Richard Smith: Where are the women leaders?

Richard SmithAt the end of my class on leadership at Warwick Medical School comes a dreadful moment. I’ve enjoyed myself and am packing up, when the only student left, a woman, says to me “Why were no women leaders mentioned?”

I don’t panic, but I at once recognise that we’ve discussed many male leaders and not one woman. The student helps me: “We tried to think of a woman leader but couldn’t. Girls are more than half the class, but they haven’t come up with anybody either. We thought you would, but you didn’t. I’m not blaming you, but what does it mean? Can’t I be a leader if I’m a woman?”

What does it mean? I know you can be a leader if you’re a woman, but why haven’t we come up with any examples? We’ve discussed Gandhi, Churchill, Barack Obama, Marcus Aurelius, Jesus, Ataturk, Stalin, Gordon Brown, Tony Blair, Mandela, Hitler, Henry V, and even Simon Cowell, but nobody has mentioned a woman.

The student and I start trying to think of examples. Mother Teresa? Something flakey about her. Thatcher? Not a great model for a medical student. Joan of Arc? Too crazy, too much of a victim. Benazir Bhutto? The student is of Pakistani origin and not impressed. Indhira Gandhi? A despot. Boadiccea? More legend than real women. The Queen? Perhaps, but too odd a form of leadership. Hillary Clinton? Something uncomfortable there. Cleopatra? It seems a problem that much of her power is remembered as sexual. Elizabeth I? Maybe, but didn’t she have all her rivals assassinated?

BMJ readers will, I hope, be able to come up with a compelling example of a well known woman leader whom the Warwick medical student can feel good about, but I’ve failed.

The student hypothesised that good women leaders were forgotten. Or perhaps it’s a problem of scale: we’ve been thinking of “mega—leaders,” and so much of history up until now has been men’s business. Maybe women eschew that level of leadership. Or perhaps we, particularly an aging white male like me, always feel ambivalent about female leaders. My list and comments might illustrate that point. Or could it be that some unacknowledged and unrecognised prejudice inside me thinks that women should be home suckling their young not transforming the world or its institutions?

Whatever the problem, I need to think of a well known and effective woman leader before I teach my next class. Please help me.