Late last week, the Dalai Lama said during a visit to Australia that the next Dalai Lama could very well be a woman. In speaking to reporters about how the world needs more compassionate leaders today, he said that "biologically, females have more potential...females have more sensitivity about others' well being." As a result, he said, "if the circumstances are such that a female Dalai Lama is more useful, then automatically a female Dalai Lama will come."
Unsurprisingly, the remarks sparked a debate on whether such comments reinforce unhelpful stereotypes and to what extent women really are more compassionate than men. Stereotypes of women as nurturing, empathetic, more consensus-driven leaders, after all, can hurt women when they engage in the more authoritative behavior that's become a stereotype of male leaders.
And while there have been plenty of studies that do show that women have better interpersonal skills or show more compassion, many also find that they are assertive risk-takers or excel at being results-driven, qualities that many people ascribe to men who reach the top. Even those who have researched the topic for years and have found some differences between male and female leaders note that it's unclear how much is biological. As Alice Eagly, a professor at Northwestern University has said: "People don’t like to be ordered around, but they particularly don’t like it from a woman. So women may kind of learn that or it may be more of a general preference."
To me, however, the far more interesting comment from the Dalai Lama is not his thoughts on what kind of leaders women are or which sex is more compassionate, but the fact that a woman could soon reach this leadership role in the Buddhist faith. This is apparently not the first time he's made such a comment: Back in 2007, he said during a visit to Italy that "if a woman reveals herself as more useful the lama could very well be reincarnated in this form." The Tibetan spiritual leader has also called himself a feminist, saying in 2009 "isn’t that what you call someone who fights for women’s rights?” And a female spiritual leader could become more possible now that, for the first time in the history of Tibetan Buddhism, 27 nuns have taken exams for the Tibetan equivalent of a PhD.
Whatever truths there may be in the Dalai Lama's remarks about leadership styles, what matters most is that he's open to elevating the best person for the role, man or woman. That's a standard to which all institutions and organizations should aspire. Even if a female Dalai Lama isn't next in line, his comments could help to shine more of a spotlight on gender inequities in other religions' leadership, too.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.