Catherine H. Tinsley
University professor

Catherine H. Tinsley

Associate professor at Georgetown University's business school and the executive director of the GU Women's Leadership Initiative.

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Tokens and Tipping Points

Q: The number of women ambassadors to the U.S. has grown dramatically in recent years -- a phenomenon that some attribute to female U.S. Secretaries of State, particularly Hillary Clinton. How important are trailblazers to the sucess of others? And if they are important, why didn't an earlier generation of women leaders like Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi or British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher lead to a surge of women in positions of political power?

Increasing women's participation in public life will benefit everyone.

Whenever a group confronts an "intellective" problem (as opposed to a routine decision), it is important to bring a diversity of perspectives to bear. Whether that diversity is based on age, gender, ethnicity, or simply functional training (engineers versus medical students), heterogeneous groups tend to make higher-quality decisions than homogeneous groups because the different perspectives make group members elucidate and reconcile their underlying assumptions.

So why, if gender diversity benefits everyone, has it taken so long to achieve some level of gender diversity?

Part of the answer may be in "homophily," or the tendency of people to like, and want to affiliate with, people who are like them. When it comes to human interactions, opposites do not attract; like attracts like. This is not about overt or even intentional discrimination. People simply feel more comfortable around -- and have more appreciation of -- that which is familiar. Therefore, to the extent that most of the diplomatic corps was male, it was harder for a woman to "break in."

Of course, there were always some visible women in the political sphere. Margaret Thatcher may be the most recognized, but there were also such leaders as Indira Ghandi of India, Mary Robinson of Ireland, Gro Harlem Brundtland of Norway, Corazon Acquino of the Philippines and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan.

Yet it may have been harder for these women to impact issues, policies and the world consciousness simply because there were not enough of them in place. They could be written off as "tokens," as women who somehow broke onto the political scene (many through family connections, although that is the path for many males as well), but seen more as exceptions than the rule.

Do we have a critical mass now? Are we at a tipping point? I would certainly like to believe so, though I think it still remains an empirical question. Will these women make an impact on issues and policies? Will we see more and more female diplomats in the future? Will the number of women in the diplomatic corps ever represent their base rate in the population? I won't prognosticate, but I will continue to be an optimist.

By Catherine H. Tinsley  |  January 18, 2010; 12:01 AM ET  | Category:  women Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   Del.icio.us   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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