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In search of new leadership

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30 April 2021

What women can teach the world to come


Women are qualified and experienced, but they remain scarce in leadership circles. As the words with which Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, a Nigerian-American economist began her term as director of the World Trade Organisation highlight illustrate, “they face a glass ceiling: they are only given leadership roles when things go really wrong”. Research supports this.  As early as 2005, Michelle K. Ryan and Alexander Haslam, in a study published in the British Journal of Management, found that among the 100 most valuable companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, the so-called Fste100, the companies with the highest number of female board members were those that had experienced financial and management problems in the previous period.

This is because in times of difficulty women are generally the most willing to take on problems. To put it another way, and as we saw in the most acute phases of the pandemic, the presence of women evokes the mother figure when the going gets tough. When we are afraid, we need protection and reassurance. On the TV talk shows that have constantly addressed the issues related to the evolution and management of the pandemic, health female experts have been the most sought after and most listened to.

The fact remains that women are considered for leadership roles when everything else has been tried.

Women have been the most affected during the pandemic


In the midst of the pandemic, the existing discriminatory social norms, compounded by other disadvantages (e.g. poverty, race, ethnicity and religion) have increased the vulnerability of countless women around the world.  Women, for example, are bearing much of the burden of work within the home. The forced closure of schools in many Countries has had a dramatic and immediate effect on them, who are the ones to help their children, take care of domestic life, while often managing other roles. A study into the situation in Italy revealed that during the 2020 lockdown only 55% of men contributed to running the household. Covid-19 has therefore significantly increased the amount of unpaid work done by women. Moreover, 60 per cent of women worldwide work in the informal sectors -namely tourism, agriculture, temporary jobs-, which have been most affected by the pandemic and without any kind of legal or social protection. Today, the results speak for themselves: in Italy, 99% of the people who lost their jobs in December were women. Finally, it has now been established that domestic violence against women has increased sharply over the last year.

Yet, despite being the most affected, in many countries they have been excluded from political and administrative emergency management bodies, mainly due to the fact that they are underrepresented in senior positions in both the medical and political fields. This may have contributed to the lack of explicit attention to the negative impacts of Covid-19 on women and girls.

Women leading the regeneration


Countries with women leaders, however, generally performed better during the pandemic. They have often responded more effectively in terms of responsiveness, clarity of decision-making and effective communication with citizens, for example, New Zealand.

Particular attention therefore needs to be paid to how women can be protected and supported, but also how they can play an important role in contributing to the common good. I believe they can effectively help guide society in avoiding the risk of “going back to normal” and in regenerating a more inclusive and sustainable economy and society.

In his Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis spurs us on.  The Church recognises women’s indispensable contribution in society, with a sensitivity, an intuition and certain peculiar capacities that are usually more proper to women than to men. However, there is still a need to widen the spaces for a female presence because “the feminine genius is needed in all expressions in the life of society, the presence of women must also be guaranteed in the workplace and in the various other settings where important decisions are made” (103). The presence of women is necessary in all places where decisions are made that affect citizens, workers, entrepreneurs, families. We cannot look at the world with one eye, for we risk deforming what we see. The final document of the 2018 Synod on Young People leads in the same direction, stating, “The relation between man and woman is understood in terms of a vocation to live together in reciprocity and dialogue, in communion and fruitfulness (cf. Gen 1:27-29; 2:21-25) in every area of human experience:  living as a couple, work, education and so forth.  God has entrusted the earth to the covenant of man and woman”. (n.13). The man-woman covenant has been entrusted with the earth.  Therefore, all the more reason for this covenant to be entrusted with the regeneration of an economic and social world that has become unsustainable. As the pandemic has profoundly demonstrated by making the fractures more evident. These include growing inequalities, technological divide, loss of jobs, difficulty for many in accessing food, and the environmental and climate crisis.

