As Schroeder and Powell point out, this reading is not entirely baseless: in some parts of the world, female leaders have disproportionately obtained office through familial ties.
One survey they cite found that 33% of female leaders in office from 1960 to 2007 had family ties to prominent politicians.
But there are vast regional disparities, with familial ties most likely to drive female leaders to the top in Latin America and Asia – regions with low gender equality overall and little respect for women’s rights.
In fact, until recently, the only women who had become heads of state in Latin American countries were daughters or wives of political leaders.
None of this is to say that gender provides a decisive, much less comprehensive, explanation for a coup.
Powell himself points out that, in Zimbabwe, many women fought for the country’s independence in the Rhodesian Bush War.
Among that war’s female veterans was Joice Mujuru, who later served as vice president for a decade, ostensibly without having her competence challenged by the military.
Ironically, Mujuru was once viewed as a potential successor to Mugabe. But in 2014, she was apparently censured for purportedly plotting against him – allegations that cost her both her post as vice president and her position in the ZANU-PF leadership.
In fact, gender may also play a role when it comes to executing a coup.
Planning a successful coup requires a significant degree of instrumental reasoning – that is, the tendency to use other people as tools to advance one’s own goals.
And, according to new study, this “Machiavellian” tendency – which encompasses the intention and ability to use manipulative tactics, a cynical view of human nature, and a disregard for conventional morality – may manifest differently in men and women.
The new research, which took into account the results of three studies, suggests that men who exhibit a high degree of Machiavellianism tend to be self-aggrandizing, boisterous, and vain, with an exploitative approach to relationships and an opportunistic worldview.
Machiavellian women, by contrast, may be defensive, anxious, and introverted. The study concludes that men may be more likely to engage in assertive and violent forms of manipulation, while women may resort to covert, restrained, and concealed deceptive tactics, such as rumors and gossiping.
Because power reflects perception, rival coup leaders ruthlessly manipulate potential enemies and collaborators. Yet they may not realize how gender bias is shaping their own strategies. Sometimes, it’s this psychology that explains an unexpected fall from grace.
In Zimbabwe, as in all coups, much behind-the-scenes plotting continues to take place. But who the eventual winners and losers are might depend, among other things, on the gender of the plotters.
By Raj Persaud and Peter Bruggen. This article was first published by Project Syndicate.