How not to write about female leaders

By Beata Rek, PhD student in Politics, @BeataRek (https://twitter.com/beatarek). You can find more about Beata here.


 

As Angela Merkel, Theresa May and Hillary Clinton, as well as many other women, rise to the political top, it may be reasonable to theorise that the glass ceiling is no longer a barrier for women in politics. However, the situation of female politicians might not be quite as simple as it may seem at first sight. Indeed, although women could have smashed the glass ceiling into smithereens, it does not yet mean that all the issues which they face – for example media coverage – are over.

When analysing this year’s press coverage of the Conservative leadership election, at some point I observed a significant increase in the number of articles about female leaders from different parts of the globe. This was around the time when all male candidates were eliminated one by one, and the election turned into a two-woman race. However, what the media gave with one hand by praising female politicians for all their hard work and achievements, it took away with the other by referring to them as ‘cleaners’ who are there to pick up the pieces of their male predecessors. Moreover, the media undermined their authority by suggesting that women might have won their positions only as a result of political instability. An article in the Guardian suggesting that ‘all we need is just someone who will lead us out from the mess‘ and a piece in the Independent arguing that Theresa May “is criticised for being dull – but that’s exactly what Britain in turmoil needs” are just a few of many examples.

Even though the press give the impression of writing about female politicians in a positive light, in reality it also sends a veiled, negative message. First of all, by writing that women are cleaning the mess made by men, the media did not present women as an equal part of the political scene. Indeed, ‘othering’ women from male politicians has been previously described in the academic literature and examples of such practices include unnecessarily labelling their gender (and not doing so for males) or emphasising how ‘rare’ is a woman’s appointment for the particular office. Similarly, reducing the role of female politicians to fixing the damage done by men does not aid creating a gender-equal environment, and potentially limits their chances for being elected in the future as well as undermines their authority.

Second of all, while writing about May and Leadsom, the press had a tendency to mention that the election is taking place in the time of political crisis. One message from so-constructed statements is that women’s success might not be related to their abilities, but rather to unusual political circumstances. This might thwart their position as candidates who are able to win in every situation, while in the future, once the crisis is over, this could also pose a question whether a woman is still a good choice. Therefore, the media could devaluate the candidates, by linking their success with times of turmoil, rather than attributing it to their experience and potential ability to successfully run a country.

While in the past there have been more severe examples of gendered coverage, framing of females as ‘political cleaners’ is yet another confirmation that more changes in press attitudes towards women are required. It is a well-established fact that women are a part of politics for quite a while now, and thus it is shameful that in 2016 the media still relegate women to “postmodern Elektras in suits and rubber gloves” who are supposed to clean the mess caused by men.

Lessons for Jeremy Corbyn from the Argentinian left

By Pia Riggirozzi, Associate Professor in Global Politics at the University of Southampton (@PRiggirozziAcademia.edu). You can find more posts by Pia here.


 

Jeremy Corbyn won a decisive victory over Owen Smith in a second Labour Party leadership contest on Saturday. With it Corbyn not only strengthened his authority but also the right to lead his party. This election was interesting on many counts, not least because it opens questions about where political power and legitimacy reside. The emergence of Corbyn in Labour politics has been politically and ideologically divisive from the outset, confirming a chasm between what is considered the Labour establishment, and ‘the people’ who have rallied to Corbyn’s support, including unions and local activists. Corbyn has revealed his intention to give more prominence to ‘the people’, to ‘do things differently’, and to build a more just and decent society. These promises put a spin on the Labour Party, reclaiming its role within the global resistance to neoliberalism.

Take Argentina, for example. From 2001 to 2015, the challenge to neoliberalism came from electorates that refused to accept parties committed to free markets. Furthermore, Kirchnerismo, the movement associated with the legacy of the 12 years administration of Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband Néstor, led on the promise of moving beyond neoliberalism, ‘putting politics at the service of people and the economy at the service of the well-being of all citizens’. And it did so in the context of a global political economy where rising commodity prices and strong commercial and financial links with China gave the Kirchners resources to focus efforts on Argentina’s poor. The nation made significant progress on reducing poverty, introduced universal child benefit plan as well as higher pensions, and the expansion of civil rights, including same sex marriage. But this political project undoubtedly proved to be very divisive. For some, it represented a real commitment to prosperity and the expansion of citizenship rights. For others, it represented a quasi-authoritarian, state-led interventionist system, leading to mistaken exchange rate policies, ruinous energy subsidies and unsustainable fiscal deficit. With the economy slowing and inflation worsening, this polarisation explains Kirchnerism’s defeat in November 2015, and a swing to political and economic conservatism with the election of Mauricio Macri.

As for Corbyn, he won the mandate to do something different and he will thus have to provide an alternative to the unravelling of neoliberalism in the UK, where Labour has so far failed to refashion a social contract of ‘capitalism with a human face’ while Conservatives, caught off-guard by the Brexit vote, double-down on their endorsement to an economic model based on rising inequalities.

The Mexican President’s Passing “Moment”

By Ana Carolina Aranda, Postgraduate Research Student in Politics and International Relations at University of Southampton.


