Baroness Shirley Williams Calls for Less Patriarchal Leadership

November 4, 2009
by Lindsay Hodges Anderson

Baroness Shirley Williams returned to Harvard Kennedy School Tuesday (Nov. 3), speaking about the challenges women in positions of leadership have faced in the past and those they will confront in the future. Williams, public service professor of electoral politics, emerita, former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords and current advisor on Nuclear Proliferation to U.K. Prime Minister Gordon Brown, suggested that a new, less patriarchal form of leadership is required in today’s world.

“There is not a single kind of leadership,” she said. “There is now a more distinctive women’s style of leadership emerging and I’m going to argue that for our terribly troubled and violent modern world, it may be a more appropriate form of leadership than the more traditional form of leadership established in patriarchal societies. I suspect we simply can’t afford that kind of leadership very much longer.”

Williams highlighted international women of power as inspirations and as a symbol of change -- specifically German Chancellor Angela Merkel, Chilean President Michelle Bachelet and Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf MPA 1971. She remarked that these women all employ a new kind of leadership technique that, Williams believes, is necessary at this time when violence and “pre-civilized habits like genocide” are prevalent throughout the world.

“In this new world when you try to reestablish systems of law, relations between human beings become extremely important,” she said. “Acceptance that there may be a different kind of leadership - a leadership which is based on reconciliation, on forgiveness, on bringing people together, a leadership system which one might describe as no longer patriarchal – is what we now desperately need. We cannot cope with climate change, with nuclear proliferation and all the rest of it by a confrontational, national approach. It will not work.”

Williams also addressed the question of why women in the United States seem to struggle more to reach positions of power than their peers in Western Europe and South America.

“Why is it that, on the whole, countries that have monarchies are more inclined to accept women in leadership positions than republics?” she asked. ”The history of America is not a history which includes women in any leadership positions at all… [but] every little boy in England is brought up in his primary school studying the history of Queen Elizabeth I, Queen Victoria, Queen Anne and, of course, automatically, Queen Elizabeth II. Those little boys’ imaginations and little boys’ senses of history are peppered by the idea of women in power… I’m not myself a great passionate monarchist, but I do think it’s important to recognize the impact on history that these great women of the past have had and – I can’t stress this too much – the impact on young boys in terms of accepting the idea of women in leadership and not assuming that leadership is a male monopoly. It’s really quite important.”

Williams remarked how women were still a minority in Parliament, representing approximately five percent of Parliament, when she first become a Member in 1974. She recalled how the male MPs had the luxury of a large bathroom while the women were provided a small room with “an ironing board, a chintz sofa – presumably to recline upon if one was so overtaken by the problems of politics – and an iron.”

Williams finished her speech with a call to action for those young aspiring female would-be politicians in the room:

“Don’t forget, it’s not just about women in the sense of female members of the human race. It’s about the quality and nature of leadership, it’s about a new kind of leadership of which the best women are exemplars, but so are, in many ways, the best men. Good luck. It will depend upon what you do in the next generation whether this world lives through this century. And there’s a real question about whether it can.”

The seminar was sponsored by the Women and Public Policy Program (WAPPP).

Baroness Shirley Williams

Baroness Shirley Williams suggested that a new, less patriarchal form of leadership is required in today’s world. Photo credit Lindsay Hodges Anderson.

"There is now a more distinctive women’s style of leadership emerging and I’m going to argue that for our terribly troubled and violent modern world, it may be a more appropriate form of leadership than the more traditional form of leadership established in patriarchal societies. I suspect we simply can’t afford that kind of leadership very much longer." - Baroness Shirley Williams

Baroness Shirley Williams

Williams suggested women in the United States may struggle more to reach positions of power than their peers in Western Europe and South America because America does not have a monarchy.Photo credit Lindsay Hodges Anderson.


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