Wednesday, 27 November 2013

P&IR Event: Who Runs The World: Do women make better heads of state?

The P&IR society, the best society on campus™ hosted an event this evening in conjunction with the Women's Forum with the title indicated above. I have come back absolutely fired up and will write briefly on what happened, with the customary diversions and digressions as thoughts arrive in my head.

Please also note that I have not done as much reading as I should around feminist and gender theory. I apologise if any offense is caused either by my realisations, which many will think either blindingly obvious or utterly incorrect, or by incorrect data or information. If the latter is the case please make me aware through comments and I will make changes as quickly as I possibly can (generally within 24hrs).

I confess that I went to this event intending to give the organisers a stern telling-off. The title is deliberately inflammatory; to ask Do women make better heads of state requires an object for the comparative better. Better than whom? Men, the suggestion seems to be, though I will acknowledge that "drunk hippopotami" is also theoretically suitable. However, this seems a bit odd when you unpack it. To be better than men, women must have some innate quality which makes them superior heads of state.

What is it? Is it only found in ciswomen or do transwomen acquire it? I prod fun at this idea because it seems as utterly laughable to me as the idea that cismen are better leaders. It just so happens that because of a whole litany of reasons, from religion to tradition to gender stereotypes propagated from Middle-Age literary fantasies to literally everything we see in the media today that cismen have acquired their position at the top.

I don't think that means cismen are better leaders. I also don't think we can say that ciswomen (or indeed any group of people defined by gender) are better leaders because it requires gender to also have some magical leadership component. I don't think that's true.

Anyway, this was what I had prepared in my head and was going to say until within the first five minutes of her talk the speaker, Prof. Marysia Zalewski, promptly said it. And she said it much better than I could have done, and she's left me rather wishing I'd recorded her talk. However, from the notes I took - a page of scrawls that would leave the CIA's cryptographers disgusted - here are the important points from her talk.

Primarily: the first question. Who runs the world? The simple answer, of course, is men. They are at the top of every institution with power: politics, business, religion. The number of women at the top, if imagined as a triangle, is similar in every way to that of a standard business hierarchy (less people as we ascend) with one crucial difference. It is shorter. The peak of the "women in business" triangle is always one of two levels below the peak of the "men in business" triangle.

(I appreciate that it is standard notation to call these diagrams "pyramids", but a pyramid is a three-dimensional shape and quite frankly I will not stand for misnomers here. The same goes for those of you who insist on calling helical staircases "spiral". Begone and darken my door no more.)

However, there are certainly some female heads of state. Are they better? Is it desirable to have women as heads of state? If so, why? The questions kept coming, with no answers in sight. I was starting to realise that this question was not as simple as I'd thought - and I wasn't the only one.

Marysia broke down the question. Do we think they'll be better because they'll bring in more equality? She quashed that idea pretty quickly. There's no evidence to support that at all, she noted. So what else? Are female heads of state more likely to bring justice? Whence that idea? A sudden horrible flash of insight on my part leads me to the thought that it's because we've all bought into the idea - the gender stereotype - that women are caregivers, nurturers, mother-figures. Marysia invited us to consider Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, President of Liberia. A waitress interviewed by the BBC said "We need a woman to put things right." Mrs Johnson-Sirleaf herself said she wanted to become president in order "to bring motherly sensitivity and emotion to the presidency"

Hmm. This seems a bit odd. We're back in the realm of "women = mothers" and "men = soldiers". Is that true? I think perhaps not. Marysia moved on to mention an idea in political theory that when there's a critical mass of women - around 30% - the whole institution changes. Again, she said, doesn't this rather rely on the idea that all women are the same? That they all want to change the institution? I rather suspect that many Tory women are rather keen on the way the institution is run because Tories, be they minority groups or white heterosexual men, have bought into the idea of the status quo as the way forward. This may be the right way. If anyone could convince me of that please be my guest.

(Again, I generalise - many Tories, some of my acquaintance, have practically revolutionary ideas. But they are not ideas that would revolutionise social justice; in fact, they are ideas that would simply further cement the status quo. But I digress.)

The fact is that "women" are not a single, hive-minded creature. They are, much like everyone else, individually moulded human beings with their own thoughts and desires. One need only consider the vast, yawning gulf of ideological differences between (say) Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton to see that women are not all united under a feminist banner.