Almost two years ago the international press claimed that Mexico was living through a special moment of reform and development (see http://econ.st/T2Woeg and http://nyti.ms/Xsvzlj). After the announcement of passing constitutional reforms, it seemed that Mexico was presenting to international actors an interesting model of development. It was called “The Mexican Moment.” For this moment, after many years, the capacity of the Mexican state was seen as positive by international opinion and the news media. However, today, the same international news media are claiming the end of this “magical” moment (see http://nyti.ms/1szud3L, http://fw.to/ex5GoNe and http://econ.st/1HJzrFd). Did Mexico really undergo a developmental miracle only to now find itself in crisis?

The crisis that the Mexican government is facing today is about an institutional and political crisis rather than the emergence of a focused problem on organized crime and drug dealing policy. First, there is a lack of acceptance by the Mexican government of well-established events and facts. There is a lack of recognition of human rights violations committed against the 43 missing students, as well as other crimes committed in recent years on behalf of Mexico’s war on drugs. Moreover, there is clear weakness in the Mexican rule of law and institutional responsiveness to the corruption embedded in the structure of the state. Secondly, the governments has not given the Mexican people a credible answer to the questions currently being posed. People are reacting to a collapse, a “perfect storm” in Mexican politics, due to the lack of transparency that for many years has been presented in the different presidential administrations.

The kidnapping of 43 Iguala students and the government’s response to this event do not constitute the most dramatic moment that Mexican politics has ever faced. Back in 1994, President Ernesto Zedillo confronted public opinion in one of the most histrionic moments in Mexican politics. However, what was the difference in response between these two administrations? Zedillo’s administration tackled the problem by being as accountable as possible. In fact, under Ernesto’s Zedillos administration, people said that they did not want to hear the president speaking on TV again, as every time he went live he needed to give some bad news. Apparently, the President took a strategy of attacking problems frontally, and this was welcomed by Mexican society. In contrast, the response to this crisis by Peña’s administrations has been less organized and quite unreliable. Their answers to this crisis have been full of contradictions.

The response to the Iguala event was a localization of the problem by the Federal Government. The authorities and institutions of the state of Guerrero were blamed for the disappearance of the students. However, Mexican society did not accept the localization of the problem and it was soon claimed that this was a human rights crime committed by the state at all levels. According to Mexico’s attorney general, the crime was committed by members of a local narco-gang and under the orders of the former mayor of the city. Students from the School of Ayotzinapa were about to protest in a public event held by the wife of the Iguala mayor José Luis Abarca. According to the authorities investigating this case, the officers and police (colluding with the organized crime and Abarca) were told to stop the students from interrupting a speech that was going to be delivered by Ms. Maria de Los Angeles Pineda (Abarca´s wife) on that day. The result of these orders are facts that we already know from the news: 43 students disappeared. However, to this day, none of these facts have been clearly explained. Therefore, a crisis of answerability is in the middle of the problem. Massive protests around the country have started. The protesters blame Peña’s administration and they question its legitimacy.

Local and international newspapers show thousands of people marching in the streets of Mexico. Additionally, through these events, in a moment of opportunity, new and old social protests have joined the street (see http://t.co/NKkgAbiEND). On the 20th of November, thousands of people were convened, mainly through social networks, to protest in different parts of the country and the world against Mexico’s government. However, what was supposed to be a largely peaceful march demanding the return of 43 missing students ended in violence in the capital city. Sadly, the news in Mexico and around the world reported what happened at the end of these demonstrations, showing pictures of violent events in the Zocalo area of Mexico City, but not reporting what happene some hours before when Mexican society organized themselves, walked all along Paseo de la Reforma (one of the main avenues in the city) claiming social, political and economic changes . Clearly, most of the demonstrations have been peaceful but angry. And, this non-conformity is well more than justified.

The popularity level of the president has sunk quite low. Coupled with Ayotzinapa events, some weeks ago Mexico’s President and First Lady Scandal over ‘White House’ mansion came to news, posing a crisis of Mexican government accountability. A house bought by the president’s wife from a state contractor, who was assigned millions of Mexican pesos when Peña was governor. The suspicion of a conflict of interest clouded even more the political situation in Mexico. Moreover, in addition to this scandal some other scandals from other cabinet officials are being opened. Recently, news confirmed that Luis Videgaray, the finance minister, bought a house from the same firm and government contractor, involved in president’s wife scandal. What is more, in both cases, the clearing of facts has not led to the accountability that would be required to convince the people that these situations are being dealt with truthfully and appropriately.

There is a feeling of moral resentment toward the way in which the government has been answering the crisis. In a couple of months, the events will start to lose potency. However, this administration has much work to do if it wishes to restore political and moral credibility. In the electoral year to come, to renew the position of Congress it will be necessary to answer all the questions that have been put to this administration’s credibility. The government’s partial solutions that have been delivered by the cabinet convince only a few. If Peña Nieto’s administration wants to make a transformation of Mexico and convince citizens about the reforms and the future progress of the country, then they must soon change their strategy of action. He must act quickly to re-establish his political credibility.

