BY: JACK MULVANY
I am not suggesting that our present-day “system” – anything but a patriarchy would be challenging to deny – be completely turned on its head. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this article might be “It’s time for women to have an equal hand at ruling the world.” And my use of the word equal will, no doubt, send a shudder up a spine or two. The fact is that women are not equal to men; they are not the same as men. They are different. But in many ways they are better than men. And it is because they are different, and better in so many ways, that they should have more than just a cursory and perfunctory role at the head tables of governments, in the halls of academia and business, and in the cloistered confines of the world’s religions.
There have been improvements in the past few decades, no question. Women have found their way to the top rung of the corporate ladder; women have been appointed into the upper echelons of academia and finance; women now occupy some of the highest ranks in the military; and a woman being installed as the president or prime minister of a nation is no longer the fodder of some idle water cooler chit-chat. But all of this is little more than tokenism, an off-handed gesture towards the inclusion of a group that comprises more than half of the planet’s population and more than half of its university graduates. It wasn’t that long ago when a woman could not vote federally in the United States, Canada or the United Kingdom; it was 1971 when women could vote federally for the first time in Switzerland, and Saudi Arabia allowed women to vote for the first time in 2015. It took until 1994 for a woman, Judith Rodin, to head up one of America’s Ivy League schools. From its founding in 1958, it took NASA 25 years to send its first female astronaut – Sally Ride – into space, and in 1999 Eileen Collins became the first woman to command a space shuttle mission. In 1989, Barbara Harris became the first woman to be ordained as bishop in the Anglican Community. It was 1970 when the first woman, Anna-Mae Hays, was awarded the rank of General in the American armed forces, and it was 1981 before Sandra Day O’Connor, was appointed as the first woman to the U.S. Supreme Court. The first female head of state in modern times was Sirimavo Bandaranaike, who was elected prime minister of Sri Lanka in 1960, and Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first – and, until recently, only – female prime minister in 1979. In its 120-year history, the modern Olympic Games introduced women’s soccer for the first time in 1996; and ice hockey and boxing were introduced for the first time in 1998 and 2012 respectively. And remember, all of this took place in the latter half of the 20th century. Prior to that, it was a virtual drought. In its somewhat contentious 2,000-year history, the Roman Catholic Church has yet to ordain a single woman to the priesthood. The office of Secretary General of the United Nations has always been a man, as have the offices of Director-General of the World Trade Association and the President of the International Olympic Committee. History buffs might bring to mind great leaders like Eleanor of Aquitane, Catherine the Great of Russia, Joan of Arc and Wu Zetian of China; and in more recent times there certainly have been women who contributed in no small way to the sciences, arts and humanities – Marie Curie, Amelia Earhart, Rachel Carson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Jane Goodall, J.K. Rowling, Maria Montessori and Rosa Parks to name but a few. But the numbers pale when compared to the ranks of men who fill the dusty tomes of history.
It took until 1994 for a woman, Judith Rodin, to head up one of America’s Ivy League schools – the University of Pennsylvania.
Margaret Thatcher became Britain’s first – and, until recently, only – female prime minister in 1979.
In 1989, Barbara Harris became the first woman to be ordained as bishop in the Anglican Community.
When it comes to recognition for their efforts and contributions, and in particular to the sciences, women have been too often shuffled off to the sidelines. An article in the Huffington Post listed five women scientists who, in the opinion of the author, should have received Nobel Prizes for their work, but the names of Annie Cannon, Lise Meitner, Emmy Noether, Rosalind Franklin and Jocelyn Burnell have barely had an honourable mention in the corridors of academia. And all these women lived in the 20th century. Perhaps an even more egregious example of short shrift was when women authors chose – or were forced by societal mores to choose – male names in order to be published or even be taken seriously. You may not have heard of Mary Ann Evans, but her pen name, George Eliot, may be familiar to you. The Brontë sisters originally wrote their works under male pseudonyms. And then there’s the mystery of Robert Galbraith, a.k.a. J.K. Rowling.
