Do we need male leaders?

145994228Following my discussion about Synod elections and gender (sex) representation, I came across an article in Harvard Business Review on why women find it hard to break into secular leadership. (A friend tagged me in a link to it on Facebook—but in fact I heard it mentioned on Radio 4 a few days previously.)

Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic (what a great name!) poses the oft-asked question: how do we explain the difficulty women have in  getting promoted, even in cultures where it is claimed we believe in gender (sex) equality?

There are three popular explanations for the clear under-representation of women in management, namely: (1) they are not capable; (2) they are not interested; (3) they are both interested and capable but unable to break the glass-ceiling: an invisible career barrier, based on prejudiced stereotypes, that prevents women from accessing the ranks of power. Conservatives and chauvinists tend to endorse the first; liberals and feminists prefer the third; and those somewhere in the middle are usually drawn to the second. But what if they all missed the big picture?

And what is this ‘big picture’ that we are missing? In the short but well-researched article, TCP proposes that groups always seek leaders, that they consistently appoint as leaders those who appear most confident, that this appearance of confidence often masks incompetence, or at least does not correlate with competence, and that men are best on putting on such a show. In other words, there is a fundamental problem with most processes of appointment of leaders, and this promotes arrogant, showy men ahead of modest, competent women. TCP pulls no punches on why he believes (from the research evidence) that women actually have the qualities that are needed to be better leaders:

The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors. Furthermore, a quantitative review of gender differences in personality involving more than 23,000 participants in 26 cultures indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than men, which is arguably one of the least counter-intuitive findings in the social sciences. An even clearer picture emerges when one examines the dark side of personality: for instance, our normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women…

In sum, there is no denying that women’s path to leadership positions is paved with many barriers including a very thick glass ceiling. But a much bigger problem is the lack of career obstacles for incompetent men, and the fact that we tend to equate leadership with the very psychological features that make the average man a more inept leader than the average woman. The result is a pathological system that rewards men for their incompetence while punishing women for their competence, to everybody’s detriment.

There is no doubting the evidence base for many of these claims. And any discussion of leadership in the Church which borrows from secular leadership theories needs to take these factors into account. But there are some important things missing from TCP’s analysis. First, what about humble men? Should we not be concerned that they, too, are overlooked? Secondly, is it not possible for showy women to be promoted past their level of competence? My personal experience suggests this is just as much of a problem. More fundamentally, if men (in general) have these narcissistic qualities of hubris, and women (in general) are humble and competent but overlooked, what does that say about our understanding of humanity, made male and female? (On the way, of course, this adds to the massive evidence that men and women are not essentially the same and therefore not simply interchangeable in roles.)

This took me back to a wonderful thought experiment proposed by Roger Olson in his extended discussion of a recent book on gender (sex) difference.

Image a world without females. (There are at least a couple of novels that do this.) Only male humans exist in this imaginary world and cloning is the means of reproduction. What would be missing besides breasts, internal genitalia, etc.? No one I know thinks this would be a good world; it would be missing some very essential qualities. I think everyone agrees with that. What would those missing qualities be? I suspect we don’t even need to answer that; everyone has his or her list. This is why there is such a push in academic circles to get girls and women into STEM disciplines and careers—because those professions (it is said) will be “better” with more women in them. Women as women contribute much to the world and every profession in it. I have never met anyone who would argue with that other than patriarchal “complementarians” (neo-fundamentalists).

Now imagine a world without males. (Again, there are a couple novels that do this.) Only female humans exist in this imaginary world and some means has been discovered for reproduction without males. What would be missing besides external genitalia and Adam’s apples? I think many people think this could be a perfectly good world; it would not be missing any essential qualities. And those who think it would be missing some essential qualities are reluctant to say what they are. I am—because the push back can be very harsh (in my world). Could this be why nobody is saying that any discipline or profession would be “better” if more men were in them? At least I have never read that in The Chronicle of Higher Education or any other journal or article or book about gender in academia and the world of careers and professions.

Before moving on, pause for a moment and dwell in each of those thought experiments. See?

