Thursday, January 7, 2010

Womenomics from the Economist--is leading "like a woman" really so bad?

Hat tip to Woodstock.

Womenomics: Feminist management theorists are flirting with some dangerous arguments (The Economist)

The article opens by quoting some famous female leaders who supposedly represent a traditional meritocracy--Margaret Thatcher, who always ordered steak; Hilary Clinton who's not afraid to answer the phone at 3 a.m., and Dong Mingzhu, who says, “I never miss. I never admit mistakes and I am always correct.”

It then goes on to talk about new ideas about women in the workplace, suggesting that maybe women need not be men to get ahead (the horror):
But some of today’s most influential feminists contend that women will never fulfil their potential if they play by men’s rules... The new feminism contends that women are wired differently from men, and not just in trivial ways. They are less aggressive and more consensus-seeking, less competitive and more collaborative, less power-obsessed and more group-oriented. Judy Rosener, of the University of California, Irvine, argues that women excel at “transformational” and “interactive” management. Peninah Thomson and Jacey Graham, the authors of “A Woman’s Place is in the Boardroom”, assert that women are “better lateral thinkers than men” and “more idealistic” into the bargain...
What is more, the argument runs, these supposedly womanly qualities are becoming ever more valuable in business. The recent financial crisis proved that the sort of qualities that men pride themselves on, such as risk-taking and bare-knuckle competition, can lead to disaster. Lehman Brothers would never have happened if it had been Lehman Sisters...
The article closes by arguing that these new suggestions of the positive potential of gender characteristics associated with females is a threat to meritocracy, and to women's success.  While I think this paragraph is fair:
People who bang on about innate differences should remember that variation within subgroups in the population is usually bigger than the variation between subgroups. Even if it can be established that, on average, women have a higher “emotional-intelligence quotient” than men, that says little about any specific woman. Judging people as individuals rather than as representatives of groups is both morally right and good for business.
I find the closing argument misguided:
Women would be well advised to ignore the siren voices of the new feminism and listen to Ms Dong instead. Despite their frustration, the future looks bright. Women are now outperforming men markedly in school and university. It would be a grave mistake to abandon old-fashioned meritocracy just at the time when it is turning to women’s advantage.
We don't need to start throwing around words like "wired differently" to acknowledge that women tend to be imbued with certain gender-based characteristics that differentiate them from men.  For example, women are taught from a very young age to nurture, by playing with dolls and other activities.  It seems strange to me to try to argue that the male paradigm for interacting with others is the "right" one for business, and that women acting as though they in fact have gender difference--inherent or socially inherited--is somehow a threat to the meritocracy.  What those feminist theorists are talking about is a different type of meritocracy, where traditionally "female" characteristics (such as collaboration) are honored along with "male" characteristics (such as aggressiveness).  For this to be counter to meritocracy, it would have to be argued that men who exhibit these potentially beneficial characteristics should be overlooked in favor of women.  No one is suggesting that.  Rather, the simple and revolutionary idea is that society's idea of a "man" might not be the end all and be all of leadership.  As troubled as the (undoubtedly male) writers at The Economist seem to be by the idea of women trying to get ahead on "emotional intelligence," "interaction," and "collaboration" (ooh, scary), I find nothing in this celebration of society's idea of female traits threatening to traditional feminism.  If these characteristics are valuable, and it seems to me that they are, then men better learn them and catch up--just the way we've had to learn to get ahead by traditionally "male" standards.  Seriously, women's magazine are constantly imploring me to ask for a raise like a man, or fight for my idea, or assert my boundaries, or not be so sensitive... Surely it's not possible that the only positive leadership traits happen to overlap perfectly with the socially constructed male gender?  Personally, I'm not afraid to lead like a woman--with all my "male" and "female" traits intact.  The question is, can the men keep up?

1 comment:

  1. I also like how our role model is supposed to be someone who says she never admits mistakes and is always right. Yup, exactly the kind of leadership we need!


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