Take a look at the state of the world today. Hardly a year goes by but there isn’t a new conflict zone, a government being overthrown, a wider disparity between the wealthy and the poor, an economic meltdown, a political scandal here or an environment-destroying oil spill there. Would we all be better off if women had that “equal hand” at the helm? The short answer is yes. And the short reason is the brain; or to be more specific, the differences between the male and female brain. The extent to which the male and female brain is different is still a divisive topic, but based on studies like this one, or this one, there seems to be little doubt that these differences are more than just subtle. Backed up by evidence and research by such notables as Simon Baron-Cohen of Cambridge University, Allan Reiss of Stanford, and Louann Brizendine formerly of Harvard, the brains of the two genders are different chemically, structurally, hormonally and genetically. There are significantly large enough differences between the male and female brain in structures such as the amygdala, the hypothalamus, the corpus callosum, the neural connectivity between the brain’s two hemispheres, and in the production of hormones like oxytocin, to make a difference in how the two genders perceive, evaluate, interact with, and react to, the world around them. The evidence contends that in general women are better at communication and vocabulary skills. Women are more co-operative, empathetic and intuitive, emphasize the value of comradeship and preserving relationships, and are less prone to violence. On the other side of the coin, research has shown that there are tasks that men, in general, are better at than women – spatial recognition and motor skills, for example. And I’m certainly not suggesting that all women are halo-wearing angels – Britain’s Margaret Thatcher didn’t hesitate in going to war in 1982 over the Falkland Islands; and women are not absent from the ranks of murderers and even serial killers. But that’s not the point being made here. It is the very qualities that women are better at than men that would guarantee a world less prone to animosity, war, greed, inequality and corruption. Not only are women better multi-taskers than men, they engage multiple parts of the brain to address a single given task. It is their very differences – whether biological, psychological or experiential – that demand that women’s opinions be taken as seriously as men’s, and that their voices be given equal time on the floors of legislatures, the boardrooms of corporations and the ivory towers of our learning institutions. After all, those three wise men of biblical lore got lost, were late, and their gifts were about as useful as a screen door on a submarine. So why aren’t there more female heads of state? Why is it that in 2015, less than five percent of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies were women. Why, in its 240-year history, did it take until the year 2014 for the U.S. Navy to appoint the first woman – Michelle Howard – to the rank of a four-star admiral, and in its 160-year history for The New York Times to appoint the first female executive editor – Jill Abramson? The complete answer may not be easy to identify, but there is certainly one simple component – when it comes to how society sees and treats women, there is today, and always has been, a double standard.
In many ways women are better than men. And this is why they should have more than just a cursory and perfunctory role at the head tables of governments, in the halls of academia and business, and in the cloistered confines of the world’s religions.
“Why can’t a woman be more like a man”, is, of course, that (in)famous line from My Fair Lady, referring to Eliza Doolittle’s attempt to “improve” herself in the eyes of high society. And this double standard has a very long cultural pedigree. Matters of public concern and debate have, for centuries, been the domain of men, while women were expected to remain in the shadows, taking care of the households and the children. And when women did eventually venture into the public arena, they were obliged to adopt the “male way” of doing things and to behave like men. From the start, then, women’s efforts and contributions were seen as somehow inferior and peripheral to those of men. Women can be trapped between the proverbial brick and a hard place – a woman in charge who conforms to the stereotypical image of a woman is seen as soft and weak, while that same woman who conforms more to the “perceived” male way of doing things is seen as a dissenter. Damned if she does, and damned if she doesn’t. And nowhere is this more true than when it comes to running for public office. Polling has shown that voters – men and women – gauge female delegates more critically than they do their male counterparts, a sentiment echoed by the American philanthropist Barbara Lee and by the former governor of Kansas, Kathleen Sebelius. How does she compose herself? Is she tough enough? Can she balance home and public life? Even how she dresses is put under the microscope. If a woman is overly decisive, she can be seen as pushy; not decisive enough, as weak. After her first attempt for the U. S. presidency, Hilary Clinton admitted that she was constantly aware of her own presence – far more so than a man would have to be – constantly aware that there was little margin for error. When she became visibly emotional in an interview during the New Hampshire primary, her fellow nominee and former senator, John Edwards, publicly suggested that Hilary’s moment of emotion was a reflection of weakness and perhaps even somehow not “real” –a quality not conducive to the leader of the free world. And while a similar display of emotion in a male would probably be seen as evidence of compassion (that double standard at work again), the voters did, in fact, interpret her as “real”, and she handily won the hearts and minds of the New Hampshire electorate. And then there’s the incessant chattering of how a woman in the public domain looks. Her hair, her clothes, her shoes, her makeup and even her weight are all fodder for commentary and criticism, far more so than men have to endure. When she was appointed anchor of the CBS Evening News, Katie Couric’s publicity photograph was doctored to make her appear thinner, and former White House Press Secretary to Bill Clinton, Didi Myers (whose own writing helped to inspire this article), tells of an incident in 1994 when, at a public press conference in Moscow with President Clinton and Boris Yeltsin, she had to be supplied with a more “appropriate” pair of shoes than those she was wearing.
