Jalalzai explained one paradox in the academic literature—that, in many cases, women have become presidents and prime ministers in countries where women’s life expectancy, education levels, and income levels significantly trail those of men, and where their political and social rights are restricted—by highlighting the importance of “kinship” as a path to power for elite women. The former Indian Prime Minister India Gandhi, for example, was the daughter of India’s first prime minister. Khaleda Zia, the former prime minister of Bangladesh, was the wife of a former Bangladeshi president who was assassinated in 1981:
Women’s leadership in certain regions is largely limited to those with familial ties through marriage or blood connections to former executives or opposition leaders, many of whom were assassinated. … There are compelling reasons why a woman may appear to be a more appropriate heir to political power. For example, a woman may not be seen as independently politically ambitious and therefore as easily pushed aside by male leaders after coming to office. Alternatively, because women are often viewed as unifiers of the family, they may be charged with the daunting task of uniting their country following a period of political conflict.
Jalalzai noted that there is some evidence of women becoming heads of state or government when politics are unstable and political institutions are weak, in an echo of the “glass cliff” phenomenon that has been observed in the business world. But she cautioned that she has yet to statistically prove the link between female leadership and political fragility.
Consider these findings in the context of the United States. The U.S. has fewer female political leaders at the national level than many of its peers. It is a presidential system with relatively stable politics and strong institutions. It is the world’s greatest military power, and one of the world’s greatest nuclear powers. Candidates for president are seeking, through a direct, popular vote, what is arguably the most powerful job on the planet, in one of the largest countries on earth. It is therefore very, very hard for a woman to become president of the United States. That Hillary Clinton made it as far as she did—that she won not only her party’s nomination but the popular vote, despite losing the election—is surely a testament to her perseverance and political experience. But it’s also a testament to her fame and last name.
“Unfortunately still, in 2016, the prize positions don’t tend to go to women,” Jalalzai told me. “And the exceptions to that rule have tended to be women who’ve been able to come [to power] through this connection to powerful men, whether they be husbands or whether they be fathers.”
“There are all of these different things that you can add up that would make it very difficult for a woman to gain the presidency in the United States,” she added. “But if there’s a woman that’s able to do it, you would think of somebody like Hillary Clinton, who has all of these qualifications but in addition to that, she’s a political insider by way of her being the former first lady.”