Photograph by Mitsuaki Iwago / Minden Pictures

Who Runs the World?

words by willow defebaugh

For Women’s History Month, The Overview looks to the animal kingdom for what it can teach us about the power of putting women in charge.

“Come closer. See how feminism can touch and change your life and all our lives. Come closer and know firsthand what feminist movement is all about. Come closer and you will see: Feminism is for everybody.”

bell hooks

This month at Atmos, we’re celebrating women and femininity. As such, I decided to do some digging into examples of female leadership in the natural world. Out of the approximate 5,000 species of mammals known to exist, a recent study identified 76 that show leadership. Unfortunately, their findings were familiar; within that group, they found only a handful with females in charge. And yet, these species are among the most renowned and revered by humans—each with something they can teach us about the power of putting women at the top.


African elephant herds are matriarchal, meaning that female elders hold the leadership positions. Females don’t even have to contest their positions with males, who live completely separately. Knowledgeable older elephants, known for their long memories, will lead the herd to water during droughts. Similarly, orca whale pods are led by mothers and grandmothers who have been known to teach their extended family members where to hunt and find salmon. In both species, we can see that matriarchal mammals thrive because they follow the wisdom of older females.


An astounding 99% of our DNA is shared with chimps and bonobos. And while chimps tend to be male-led, bonobos place females in charge. As a result, bonobo societies are more peaceful than their cousins. Though smaller than their male counterparts, female bonobos regularly intervene in conflicts—even joining together to take on the males. They also use sex and other forms of intimate touch to reduce conflict. The same is true for ring-tailed and black and white ruffed lemurs; the females in charge diffuse conflict with other colonies. These species seem to have learned the value of leading with love rather than violence.


For all the hype surrounding the “king of the jungle,” African lions also live in female-dominated groups. Prides are composed mostly of females who work together to do the hunting and provide food for their families while the males typically stay back and look after the young. The females are usually related, which is thought to be a motivating factor as to why they stick together. In addition to hunting collaboratively, lionesses collectively raise each other’s young, increasing the family’s genetic preservation. They know the value of placing the group over the individual.


Unfortunately, opportunities for female leadership are similarly hard to come by in the human world. According to the United Nations, as of September 2021, only 10 countries have a female Head of State, and just 13 have a female Head of Government. That’s out of 195 countries that currently exist. At this rate, it will take another 130 years to reach gender equality in the highest positions of power around the world. Things aren’t much better on lower levels; only 25% of all national parliamentarians and 36% of local government officials are women. 


Also similar to our non-human kin, a growing body of research reveals the value of female leadership. A study published in the first year of the pandemic found that countries with women at the helm handled the Coronavirus more effectively, going into lockdown earlier and even having half as many mortalities as countries led by men. Research has also found that women leaders are quicker than men to implement innovative and preventative measures. When it comes to the climate crisis, a study published last year found that female representation across 96 parliaments corresponded to stronger climate policies and lower carbon emissions.


As the latest IPCC report pointed out, women are disproportionately impacted by climate change. The same violent, patriarchal forces that have subjugated women have also subjugated the Earth for far too long. This is clearly embodied in the form of Vladimir Putin, not only in his misogyny but in his displays of dominance powered by fossil fuels, all of which is directly at odds with everything we find in female leadership: centering wisdom, prioritizing peace, and embodying collaboration. What might it look like if those values ran the world?

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