I want to return to a topic I touched on only very briefly a couple of paragraphs ago – violence – and in particular how physical violence differs between the genders, and even how it manifests itself in other species. Notwithstanding the fact that women have, on more than just the rare occasion, been guilty of acts of aggression and extreme violence – Andrea Yates and Susan Smith each committed the almost unspeakable crime of murdering their own children, Canada’s Karla Homolka was imprisoned as a serial killer and Queen Elizabeth I had her own cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, executed- based on FBI statistics, men (and young men, in particular) are many times more likely than women of any age to commit crime, and specifically violent crime. But why is this the case? Is it because males are typically bigger and stronger than females? Or are males genetically more predisposed to violence? Or perhaps violence is inculcated through insidious cultural pressure. Whether there is a simple answer to any of these rhetorical questions remains the fodder of much debate, but research done by the renowned primatologist, Jane Goodall, may shed a beacon of light on the topic. While studying chimpanzees in Tanzania in the 1960s, Goodall noted that our closest relatives on the evolutionary tree were capable of reasoned thought, compassion and altruism. But they were also capable of that all-too-human trait – planned violence. The hierarchical and social structures of chimpanzees in the wild are frequently manifested in one cartload (yes…that’s the collective noun for a group of chimpanzees) of animals attacking and killing the members of another cartload. And the perpetrators have one thing in common – with the rare exception, they are all male. Female chimpanzees, on the other hand, as primatologist Richard Wrangham suggests in his 1997 Demonic Males: Apes and the Origins of Human Violence, build alliances and work with other females to whom they feel some emotional attachment. And yet, on returning to the central question as to why violence seems to be more prevalent in males – chimpanzees as well as humans – we are faced with something of a conundrum, perhaps even a ray of hope, in the form of the bonobo. The bonobo is so similar to the chimpanzee that it is only recently that it has been classified as a different species, but compared to its cousin, the bonobo is almost the ideal citizen. While many chimpanzees exercise their dominance – over females and other males – through intimidation and rampage, male bonobos are on an equal footing with the females. And perhaps the main reason for this is attributed to the fact that females form bonds with each other, and there is strength in numbers – a kind of “girl power.” But the girl power is not used to instigate violence; it is rather used to prevent it. That is not to say that rank and status do not play a role in bonobo society; they do, but they are shared equally between the genders, and this is why violence is the exception rather than the norm. Perhaps we humans can learn a lesson, and garner hope, from our bonobo cousins, and perhaps that hope can be underpinned by the words of American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, who has suggested that societies with women at the helm would be “less aggressive, adventurous, competitive, and violent.” In the nature versus nurture debate which suggests that the male predisposition to aggression is an indelible consequence of countless millennia of genetic juggling – or, as Fukuyama puts it, “bred in the bone” – then surely the apparent deficit of this genetic propensity in females might be enough to offset the apparent abundance of it in males. Again, I’m certainly not advocating a complete one-eighty in the world order – that men should be completely replaced by women in the halls of power- what I am advocating for is a better balance of power.
Based on FBI statistics, men (and young men, in particular) are many times more likely than women of any age to commit crime, and specifically violent crime.
It is the very qualities that women are better at than men that would guarantee a world less prone to animosity, war, greed, inequality and corruption.
It’s all well and good, of course, to suggest that women can be every bit as good as their male counterparts, and frequently better. But the proof of the pudding, as the proverb says, is in the eating. Despite the relative dearth of opportunities given to women, there is certainly no shortage of success stories out there. At the time of writing, Sheryl Sandberg has gone from being a Vice President at Google to being the Chief Operating Officer with Facebook, and she has since been appointed to its Board of Directors, the first woman to have been appointed; Ursula Burns is the current CEO of Xerox Corporation. Michele Roberts is now the first woman to hold the office of executive director of the National Basketball Players Association. Three of Canada’s provincial premiers are women. Germany, Liberia, South Korea and Poland – to name just a few – have a woman as head of state. Christine Lagarde is the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, Janet Yellen is the chair of the U.S. Federal Reserve and Tsai Ing-wen has been elected President of Taiwan. In January 2016, Italian physicist Fabiola Gianotti has assumed her role as Director-General of CERN, perhaps the world’s premier organization for the study of theoretical physics, and in 2014 Maryam Mirzakhani upended the myth that women are somehow not as capable as men in the esoteric world of mathematics by winning that discipline’s most prestigious prize, the Fields Medal. But the numbers of these success stories still reflect a grossly unfair imbalance in the division of power. In addition to the already-mentioned mismatch in Fortune 500 CEOs, the number of women in the U.S. Congress is less than 20 percent, and representation in Canada’s Federal Parliament is only marginally better. (Interestingly enough, the country with the greatest female representation is Rwanda, albeit a dictatorship under the leadership of Paul Kagame, who has declared himself president for life). Banking, media and entertainment are still old boys’ clubs, and according to an article in USA Today, Silicon Valley has a mere “smattering of women.” In short, women have proven to the world that when given the chance, they are equally as capable as men – and in many situations more capable. And yet, despite the advocacy, despite the significant strides made, despite the undeniable evidence and despite the public debate, the gap between the genders is still wide enough to drive a convoy of trucks (driven by women?) through. So, how do we get to a level playing field? I don’t know. Perhaps nobody knows. But I do believe that if women carry on proving to the world what they are capable of, and if we all carry on fighting the good fight, that the world will be a better place when women have an equal hand at running it.
In wrapping up, here are a few eminent quotes from some equally eminent people:
“Nothing, arguably, is as important in the political economy of development as an adequate recognition of political, economic, and social participation, and leadership of women.” Amartya Sen.
“The female brain has tremendous unique aptitudes—outstanding verbal agility, the ability to connect deeply in friendship, a nearly psychic capacity to read faces and tone of voice for emotions and states of mind, and the ability to defuse conflict. All of this is hardwired into the brains of women. These are the talents women are born with that many men, frankly, are not.” Louann Brizendine.
“Give a woman an inch and she’ll park a car in it.” Geraldine Ferraro.
“For too long, the history of women has been a history of silence.” Hilary Clinton.
“Let’s face it: If mothers ruled the world, there would be no goddamn wars in the first place.” Sally Field.
But perhaps it is the Chinese adage that sums it up best: “Women hold up half the sky.”