The question of “what it would be like to have someone who is traditionally considered low-status rise to the top” is what prompted Business School professor Katherine Phillips to research the economic implications of having female heads of state.
Co-published in the latest issue of the School of International and Public Affairs’ Journal of International Affairs with Northwestern University professors Susan Perkins and Nicholas Pearce, Phillips’ article is part of her ongoing research on female national leaders, especially in ethnically diverse societies.
Phillips began her research five years ago after having a conversation with a fellow scholar during which the two wondered how having traditionally low-status individuals—like women—as leaders affected national politics and economics.
While the work is far from complete, Phillips’ current findings shed new light on a widely observed negative correlation between ethnic diversity and gross domestic product growth.
“When a woman is heading a country, it mitigates the negative relationship,” Phillips said.
While part of the research process involved working with large data sets, Phillips said the group also worked with the Business School’s Behavioral Research Lab to study the effects of smaller-scale female leadership up close.
Phillips said she designed her studies to answer questions such as, “Is having a female leader actually a kind of symbol that can change the behavior of people around her?” and “Will having a female leader or a male leader have an impact on how others in the group will behave, even if she doesn’t do anything?”
According to her results, gender associations do impact the way people respond to female leaders.
“People make associations between women and change,” Phillips said. “Having a woman step into that leadership position is a sign of change and gives people optimism.”
She said one major difficulty in gender studies is the “split on approach,” referring to how some scholars study what they consider to be fundamental differences between men and women while others work within a framework that considers these differences more or less nonexistent.
Phillips generally takes the first approach.
“There are series of research done on social dominance orientation,” Phillips said. “Women tend to have less social dominance orientation.”
Of 40 to 50 scholars asked to submit an abstract for the Journal of International Affairs’ women and gender-themed issue, Phillips and her colleagues were selected by the biannual publication’s editors, a group that includes Tamar Abraham, SIPA ’14.
“We hear so much research about ethnic diversity and leadership in corporate America, and especially at SIPA we’re looking at different policies and economies of different countries, and this is such interesting research—how do you mobilize the development of an economy?” Abraham said. “Having a female at the helm, what kind of impact does that have?”