So why are we so keen to see women in politics? Marysia pointed out that it is fantastic from a symbolic point of view - but is it merely symbolic? Do we get to three women in Cabinet and say "Welp, equality achieved"? (This author suggests this is on a par with Bush Jr standing on an aircraft carrier declaring "Mission Accomplished" in 2003). The question at the beginning was Do women make better heads of state? - but do they actually make worse heads of state? Not many minority groups would argue that Thatcher made the world a better place (aside from the gay Thatcherite I met the other day, whose cognitive dissonance I still cannot get over.) and she did invade the Falklands. A bit. And break the trade unions. A bit. And took milk away from children. A lot.

However, one bad egg doesn't necessarily spoil the basket - but to me it points towards a larger truth. Women don't make better heads of state. Neither do men. There must be some other qualities, other than their gender, which make men - or women - good leaders. So why aren't there more women at the top?

Let's look at the women at the top. They show typically masculine qualities. Is that because you have to be a man to get ahead? I would say no, because we're once again linking gender to sex in far too strong a way. Say instead that you need to act in the way the institution demands you act. You have to become institutionalised. You can't be a man or a woman who doesn't act in the way the institution demands you act. To be a woman in business the institution demands you work long hours, that you are superior to your male colleagues, that you are alternately queen bitch and office mother. It's a game; not the Game of Thrones - not quite - but close. And the only way to win is not to play, because every failure is held up by the institution as the reason they don't hire more women. It's a heartless circle, because if a woman "wins" - if she makes it to the top - she's not her own person any more. She becomes the institution; internalises the sexism and then pours it out again. There's no escape.

So that was a cheering thought. But Marysia hinted that this is where she felt we should look. There's no point having a symbolic few female politicians, or even fifty percent female politicians, if the institutions stay the same. After all, the money that funds the political institution comes from global capitalism - so maybe there need to be more changes there. The question is whether you can get more feminist women to the top in business to effect this political change - and, indeed, if you want to keep the whole rotten political system intact. Why not wipe the slate clean and try something new?

This was a startling - but fascinating - idea from the floor in the discussion that followed Marysia's presentation. Why not make like the ancient Athenians and make election to the halls of power contingent on a lottery? It's an astonishing idea. Every Athenian, if elected, had a duty to represent his fellow men (Ancient Greece being what it was) for a set term. He would be given a wage if he spoke, turned up to meetings, and remained sober. If all our politicians knew they had only a limited time to make their changes, would they act differently?

Of course, this is contingent on your average member of the public being inspired and fired to help his fellow person and not, for example, being the sort of person who comments on Daily Mail pieces.

Text reads: "There'll be the usual rush of female fans writing to him when he is banged up inside no doubt fascinated by him and deeply allured [sic] to him. Meanwhile there's a million other decent hard-working ordinary blokes looking for relationships but they're probably too boring. What a world." Regarding paedophilia charges against Ian Watkins, lead singer of The Lost Prophets.
Can we all look at that for a minute and then imagine him in charge for one minute and then agree to never speak of this again? Ever?

The fact is that sexism is all around us, all the time. Consider the X-Factor, Marysia said. Look at the turnover in female judges. I wasn't the only blank face, but since there were nods around the room, I'd bet a penny to a pound that it's a whole lot higher than the male judge turnover. She mentioned the Everyday Sexism Project, that daily reminder that there is still a so much latent sexism in the world, and the disgraceful attacks on Caroline Criado-Perez on Twitter as well as the inability of police forces to do anything about it.

The last thing to consider (in an evening which was as enlightening as it was depressing) was quotas. Are they useful? Should they be encouraged? Marysia reminded her interlocutor that quotas for men already exist; that the bias to elect/promote men already exists. Why not balance the scales? She also noted that there is hugely widespread resistance to quotas, both from men and women - all of whom are taking the neo-liberal line that we are already equal, and we don't need quotas because we are a meritocracy - we just take the best.

This line of thought has only one logical conclusion, however, and it is that white heterosexual men are the best. That's not a conclusion I find particularly convincing.

So what's to be done? There aren't really any answers. If there were answers, one rather suspects there would be more being done. But there were some incredibly smart people with some really good ideas in that room this evening, and if anyone can find the answers, I suspect it might be them. 

And me? I'll help where I can, try not to get in the way, and recommend that everyone get involved in this because it involves everyone already. I've already learned enough to know I don't know much at all. Here's to learning more.

Special thanks to Veronika, P&IR President, and Monique, Women's Forum Co-Convener, for a fantastic event and a very stimulating discussion.