The presidency of controlled speeches has missed the entire challenge of these crises. Far from having a public response to all the problems presented so far, it ran out of credible answers as soon as this “perfect storm” started. Consequently, I see two potential actions which could help the administration weather this storm. First, the president needs to appear before the nation offering an apology and recognizing the errors committed. There is nothing more exciting than a person in power recognizing his own mortality. We saw it before under Nixon’s administration, and perhaps this recipe can work with Peña Nieto as well. Second, the president must make changes in his cabinet. He needs to remove those people directly involved in the scandals even after some of the facts have been clarified. Clearly and urgently, the president needs to eliminate the shadows that have blurred his administration and recover credibility from Mexican society. What do you think, is there another way for the administration to proceed?

Puzzling About Political Leadership – Rhodes and t’ Hart

By R.A.W. Rhodes, Professor of Government at the University of Southampton and Griffith University (Personal website, Academia.eduGoogle Scholar). You can read more posts by R.A.W. Rhodes here.


 

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Since Machiavelli, political leadership has been seen as the exercise of practical wisdom. We can gain insights through direct personal experience and sustained reflection. The core intangibles of leadership – empathy, intuition, creativity, courage, morality, judgement – are largely beyond the grasp of ‘scientific’ inquiry. Understanding leadership comes from living it: being led, living with and advising leaders, doing one’s own leading.

In sharp contrast, a ‘science of leadership’ has sprung up in the latter half of the twentieth century. Thousands of academics now make a living treating leadership as they would any other topic in the social sciences, and political leadership is no exception. These scholars treat it as an object of study, which can be picked apart and put together. Their papers fill journals, handbooks, conference programs and lecture theatres. Some work in the real world of political leadership as consultants and advisers, often well paid. This buzzing, blooming confusion would not persist if such knowledge did not help in grasping at least some of the puzzles that leaders face and leadership poses. And there are puzzles aplenty.

The first puzzle is whether we are looking at the people we call leaders, or at the process we call leadership? Leader-centred analysis has proved hugely popular but many now prefer to understand political leadership as a two-way street; an interaction between leaders and followers, leaders and media, leaders and mass publics.

The second puzzle is whether we are studying democrats or dictators. Democracy needs good leadership yet the idea of leadership potentially conflicts with democracy’s egalitarian ethos. Political leaders holding office in democratic societies live in a complex moral universe. Other heads of government gained power by undemocratic means. They sometimes govern by fear, intimidation and blackmail. Is that leadership? However, even such ‘leaders’ may aim for widely shared and morally acceptable goals and rule with the tacit consent of most of the population. Understanding leadership requires us to take in all its shades of grey: leading and following, heroes and villains, the capable and the inept, winners and losers.

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The third puzzle ponders whether political leadership matters. Leaders use their political platforms to inject words, ideas, ambitions and emotions into the public arena, to shape public policies and transform communities and countries. But when do they make a difference? What stops them from being a force in society? Or are political leaders a product of their societies? Finding out who gets to lead can teach us much, not just about those leaders, but about the societies in which they work. So, we ask who becomes a political leader, how and why? What explains their rise and fall?

The fourth puzzle explores the relative importance of their personal characteristics and behaviour compared to the context in which they work. Sometimes political leaders are frail humans afloat on a sea of storms and sometimes they survive at the helm when few thought that possible. They achieve policy reforms and social changes against the odds, and the inherited wisdom perishes. How do political leaders escape the dead hand of history?

The fifth puzzle wonders if the success of leaders stems from their special qualities or traits – the so-called ‘great man’ theory of leadership. However, we have to entertain the possibility that these allegedly ‘great’ leaders might have been just plain lucky; that is they get what they want without trying. They are ‘systematically lucky’.

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The sixth puzzle is about success and failure. How do we know when a political leader has been successful? The temptation is always to credit their success to their special qualities, but no public leader ever worked alone. Behind every ‘great’ leader are indispensable collaborators, advisers, mentors, and coalitions; the building blocks of the leader’s achievements.

Political leadership is both art and profession. Political leaders gain office promising to solve problems but more often than not they are defeated by our puzzles. There is no unified theory of leadership to guide them. There are too many definitions, and too many theories in too many disciplines. We do not agree on what leadership is, or how to study it, or even why we study it. The subject is not just beset by dichotomies; it is also multifaceted, and essentially contested. Leaders are beset by contingency and complexity, which is why so many leaders’ careers end in disappointment.

R. A. W. Rhodes is Professor of Government at both the University of Southampton (UK); and Griffith University (Brisbane, Australia). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Lessons of Governing. A Profile of Prime Ministers’ Chiefs of Staff (with Anne Tiernan, Melbourne University Press 2014); and Everyday Life in British Government (Oxford University Press 2011).

Paul ‘t Hart is Professor of Public Administration at the Utrecht School of Governance; associate Dean at The Netherlands School of Government in The Hague; and a core faculty member at the Australia New Zealand School of Government (ANZSOG). He is the author or editor of some 35 books including recently Understanding Public Leadership (Palgrave Macmillan 2014); and Prime Ministerial Leadership: Power, Parties and Performance (co-edited with James Walter and Paul Strangio (Oxford University Press, 2013).