Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Until gender doesn't matter

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, gender issues

It never failed. Twice I've shared an office with a woman, and every time a man came in who didn't know us, he'd either address me as though I were the only one there, or address her as though she were the secretary. The fact is, in both cases we were equal colleagues. With my colleagues' agreement, whenever I thought we'd get away with it (and that was usually), I'd interrupt by saying, "Excuse me, that's my boss..." Wish I'd had a camera handy!

Of course, I've been in on a couple of bull sessions with the subject, "If all the bosses were women." The usual conclusions were, one, war would probably end because by the time a man is a commanding officer he knows better than to go up against a woman, and two, men would likely become little more than pets. That last recalls Garrison Keillor's witty riff on Lake Wobegon, "where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking...". I've lived in the frozen north, where there were plenty of the "Norwegian bachelor farmers" that Keillor lampoons weekly. I know a story or two that substantiate their fear that, should one of them marry one of those strong women, he'd soon be sidelined. One of my neighbors remarked about another, "Yeah, she bought him a big truck and these big gloves so he can drive around and feel important. Really, she just keeps him for a pet."

What would really happen if women ran things? Dee Dee Myers, former Press Secretary for President Clinton, takes a whack at the issue in Why Women Should Rule the World. Like any good debater, she takes her theme in three parts: "Why women don't rule the world", "Why women should rule the world", and "How women can rule the world" (italics are mine).

The historical reason for "Why not?" is, under subsistence conditions women are too valuable as childcare providers. Since a large segment of the human race got more prosperous, however, the reasons are, it is just a habit, and the old "Men are stronger so just try to stop us anyway" gambit. The old Greek play Lysistrata has one answer to the last: "If you don't, I won't!" (of course it was written by a man, Aristophanes, expressing the castration phobia in a new form).

Where women do have some authority, Myers shows that things do indeed work out differently. We have to drop the PC "everyone is the same" crap and understand: woman and men are good at different things. One salient fact shows why: The major corporations which have significant female executive leadership, including female CEO's, rank at the top in profitability and growth. It indicates that the things women are better at are as necessary as the converse. In a sense, denying women leadership roles puts a company, or a society, at a disadvantage. As Geraldine Ferraro put it, women in power "raise issues that others [i.e. men] overlook, pass bills that others oppose, invest in projects that others dismiss, and seek to end abuses that others ignore" (quoted on p.93).

Things are changing regardless. According to an article Myers cites (Journal of Accountancy, April 2004, by Maureen Duffy), in another year or two women will control half the wealth of the U.S., some $22 Trillion (the figure given in the book is grossly in error; this is from the article itself).

The last chapter points the way. In each kind of enterprise, there is a sort of Critical Mass (and I don't mean a room full of complainers!). For example, the board of directors of many corporations with at least three women simply run differently than those with two or fewer. For running the country, the critical mass is likely to be one: whenever a woman gets elected President, things will be Different. I know, inertia is hard to overcome, but just giving a battleship a big nudge in a different direction will make a big difference in its final goal. The recent candidacy of Hilary Clinton is already one such nudge. Like her or not, she has made a difference.

The author thinks it likely that "...if we eliminate the conflict between having a high-powered job and having a family, unravel the mysteries of innate aptitude and interest, and root out discrimination, there will still be more women in social psychology and more men in engineering? And isn't that okay?" The key issue is not to drive women either to or from social sciences or "hard" sciences, but to allow those with aptitude to pursue what they are good at. Period.

So if your little girl wants to play with guns and trucks—most don't, but a few do—let her; if your little boy wants to play house more than play war—most don't, but a few do—let him. And right up through the scale. Even more, if your grown-up girl that once played house and dollies wants to run the country, don't stand in her way. It makes me wonder how Margaret Thatcher might deal with Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The Iron Lady would not likely flood him with crumpets and tea, but just might be able to get through his armor nonetheless. Lord knows no man has yet done so.

In the end, Ms Myers is not arguing for 100% female authority, but proportional rule. Half the people are women, so half the leaders ought also to be women.

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