A Man’s World: In Whose Eyes?

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When the average person is asked who comes to mind when you say ‘significant political figures,’ many people will mention Barack Obama, George W Bush, Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela and Che Guevara. Interestingly, the list often excludes women who are in politics. From time to time Margaret Thatcher, Angela Merkel and Condoleezza Rice come up, but internationally the most significant political figures are perceived to be men. Why is this the case when now more than ever, more and more women are actively involved in politics and hold significant political positions? Is there something about politics that makes it an arena better suited to the male psyche, or could it be that despite the fact there are female political leaders and figures, men gain more recognition? Are we living in a political world dominated by the achievements or the viewpoints of men? Is this a man’s world?

It is hard for anyone to deny that within international politics there is a gender bias. Condoleezza Rice from United States, Angela Merkel from Germany and Margaret Thatcher from Britain are all incredible contemporary examples of women who, despite a patriarchal international society, have held or hold important political positions. Looking at some examples of prominent women in international politics, it is clear how women are perceived differently as significant leaders. From a psychological understanding, Cameron and Green explain that a strong leader is a charismatic person who influences others through their communication skills and commands respect, whilst maintaining a sense of purpose. [1] Is this because the traits of a good leader that Cameron and Green discuss, are seen to be male characteristics in a political sense? Is it that men are more rational, objective and decisive than women? Being rational, objective and decisive are no doubt useful traits in politics where a leaders ‘beliefs, motives, decision style, and inter-personal style’ affect how they make decisions. [2] Nonetheless, the question is why are these characteristics associated with men more than women?


If we take the example of Condoleezza Rice, she was the United States’ National Security Advisor from 2001 till 2005 and then the Secretary of State from 2005 to 2009. She was also the provost of the University of Stanford before she went into American politics. She is an African American female role model who is very intelligent, articulate and well respected internationally. This contradicts the view that women are somehow irrational, less objective and more indecisive. Despite all these achievements her political diligence has been criticised. Her colleague Dick Cheney faulted Rice for her handling of relations between the White House and North Korea; the former American Vice-President even said she had been ‘misleading the President.’ [3] By doing so her reputation as an upstanding female politician was unnecessarily tarnished, and it looks as though in the male dominated environment in which they work, Cheney was trying to scapegoat her. Furthermore as a political figure, Condoleezza Rice has throughout her political career been a rational and an influential leader but is known more through no fault of her own for being a female politician than for being an inspirational leader. When it comes to politics our world seems geared to focus more on the achievements of men.


Another example is Angela Merkel. She is now the German Chancellor and has been since 2005. Angela Merkel again is another contemporary role model of women in politics yet she has received a lot of bad press. Merkel has been criticised for lack of leadership in the Euro-zone crisis, where she faces opposition within the Bundestag (German Parliament) from several MP’s who have spoken out and undermined her stance on the European financial predicament. [4] As the 2011 election approaches, her reputation as a political leader appears to be in decline and her portrayal in the media gives the impression of a Chancellor who does not command the respect of male politicians who continue to undermine her. Ironically, on a more psychological and personal level she has been criticised for being more like a man than a women, which begs the question, are the characteristics of a good leader intrinsically male? [5]

Not only does this appear to be the case in Germany but it is true of Great Britain too, where the Equality in politics: a survey on Men and women in Parliaments stated that ‘Women politicians experience many forms of discrimination,’ and that ‘ambitious women are frowned on.’ [6] For example, the Guardian described Margaret Thatcher as the ‘Iron Lady’, and many of the men in her Cabinet were ‘said to have been scared of her’ and ‘it’s no accident that the television satirists of Spitting Image have portrayed Thatcher as a man.’ [7] Why are these women seen through masculine lenses as having traits that are intrinsically male or is it that men and women in politics are not judged by their electorate and the international community in the same way?

If we look internationally, Liberia and Rwanda are great examples of how gender biases and limitations are being combated. Liberia has the first and only female president in Africa, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, elected in 2006. As a female political figure she is not well known, however the fact she is not recognised internationally in the same way other African male leaders such as Jacob Zuma or Joseph Kabila are, does not mean that she is not a significant political figure. Another example is in Rwanda where under the leadership of President Paul Kagame women MP’s make up 44 out of the 80 Parliamentary seats in government. [8] This is also not a widely known fact but its significance should not be underestimated, as it sets a precedent for other African regimes that have significantly male dominated governments.


There is clearly a gender bias within politics that cannot be hidden, however despite the complex nature of how women are perceived as being more like men in politics, it is important to stress that women are increasingly involved in politics. Women, despite the prejudices of a patriarchal society are not only involved in politics at a high level but also at a grass roots level around the world, more so now than ever before. The view that politics is a man world is a misconception. If you look at how public perception and the international reputation of political figures is shaped, it is mostly by the media and international press. It is the media that suggest that the characteristics of a good leader are male. [9]

Although there are other influences on the public perception of political figures it is important to consider the fact that the media frames a lot of what we think of politicians, where framing refers to how and what news the media presents. Therefore the idea that the characteristics of a good leader are gender specific can be seen as a media construction that is sexist and perpetuates the patriarchal society we live in. Dyson and Presto also mention the fact that there are many ‘different types of leaders who use history differently during political decision making,’ which means that from a psychological standpoint gendered leadership traits are historically inconsistent. [10] There are women across the globe who are great leaders, like Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, but the point is that the media will criticise all politicians for one thing or another. Often it just so happens that for women in politics they are criticised for being too masculine, which reinforces the idea that men are the significant political figures.

Article by Nandi Mkushi. Edited by Ben Mackay.


[1] Making sense of Leadership: Exploring Five Key Roles Used by Effective Leaders: Esther Cameron, Mike Green
[2] Explaining Foreign Policy Behaviour Using the Personal Characteristics of Political Leaders: Author(s): Margaret G. Hermann – Source: International Studies Quarterly, Vol. 24, No. 1 (Mar., 1980), pp. 7-46, Published by: Blackwell Publishing on behalf of The International Studies Association, Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/2600126
[3] http://newsone.com/nation/casey-gane-mccalla/condoleezza-rice-hits-dick-cheney-for-attacks-on-her-integrity/
[4] http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/angela-merkel-undermined-by-outspoken-mps-2354986.html
[5] http://personal.lse.ac.uk/goerzig/publications/Endfassung(AngiePosterDruck)engl.pdf
[6] http://www.ipu.org/pdf/publications/equality08-e.pdf
[7] http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/1989/nov/30/gender.uk
[8] http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/7620816.stm
[9] http://www.abc.net.au/unleashed/2902434.html
[10] Individual Characteristics of Political Leaders and the Use of Analogy in Foreign Policy: Decision Making – Stephen Benedict Dyson and Thomas Presto, Political Psychology, Vol. 27, No. 2 (Apr., 2006), pp. 265-288, Published by: International Society of Political Psychology Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3792441