HAMBURG, Germany—The appointments of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, General Motors’ CEO Mary Barra, and IMF managing director Christine Lagarde signify a trend toward increasing the number of women in leadership. Less obviously, they also reflect a new global awareness that sex and gender are paramount in the development of politics, economics, and society in the 21st century.

Women are finally, slowly yet irrevocably, taking a lead role in realms that historically were toughest for them to penetrate, such as business and politics. That’s due partly to the global financial crisis of 2008, whose aftermath sparked a call for new approaches to economic policy and business practice. But it’s also thanks to some promising young academics and scientists, whose research already had begun to change mainstream thinking. What’s more, it reflects a growing willingness to discuss the role of sex and gender...

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