What Olson is highlighting is that, as we have moved from a culture which has, for centuries or more, imagined that the male of the species is normative, and the female is a poor derivative, the corrective response to that has not been to re-establish equality between and an equal appreciation of the two sexes, but more often to reverse them. The female is normative or even virtuous, and the male is a poor imitation. Even as women are continuing to agitate for better representation in the face of a continuing, deep-seated misogyny, there is a powerful misandrous narrative being played out. A proper biblical understanding of human created male and female in God’s image will address and correct both tendencies.

Richard Briggs, in his excellent Grove Biblical booklet due out in the next couple of weeks, make a similar point in relation to the OT narratives about relationships between the sexes, here in relation to the narrative of Samson and Delilah:

One problem for men today is that the word ‘men’ once meant ‘everyone,’ which then led to feminine experience being a separate thing (and hence thelabel ‘feminism’), but then all that remained for the men, for male experience, was the oppressive
leftovers of what used to be true of everyone. So…real men like beer, sex, football, belching, laughing at people being stupid, and reluctantly having to remember their wedding anniversary or their mother’s birthday every year… This is hopeless. Literally. There is no hope in it…

Now I am as keen as the next man (or woman) to emphasize the importance of women’s experience, perspectives and theological vision, but I am also keen for men, as men—not just as generic human beings—to experience the good news. What is the opposite of feminism? Is it ‘masculism’? What, I wonder, would a masculist reading of Scripture look like?

Men need readings of biblical texts that challenge unthinking male dominance, and replace it not with reciprocal female dominance but with thinking men who lead, if they lead, reflectively, passionately, but also lovingly and with care for other men and women. When feminism simply inverts male failings and appropriates them for women (one thinks of obsession with power or status) then this is bad news for everyone. (pp 7–8).

With the help of scriptural teaching and the biblical narratives, it seems to me that we need to recover the notion of men and women as both equal and different, in a way which allows us to respect difference (including the possibility of the sexes contributing different things to different roles) but values each equally.

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40 thoughts on “Do we need male leaders?”

  1. How about the notion that they are equal because they are not fundamentally different? There, solved it for you. Otherwise some differences will always be valued over others.

    • Yes, problem neatly solved—if you don’t mind disregarding the overwhelming anecdotal and social scientific research that demonstrates that men and women are different, and are happy living in an ideological bubble that ignores reality.

      • Yes, there is some evidence for innate gender differences beyond the obvious, but it’s far from overwhelming, and may be explained by socialization, not biology.

        I admit, I don’t understand why someone who’s passionate about gender equality is equally passionate about gender difference!

        • Why wouldn’t the acceptance of diversity encompass the recognition of difference as an authentic reality, instead of treating it as a vestigial and disposable social construct?

          i don’t have to be passionate about racial differences to acknowledge that they exist and are neither entirely unhelpful, nor completely disposable distinctions. And that stance is not at odds with my passion for racial equality.

          Difference is not the antithesis of equality, whether racial or gender.

        • I missed this page when it first came out (hence the late reply). Anecdotally my experience is that gender differences aren’t just to do with socialisation. I have a feminist friend who carefully brought up her children without gender bias…and what happened: the girl (from an early age) liked skipping around in pretty clothes, and the boy liked rushing around and doing what we think of as boy things. I went to an all girls school. We were expected to be academic, and many of us were scientists, and I loved experiments, model railways, building things, etc, so I do realise that there is a lot of overlap……… but it remains true that the majority of boys have a turbocharge button and the majority of girls (even hyperactive ones….I had one of these) don’t.

          On the leadership question….I prefer a mix ….I think that just as male only groups tend to be macho, female only groups tend to be excluding and catty (though caring too of course!!). It’s completely unrealistic to imagine that female only societies would be all nice and understanding. We need each other.

  2. “With the help of scriptural teaching and the biblical narratives, it seems to me that we need to recover the notion of men and women as both equal and different, in a way which allows us to respect difference (including the possibility of the sexes contributing different things to different roles) but values each equally.”

