected or appointed to their positions (67 percent), a high percentage of these women (33 percent) came into power through regency, death of a spouse, or temporary appointments (Figure 1). The first female national leader who did not come into power by regency is Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, who assumed leadership in 1960 after her husband Prime Minister Solomon Bandaranaike's assassination and his potential successor's illness.

The number of female national leaders in a given year has quadrupled since the early 1950s, growing from four queens in 1950 to eighteen female leaders--with a growing representation of elected prime ministers and presidents--in 2004 (Figure 2). This suggests that as countries democratize and citizens are given more choice in selecting a leader, more female national leaders may be elected. A disproportionately high number of female national leader-year periods are in developed, as compared to less developed nations (p


The top national leadership positions of a country are highly powerful roles affording the possessor the power to shape policies and agendas that have a significant influence on country-level outcomes. (8) More recently, scholars have identified linkages between gross domestic product (GDP) growth and the crucial role the national leader plays in the growth of his or her nation. (9) For example, Jones and Olken's "Do Leaders Matter?" showed that differences in Mao's versus Deng's politics, public policies, and fiscal policies are directly associated with China's growth trajectory during each leader's era. (10) China's GDP experienced slow growth at 1.7 percent per year under Mao's leadership with policies such as the Cultural Revolution. (11) Comparatively, Deng's national leadership agenda, which included more progressive, market-oriented policies, experienced growth rates of 5.9 percent on average in each subsequent year. (12) This research suggests that the policy agendas that leaders establish are associated with the...

To continue reading