The Central African Republic chose a woman, Catherine Samba-Panza, to become its interim president on Monday, with hopes that the mayor of its capital city could help restore some order in the violence-torn country.
In news covering Samba-Panza, who was selected by a transitional council, her gender came up repeatedly as a sign of hope for the country, which has been torn apart by bloodshed and fighting between sectarian groups. “Everything we have been through has been the fault of men,” the head of a civil-society organization, Marie-Louise Yakemba, told the New York Times. “We think that with a woman, there is at least a ray of hope."
That hope may be more founded than Ms. Yakemba realizes. Research has shown that in countries where there is high "ethnic fractionalization" — ethnic diversity that could lead to infighting, conflict and even civil war — GDP has fared better under female leaders than under male ones.
Katherine Phillips, a professor at Columbia University's business school, together with collaborators published these findings in a recent issue of Columbia's Journal of International Affairs. "In these particularly complex conditions, which call for deep cooperation and collaboration," the researchers wrote in the paper, "female leaders outperform their male counterparts."
In an interview, she said that the situation in the Central African Republic fits well with what they saw in their research. The CAR has a high ethnic fractionalization measure of 0.83, Phillips said, measured on a scale of 0 (extreme homogeneity) to 1 (extreme heterogeneity). For comparison, Uganda had the highest measure in Phillips' data set, at 0.93. The situation in the CAR and the response to Samba-Panza's election, Phillips said, "is almost exactly what we argue in our paper. ... At this date and time, having a woman in leadership position represents change."
It is hard to know, of course, how much impact Samba-Panza can actually have amid the violence in the CAR. Under her predecessor, a rebel group leader who seized power in March, a country that has long had a history of religious fighting and ethnic strife has become even less stable. U.N. Secretary-General Ban-Ki Moon referred to it as "a crisis of epic proportions" and a country in "free fall." A U.N. expert on genocide. when briefing the Security Council on Wednesday, warned about its "high risk of crimes against humanity and of genocide.” And earlier this week, European Union foreign ministers approved sending a combined military force to help the French and African troops already on the ground.
Samba-Panza won't have long to address these massive challenges. As interim president, the Times reports, she has been tasked with organizing national elections within the year — and will likely serve for little more than that.
Jena McGregor is a columnist for On Leadership.