Carnegie Mellon University
December 19, 2023

Study Finds Women Leaders Face Backlash for Pursuing Peace

By Stacy Kish

Women are assuming more leadership roles in industry, academia and government, but they face more obstacles than their male counterparts. A new study explored how gender stereotypes constrain women in leadership, especially in areas of national security—women who pursue peaceful policies face domestic backlash unless their efforts prove successful. 

“There is a lot of hope among scholars and policymakers that more female leadership will lead to more peaceful outcomes, especially right now when we are seeing so much conflict around the world,” said Joshua Schwartz, assistant professor at the Carnegie Mellon Institute for Strategy and Technology. “We wanted to see if these optimistic perspectives were correct or if there was, unfortunately, a more pessimistic reality.”

People often do not understand the complex history underlying foreign entanglements or pay close attention to international affairs. Consequently, people search for mental shortcuts to evaluate a leader’s ability to address foreign policy challenges. Gender is one important shortcut people use. Gender stereotypes ascribe women as being weaker on national security and predisposed to pursuing peaceful policies rather than belligerent ones.

In the simplest terms, conflict can be addressed with either aggressive (hawkish) or conciliatory (dovish) policies. Hawks focus on deterrence and prioritize aggressive foreign policies to dissuade adversaries from taking expansionist actions. Doves see the world differently. From a dove’s perspective, conflict is rooted in misperceptions that can be overcome through cooperation.

Schwartz and his colleague, Christopher Blair, assistant professor of politics at Princeton University, examined the gendered peace premium women leaders face when pursuing dovish policies. Their study was published in the October issue of the journal International Studies Quarterly.

The gendered peace premium is driven by the fact that women are expected to be naturally more inclined towards dovish policies than men. A skeptical public question whether these policies are truly in the national interest or simply a result of women’s perceived predisposition towards peace. The gendered repercussions may drive some women leaders to lean into a hawkish stance; however, a successful approach to peace could attenuate the penalty women leaders face.

“These are wrongful gender stereotypes, and there is no empirical basis for them, but people behave as if [gender stereotypes] are real, which affects their behavior,” said Blair.

According to Schwartz, the history of female leadership contains a long list of “iron ladies.” Despite clear examples of formidable women in leadership, gender stereotypes continue to be sticky.

“My hope would be that over time as more women are in positions of power, this stereotype will start to melt away,” said Schwartz.

Schwartz and Blair conducted several experiments on the American public to explore how gender stereotypes affect public perceptions of leaders. During the experiments, the team manipulated the U.S. president’s gender, partisanship and policy toward a national adversary.

The key result is that women leaders are punished more than their male counterparts for pursuing a peaceful resolution to conflict. In fact, women are punished 11.6 percentage points more in public opinion compared to their male counterparts for proposing identical policies. 

This finding suggests that these discriminatory gender stereotypes produce domestic, political barriers for female leaders, especially those who seek a nonviolent resolution to conflict. This does not make it impossible for female leaders to pursue peace, and this hurdle could actually provide leverage for women on the international stage.

Female leaders may have an easier time generating international support for their peace policies. If they can manage the heightened cost of peace policies with their constituents at home, their commitment to a peaceful resolution can be a strong signal to their adversaries, making the proposed policy more believable and durable.

Relatedly, a threat made by a woman leader is likely to be seen as a more credible on the international stage, because it is known that a woman will face higher costs at home if she backs down.

According to Schwartz, gender stereotypes are not set in stone, and female leaders can potentially navigate the domestic backlash to conciliatory policies while solidifying a successful resolution to a conflict. Importantly, Schwartz and Blair’s work shows that women leaders who are successful at pursuing a peaceful resolution to a conflict are seen as effective by the domestic audience that initially held their approach in contempt.

Future studies could extend this experiment to examine how gendered stereotypes affect the policies that leaders in other countries pursue, as well as how other stereotypes could affect the evaluation of a female leader’s peace efforts both at home and abroad.

“Greater gender equity in executive office-holding around the world is a good thing for international security broadly and American foreign policy goals in particular,” said Blair. “It is important to understand the constraints that rampant gender stereotyping imposes on leaders even today, even in the United States.”

Schwartz and Blair contributed to the article titled “The Gendered Peace Premium.” Generous support for this research was provided by the Christopher H. Browne Center for International Politics at the University of Pennsylvania.