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Sheryl Sandberg Says Female Leaders Don’t Go To War, Here’s What Research Says

Meta COO Sheryl Sandberg suggested Russia and Ukraine wouldn’t be at war if women were in charge. “No two countries run by women would ever go to war,” Sandberg told CNBC on Tuesday during an International Women’s Day event. Research and historical evidence suggest that Sandberg may be mistaken.

Psychological research on the characteristics of men and women supports Sandberg’s claim. There’s substantial evidence that female leaders tend to be more collaborative than their male counterparts, suggesting women would be more likely to work with their neighboring countries to find peaceful solutions to conflict. Women also tend to be more empathic, and their empathy may make them less likely to harm their enemies physically. By contrast, from a young age boys are more physically aggressive than girls and this greater tendency toward aggression may make male leaders more likely to initiate war.

Historians and political scientists have suggested that overconfidence is a major cause of war, and psychologists have found that men are more likely than women to be overconfident. In one study of experimental wargames, researchers found that more overconfident individuals were more likely to attack. They also found men were more likely than women to be overconfident and to attack. Pundits are suggesting that the current Ukraine conflict is proving far more difficult than Putin predicted, suggesting overconfidence may have played a role in Putin’s attack.

Despite the evidence that men tend to be more aggressive and overconfident and women more collaborative and empathetic, it’s not clear that these findings apply to heads of state. For female heads of state, the selection process may weed out more feminine women, and only allow women with more masculine attributes to advance into these roles. That is, women who behave in a more feminine, collaborative, empathetic manner might be less likely to be elected or appointed to lead their country.

And once women are in leadership roles, they must prove their strength to further overcome the stereotypes that women are less aggressive and militarily weak. One study found that female leaders combat gender stereotypes that women are weak by acting particularly tough during international military crises. For the same reason, female leaders, and male leaders facing female opponents, have a harder time backing down from threats than male leaders do against fellow men.

Authors of the book, Why Leaders Fight analyzed every world leader from 1875 to 2004 and statistically examined gender differences in military aggression. They found that 36% of the female leaders initiated at least one militarized dispute, while only 30% of male leaders did the same. The authors say, “This does not mean that women are generally more aggressive, however. Men were responsible for 694 acts of aggression and 86 wars while women were responsible for just 13 acts of aggression and only one war (Indira Gandhi).” The authors conclude that women who lead nations likely have the same risk propensity as their male counterparts.

In relatively recent history, there have been examples of aggressive female leaders or female leaders who led military attacks. In 1982, Margaret Thatcher responded with military action when Argentina invaded and occupied the Falkland Islands. Thatcher made the decision to go to war to recover the islands despite warnings from several male members of Parliament and her advisers. Even U.S. President Ronald Reagan urged Thatcher to utilize peace talks. Instead, Thatcher went ahead with military action and personally ordered the sinking of the Argentine ship, Belgrano, killing more than 300 sailors.

Park Geun-hye, the first female president of South Korea who served from 2013 to 2017 was labeled “dangerously aggressive.” Park and her military threatened to wipe North Korea “off the face of the earth” if it dared to launch a nuclear attack. And, Park reportedly told her generals that if North Korea staged even a limited attack, they should strike back “without political consideration” and without waiting for her approval. (She was later impeached and convicted of corruption charges).

In the U.S., in 2011, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urged President Obama to take military action in Libya. Although she initially sought a diplomatic resolution, Clinton changed course and convinced Obama of the advantages of military action. Male leaders including Defense Secretary Robert Gates and national security adviser Thomas Donilon were against the military action.

In reality, the decision to pursue military action depends upon the leader, the country and the situation, and less about the leader’s gender. Research and evidence from history indicate it’s certainly possible that two countries with female leaders could go to war.

Sheryl Sandberg’s comment on International Women’s Day was likely intended to boost female leaders. Ironically, the notion that female leaders are dovish or less aggressive than their male counterparts may actually force women to behave more aggressively in order to overcome the stereotype that they are militarily weak.

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