Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Women of Power or the Power of Women

By on August 28, 2019

Editor’s note: The following was first published in print, in the Aug. 29, 2019, issue of Caribbean Business.

Three weeks ago, Wanda Vázquez became Puerto Rico’s second female governor. Last week she appointed as her right hand now-former Sen. Zoé Laboy, and will meet with the island’s Resident Commissioner Jenniffer González in Washington, D.C.

Never before in our political history has the government’s three main positions of power been in the hands of women. However, does that reality mean a change in the ways Puerto Rico is led or in the government’s priorities?

When Ricardo Rosselló assumed power, he appointed 25 women to his cabinet. Many of them are now gone. Moreover, two of them are accused of corruption, and little can be said of the others’ accomplishments.

Not necessarily.

However, one of them, former Treasury Secretary Teresita Fuentes, in her resignation letter, asked the former governor to lead a more compassionate government.

The events of the past few months showed us that this advice fell on deaf ears.

Vázquez and Laboy have assured they seek to govern by heeding the cry of the people expressed during the massive street demonstrations that have already been dubbed the “Summer of 2019.”

That task will not be easy at all.

Chief of Staff Zoé Laboy, Gov. Wanda Vázquez and Women’s Advocate Lersy Boria (Courtesy)

First, just because a woman assumes a position of leadership does not automatically mean a paradigm shift, but if there is, it could become her own Achilles heel.

Globally, it has been shown that the main obstacle for women is not to achieve getting into power; it is to hold on to it. That is because women are not measured with the same yardstick as men. What is seen in men as assertiveness is called “authoritarian” behavior in women. On the other hand, if a woman addresses matters with sensibility, she is seen as soft or ineffective.

Thus, in simple terms, it would seem there is no way to win.

Scholars on this topic call this phenomenon the masculinization of leadership. It does not matter whether the leader is a man or a woman; it is expected that a leader presents the same traditional characteristics (decisiveness, resolve and strength, ambitiousness and independence). In the case of women, it is expected that they have these leadership qualities but also impart compassion, honesty, sensitivity, empathy and willingness to care for others.

If those “feminine” characteristics are seen negatively or as a symbol of weakness, that person’s leadership begins to crack. That has to change.

Perhaps because of this, consciously or unconsciously, some women want to show they are stronger than men when holding a position of power.

There are several examples of this situation in world political history, such as Margaret Thatcher, Golda Meir, Indira Gandhi and Theresa May in recent times, and, of course, two decades ago in Puerto Rico, Sila María Calderón.

All of them sought to minimize the importance of their gender in an effort to not have it affect their image or authority; all rejected the feminism label and even considered it an expendable movement. It is important to note, however, that after her tenure as governor, Calderón dedicated herself to providing self-betterment tools to economically disadvantaged women.

A 2011 Harvard Business Review study found women’s access to positions of responsibility is much more likely to occur in times of crisis, which puts them in a difficult position to successfully carry out their efforts. The phenomenon has been coined the Glass Cliff, an example of which is former British Prime Minister Theresa May, who embraced the Brexit proposal, and then ended up cornered by those who once endorsed her.

In sum, more and more women are rising to positions of power in governments worldwide (44 governors in the United States; 23 heads of government or state, worldwide, according to the United Nations). However, what we expect from these women is a paradigm shift. We hope they impart those characteristics that make them successful and, along with determination and assertiveness, they apply a dose of compassion and sensibility to the issues that require it.

Just the same, however, the country must learn to evaluate those different exercises in leadership. Expecting that women utilize their leadership position differently, but then measuring or judging it with the same yardstick as the previous one, is not fair to them, and much less for the country.