    So… what you’re saying is that we need to recover Biblical manhood and womanhood? 😉

    • No, I think you are wrong, and I wonder if you have missed the point. Feminism is about seeing the world shaped by a positive view of women’s roles. How do we correspondingly see the world shaped by a *positive* view of men’s roles? Your comment derogates them in just the way Richard Briggs protests against, and suggest the only alternative is patriarchy. There must be a better way.

      • There is: egalitarianism.

        No role beyond the biologically inescapable is gendered. Nurture is no more a female attribute than aggression is a male one.

          • Which data, and what about it makes you so confident? I fully accept that I may be wrong, but there are plenty experts and studies that disagree with your position, and until a consensus emerges, it’s surely better to be, at least, agnostic.

  3. Thank you for making the point above about “humble men”. This is something which, I think, often gets overlooked. Businesses and churches can have an ‘alpha male’ leadership culture which, while it does exclude women, also excludes not just humble men, but capable introvert men, or men who are not into some of the things that more assertive men spend their time talking about (sport, cars, golf, etc.) It is not only women who are ill-served by this culture, and the church can be deprived of the gifts of both women and men who don’t fit the mould. I do think that the issue goes deeper into our culture than simply being one of gender, without in any way detracting from a recognition that women have been, and in some ways continue to be, badly treated.

  4. Here are a few thoughts:

    1. The definition of ‘leadership’ that TCP is working with is rather tendentious (‘the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group’). As the term ‘leadership’ is used in so many different senses, our conversations often skate over the surface of the real questions we should be addressing (I’ve written a bit more about leadership here).

    2. If women really are more competent leaders, then isn’t it, to say the least, rather strange that after thousands of years of male dominance in leadership in every developed human society, we should discover this fact through the assured pronouncements of social scientists? If women really are the more effective leaders, then why wasn’t it women who were at the forefront in the development of technology and science, medicine, the formation of institutions of learning, the establishment of political organization, conquest and exploration, religions, nations, trade routes, business, the establishment of infrastructures, etc., etc.? Why, in society after society after society, is it men that have played this role, even down to the present day? Wouldn’t women’s greater ability have had opportunity naturally to demonstrate and assert itself, giving significant advantages to societies with more female leaders?

    3. Here are a few suggestions why this hasn’t occurred:

    a. Men are typically more agentic and women are typically more communal and collaborative. Agentic people, whether male or female, tend to rise to the forefront of groups.
    b. Men are typically more agonistic than women. They are more oppositional and combative in their relations, so develop independence, strength, and confidence much more than women. Women are typically much more likely to depend upon external approval. Leaders need agonistic traits when their authority is in question. The confidence of leaders is not incidental to their capacity to lead in many situations. Leaders who lack confidence can crumple under stress and when faced with opposition. Confidence also relates to the capacity for independence, which enables people to stand out from and against the crowd and forge their own path. Groups lead by agonistic people are also better able to stand against challengers. Agonism can also be great at highlighting weaknesses and accentuating strengths. Agonistic societies encourage adaptation in the direction of strength.
    c. Men are typically more task and object oriented than women, while women are typically more people oriented. A task and object orientation tends to produce more dynamically outward-oriented groups.
    d. Men are typically more inclined to form larger groups than women, who tend to favour more intimate groups. As a result they are more likely to form the largest and most powerful networks.
    e. Men are more hierarchical and status oriented in their relations. This means that people are freed to play to the level of their strengths, without the same stigma upon or resentment against those who stand out as higher achievers. Male groups have a higher preference for disjunctive events—events that produce winners and losers—while female groups have a stronger homoeostatic drive. Groups with a higher preference for disjunctive events will be much more likely to be fast-developing. A natural orientation towards hierarchical organization also allows for more complex social organization than an egalitarian orientation.

    More things could be listed, but these examples should make clear that men are at a considerable advantage when it comes to the formation of power and larger and more complex human societal structures.

