Comments by Hillary Clinton and Julia Gillard this week have invigorated the debate on women and leadership. Clinton's recently released book Hard Choices made news in Australia for the condemnation of the 'outrageous sexism' experienced by Gillard. In response, the former Australian prime minister identified continuing negative attitudes towards women as leaders: 'For men, that conversation starts with what kind of leader will he be, you know, strong, weak, compassionate, strident. I think for women, it starts with, can she lead? And it's a subtle but significant difference'. 

In this light, it is interesting to look at the public's views on male and female leaders in international relations, as revealed in the Lowy Institute's 2014 Poll. Those polled this year were offered for the first time a list of 10 leaders, six male and four female, and were asked who they most admired.

The headline results were promising, with three women in the top five admired leaders. However, there are some caveats around this. Because the question gave a list of choices, it doesn't give a sense of what the unprompted response would be. And the public doesn't seem to have much sense of some of the leaders, with 64% holding no view on Chinese President Xi Jinping. Views on Abbott and Shorten probably just reflect party voting patterns.

More revealing is the response to the question that posed an intriguing thought experiment: what would the world be like if there were more female leaders? Would it be better? Worse? Much the same?

There are arguments for each position.

Those who oppose women in public life are implicitly arguing that having them there would make the world a worse place. For a revealing example of this thinking in international relations look no further than Francis Fukuyama. He is on record as saying:

A world run by women would follow different rules, it would appear, and it is toward that sort of world that all postindustrial or Western societies are moving. As women gain power in (Western) countries, the latter should become less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent.

This thinking has not yet been entirely dismissed from Australian life: there are still some who believe that women are wrecking the joint. However, the poll showed this to be a minority position, with only 7% thinking that more female leaders would make things worse.

The opposite argument is that women will improve international leadership, either because of their innate qualities or because of their life experience.

One of the perennial questions in the movement to increase the opportunities and space for women has been whether women deserve to be included because they are better than men or because they are the same. For the suffragette movement that sought votes for women, the tactical question was whether to argue that women should be able to vote because they are more moral (for example, they would promote better conduct in public life, would resist calls to send their sons to die in unnecessary wars, etc) or whether they should vote because they are just the same as men (that is, people that deserve the same rights). Some of the vitriol heaped on Gillard can be seen as a reaction to this sense that women in leadership positions should somehow be more moral and that they let us down if they show themselves to be politicians just as much as their male counterparts.

The poll results showed that most Australians were not convinced women should be placed on a leadership pedestal. Less than a third believed that the world would be more peaceful or more prosperous with more female leaders.

A third argument then assumes that women are on the whole no worse or better than men. Some female leaders may be informed by their experience as mothers; others won't. Some will be moral; others will not. The results suggest that most Australians agree with this position: 60% believe that having more female leaders would make no difference.

This suggests Australians may be working out that there is not one type of female leader, just as there is not one male type. The three women in the top five admired leaders (Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel and Aung Sang Suu Kyi) have very different backgrounds, style and focus.

This thinking should help women to be judged on their own merits and personal attributes rather than on their gender. Women should have the same opportunity to lead (badly or well) as their male counterparts. The world will benefit from adding their diversity, skills and life experience to the leadership talent pool.

Photo by the US Department of State.