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Ann McFeatters: Are women better diplomats than men?

Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton.

Condoleezza Rice and Hillary Clinton. Photo Credit: AP, 2000/Getty Images, 2008

President Barack Obama will be replacing his secretary of state for his next term. And so, the question arises: Are women better diplomats than men? Some say absolutely yes; some will say definitely not.

The last two secretaries of the U.S. Department of State have been women. Both strongly believed in the nation's two longest wars.

Condoleezza Rice remains convinced that the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan both were justified, although Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction.

Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 partly because she defended the war in Iraq and Barack Obama opposed it. But in office, Clinton has worked to end both wars.

Madeleine Albright, the first female secretary of state, was a loud voice in President Bill Clinton's administration for going to war in Bosnia, partly because so many women there were being raped as a tool of war.

This being the "year of the woman" (wow, a full 20 percent of the Senate will be female, although women are more than 50 percent of the population), once again we are debating whether female officeholders are different from men.

At first glance, the answer may seem to be that they are not. Once in office, women, like men, try to stay in office. Think Nancy Pelosi, running once again to be the Democratic leader in the House. And that means they have to raise money, please constituents, play nice and go along to get along. Because no woman has ever been president, we don't know if having the top job would make a difference.

But a study reported in the American Journal of Political Science last year concluded that women are more effective and persuasive politicians than their male counterparts, even though women make up only a fifth of all officeholders nationwide. The authors, University of Chicago public policy professor Christopher Berry and Stanford doctoral candidate Sarah Anzia, concluded that women are better politicians because they have to be: There are fewer of them, they have to overcome a bias against women held by one-fifth of all voters, and they have to work harder to reach and stay in office. Berry told interviewers that he expects that as more women hold office, his findings will no longer hold true.

Another study -- by Jack Zenger and Joseph Folkman, who specialize in leadership development, and reported earlier this year in the Harvard Business Review -- found that female managers tend to be more highly regarded as effective leaders than male managers.

But once again, because there are fewer top female managers, those who hold those jobs tend to be superwomen. Women who hold top leadership positions say they have to work harder than men to prove themselves and can't afford to make mistakes.

Hillary Clinton, one of the most admired women in the world, is exhausted from years of working harder and more diligently than anyone else around her. She is viewed as a highly successful secretary of state. Nobody knows, including Hillary Clinton, whether she'll make another try for the presidency in 2016, although her ambition is formidable. And she has been carrying out the president's agenda, not necessarily carving out her own.

President Barack Obama is said to want to nominate UN ambassador Susan Rice to be the second black female secretary of state. Like the three women who have held that office, she is talented, hardworking, smart and driven. And she loyally carries out the agenda of the man in the White House.

Albright tells the story of her 7-year-old granddaughter asking her mother what the big deal was about her grandmother being secretary of state -- only girls are secretary of state, the child said. And in her life experience, that's true. Albright works hard to get more women into diplomacy because she says having many more female diplomats changes the conversation to benefit more people.

But Albright also said that it's wrong to think that if the whole world were run by women, it would be a better place. If you think it would, she said, "You've forgotten high school."

Scripps Howard columnist Ann McFeatters has covered the White House and national politics since 1986. Email


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