We therefore need to ensure that “post-Covid” economies overcome the inequalities and fractures in social systems that have placed a greater burden on the poor and marginalised throughout the world. We want to envision a future that ensures decent work with fair wages and social protection for all workers, but especially for those in the informal sector and for forced migrants, internally displaced persons and refugees. We cannot afford to go backwards. Moreover, we urgently need global institutions capable of addressing the challenges of our common home. This means, first recognising the finite nature of our planet.

A greater participation of women in decision-making, in processes, in thinking about how we can imagine and prepare for the future is not only desirable, but also necessary and imperative.

However, what can women economists teach us about how to think about the world to come?

Women economists: thinking outside the box


There are already many women around the world who are thinking about a different, more inclusive and humane economy, but perhaps until now they have not received much credit. One of the consequences of the pandemic is to force us to look for new solutions. Moreover, perhaps we are more willing to confront thoughts that until recently we considered exotic/unthinkable.

The primary common trait amongst many economists is that they deal with social problems, with common goods, with issues that have to do with the community and not only with individuals. One of the most pressing issues today is precisely that of the management of common goods, or commons, which, unlike private goods, on which all economic theory has been built, are shared material or immaterial resources that are not exclusive or to be competed over, i.e. their use by one subject does not prevent their use by another. Large communities of varying dimensions usually enjoy common goods.

The pandemic has summoned us all to a wise management of the commons, for example, public health. A woman, Katherine Coman, wrote the lead article in the first issue of the American Economic Review published in 1911. Her article in the AER, which is one of the most famous and important economics journals, concerned the irrigation problems that presupposed collective management of water. More famous still, the first woman to receive the Nobel Prize for Economics was the American Elinor Ostrom, who showed that the ability to cooperate and manage common goods among human beings is far greater than economic theory would have us believe. Moreover, she did so by changing the anthropological assumptions underlying economic models, stating, “The most important lesson for public policy that I can draw from the intellectual journey I have made in my life is that human beings have a complex motivational structure and a greater capacity to solve social dilemmas than rational choice theory would have us believe. Designing institutions capable of forcing or directing purely self-interested individuals towards optimal outcomes has been the primary concern of policy analysts and governments for much of the last century. My research has led me to think, rather, that the fundamental goal of public policy should be to develop institutions that bring out the best in every human being”. (Elinor Ostrom, Nobel Prize Lecture, 2009).

Combined with the management of the commons, the issue of care, of taking care of each other, has also been addressed by several scholars. An interesting theory is that of Jennifer Nedelsky, a Canadian, who argues that the ability to care is an essential dimension of human beings, alongside work. She calls for a rethinking of the timing of work and care, making care in all respects part of the public sphere and not relegated to the private sphere and to women. With her, we dream of a world in which, when we meet someone for the first time, we ask him or her “who do you look after?” and not just “what do you look after?” This is the humanisation of the economy too.

Mariana Mazzucato [interview on Page 16, editor’s note] is also working to revisit the collective and public management of goods, and invites us to reconsider those theories according to which it is the value that determines the price of things and not vice versa.

Finally, we cannot fail to mention Kate Raworth, the British economist who is revolutionising the way of drawing the economy and measuring what counts. For her, the economy is shaped like a circle, a doughnut, and not a graph on Cartesian axes, where by definition “good” is leaning to the right, “good” as in upwards. Instead, “good” is in the balance; those of a planet that does not have unlimited resources and has limits.  If we measure Countries by their ability to meet people’s basic needs within the limits of the planet, we find that we are all developing Countries. We all have something to improve. These new ways of thinking about the economy are brushstrokes in a painting that is warm, subtle and vibrant. They represent the breakthrough we need. The question is, will we have the courage to avoid the temptation to return to normality and dare to go for the new, more humane, more collective, more inclusive, more earth-friendly direction? Time is running out. Women are ready to make their contribution.

by Alessandra Smerilli
An Economist, a member of Daughters of Mary Help of Christians, and Undersecretary of the Dicastery for Promoting Integral Human Development for the sector of Faith and Development.