The Double-Edged Sword of Female Leadership

Federal Chancellor of Germany Angela Merkel and President of France Francois Hollande meet with Russian President Vladimir Putin. Source

The 2016 presidential election will no doubt remain a controversial subject in the coming years. Many feminists, excited at the prospect of America’s first female president, must now come to terms with the reality that the “highest and hardest” glass ceiling will remain unbroken for at least four more years.  However, the United States is not alone in its continued failure to elect a woman to its highest government office. Despite the progress made around the world to expand the rights of women, a lack of gender parity remains painfully clear in the realm of leadership. Women occupy around 10% of the highest offices in national governments around the world, with 19 women currently serving as head of state/government. One of the most formidable female leaders today is Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Merkel’s unconventional rise to power serves as an inspiration to aspiring female leaders and further dismantles society’s male-centric conception of power and leadership. However, her legacy also highlights the many double-edged swords facing women in power that make the glass ceiling so difficult to break through.

As a politician in Germany, Merkel is an outlier. She grew up in East Germany during the Cold War and was originally trained in the sciences. Her origins made her an outsider in German politics, which were dominated by men from the West. Nevertheless, she turned her perceived weaknesses into strengths. She used the patience, intellect and inconspicuousness that she cultivated in the East to propel her political career. Furthermore, her background in science allowed her to grow more comfortable working in a male dominated field, and has influenced many aspects of her political style. She is an unanimated public speaker; her speeches are devoid of the pompousness and inflated rhetoric that are characteristic of many other world leaders. She is notorious for delaying her decisions for as long as possible in order to analyze all the available data, and has developed a political style that is based on pragmatism and facts rather than any ideological convictions. In fact, it has been said her only deep seated conviction is her value for freedom, everything else “is negotiable”.

Merkel’s unique style of leadership has allowed her to cultivate a level of respect among the German people that secured her three consecutive terms as chancellor. However, despite her success, she has faced more than her fair share of obstacles in the form of both overt and subtle sexism. While she has risen above the insults and criticism admirably, her experiences reveal the contradictory attitudes surrounding female leadership, and the fine line women in power must walk. While every country and culture has a unique set of standards for their leadership, many of the challenges faced by Merkel are universal to women seeking power.  

Merkel developed an ability to restrain herself and lead from behind through her experience studying alongside primarily male colleagues at Leipzig University. She once joked, “The men in the laboratory always had their hands on all the buttons at the same time. I couldn’t keep up with this, because I was thinking. And then things suddenly went ‘poof,’ and the equipment was destroyed.” Throughout her political career she has stood her ground and dealt with the particularly “macho” male leaders, such as Vladimir Putin, in a similar fashion. Merkel’s tactics can serve as a model for other aspiring female leaders, but her experiences also reveal a troubling truth. Female leaders must remain composed in order to avoid being labeled emotional or abrasive, but if they are too diffident they risk having their voices drowned out. Merkel’s lead from behind style of leadership has allowed her to work around this double-edged sword, but it is not necessarily the most efficient way to lead. Ultimately, placing rigid expectations on women hinders their ability to be effectual leaders.

Contradictions between expectations of Merkel’s femininity and masculinity also came into play during her rise to power. The now popular and affectionate nickname “Mutti” (German word for mother), was originally thrown at her as an insult. She has since gracefully reclaimed the name, arguing that it implies her responsibility to the German people. Her appearance has come under scrutiny as well, particularly at the beginning of her career. She has updated her style over time but has largely ignored the critics and maintained a plain and unassuming wardrobe. In this way she has sent the message that she prioritizes her work over her appearance and wants to keep the focus on her policy. These experiences reveal another double-edged sword: as a woman Merkel is expected to be feminine, matronly and stylish, although these traits are often seen as incompatible with strong leadership. After centuries of primarily male leaders, our notions of masculinity and leadership are intimately intertwined. In order to be taken seriously, a woman must adopt more traditionally masculine traits such as resoluteness and aggression. However, acting too masculine often makes a woman less likeable to a broad audience.

Merkel has also received criticism at the other end of the spectrum from feminists who are dismayed by her failure to adequately address women’s issues in Germany. Merkel herself has said she doesn’t consider herself a feminist. Although she has made efforts throughout her career to advance women’s rights, such as adding gender equality in the workplace to the G7 summit agenda in 2015, women’s issues have remained largely on the periphery of her policy goals. The harsh criticism Merkel has received from feminists is fueled in part by the idea that women understand the challenges posed by gender barriers, and thus have an obligation to help each other whenever possible; as Secretary of State Madeleine Albright once said, “There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other”. Merkel’s actions reveal another troubling double-edged sword: those with the most power to advance women’s rights—women in the highest offices of government—often adopt passive stances, perhaps because acting otherwise could amount to political suicide. When a woman seeking a high leadership role champions women’s rights and runs on a feminist platform, it is seen with suspicion by many and cast as self-serving. Thus, it is very difficult for an outspoken feminist to get elected to a high office. There is no doubt that having more female leaders is a positive step towards gender equality. However, their power would be much more consequential if it were wielded to directly advance women’s issues.

While more active advocacy for women’s issues from Merkel is necessary, her contributions to the women’s movement must still be recognized and appreciated. She garnered respect in boardrooms dominated by men as she led Europe through the Eurozone Crisis and continues to tackle the Refugee Crisis; thus she has expanded respect for female voices in important international policy discussions. Ultimately, Merkel can serve as both an inspiration and a sobering lesson to other aspiring female leaders. She is an example to women everywhere of strong female leadership that has risen above sexist criticism and “macho men”. However, her legacy is riddled with the double-edged swords that have prevented many other women from achieving the same success. Hopefully, America’s aspiring first-female-presidents will learn a lesson from Merkel and shatter the highest glass ceiling once and for all.

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