    The leadership skills that TCP discusses are primarily the leadership skills for small consensus-driven groups without direct expose to external conflict. Women are good in such small and more intimate groups, where their strengths really come into their own. Both Old and New Testament presents women as the main actors in running the household economy (which was significantly larger than what we now understand by that), where this sort of leadership is important (women’s gifting in this sort of leadership is also seen in women’s gifting in the realm of small business). However, male leadership predominated and predominates in the realm of wider social relations, broader institutional and political leadership, dealing with external conflict, and cultural development.

    • I agree that the model of leadership used is flawed, but disagree about men making inherently better leaders. Women haven’t matched men’s historical achievements because, until comparatively recently, they were excluded from education, the professions, and government. They never got the chance.

      The legacy of patriarchy casts a long shadow. Despite legal barriers falling, it’ll take time to overcome the socialization that went with them. Open evangelicals need to match their passion for formal equality with equal passion for overturning gender stereotypes.

      • Education, the professions, government, and other such things weren’t there at the beginning, nor did they drop down from the sky like manna to be distributed among the population. Someone had to establish them. Women could be and were excluded from such realms largely because men were the ones that created and forged them. Men established the power with which women were not sufficiently empowered (the difference between the capacity to exert and establish power and the state of being empowered is well worth reflecting upon here). The question is, why were and are male groups so much more effective at power creation, even when physical force isn’t involved?

        And, frankly, so much of the talk about ‘overturning gender stereotypes’ is codswallop, a determined war against noticing the very real differences between men and women as groups and a profound failure in and neglect of our task of knowing ourselves. Sure there are plenty of both overlaps and exceptions (and we can happily recognize both), but there are very pronounced differences on average and even more so at the extremes.

        What we really should be pursuing is an honouring and flourishing of women and men in their real and significant differences from each other and a practising of our differing strengths for the sake of each other. We should not become fixated upon the mirage of a society where these differences are rendered inoperative.

        • Men came to dominate ’cause they have, on average, 40% more upper body strength than women, and in early societies, might makes right. This no longer applies.

          As for stereotypes, my only agenda is to see each person freed from the chains of prejudice and assumption, enabled to fulfil their potential.

          • James it does seem rather bizarre that you limit the explanation of men’s differences to the size of their muscles only. We’ve been in a culture in the West for hundreds of years now where physical strength is not the most important issue.

            The psychological and intellectual differences that Alastair lists are the far more significant in a developed culture; there is good evidence of difference between men and women in these areas; and Alastair offers a clear explanation of why they matter in contexts of leadership.

            To disagree with him you will need to demonstrate
            a. that these are not typical mail traits, or
            b. that these traits make no contribution to leadership
            or both—but I think you will have a hard time doing either.

            The issue I raise is that these traits are not valued much in current discussion, and as Richard Briggs points out, men need to see some positive affirmation that these things are valued and can be deployed in a positive way.

          • Ian, Alastair disagrees strongly with your position that women make better leaders, so even if you’re right about gender differences, that’s not the primary issue here.

            But to address it, Alastair offers no evidence for his claims, and the claimant bears the burden. As a show of good faith, however, this study found women to be more aggressive than men!

            Physical strength’s been of decreasing importance since the industrial revolution, but as I said, patriarchy casts a long shadow. To claim that women were first subjugated because men are inherently better would serve to justify patriarchy. It can be argued, but how’s it compatible with formal gender equality, and particularly, women in church leadership?

          • “We’ve been in a culture in the West for hundreds of years now where physical strength is not the most important issue.”

            Where is physical strength less important than in a university? And yet where are women most likely to be raped?

            Too many men still hear a woman’s “No” as a challenge to be overcome w/ violent phyisical FORCE.

          • Interesting! I read about a piece of research done, looking at the heights of people in different roles. Apparently, how high up you get in an organisation correlates closely (I don’t remember how closely I’m afraid) with your height, whichever sex you are. The research suggested that the differences between men and women (in terms of how far they are able to get in leadership ) can all be explained by height… most women are at a disadvantage straight away. Poor us! Can’t do much about that apart from uncomfy high heels!

  5. I don’t think James’s point about physical strength is irrelevant. I recommend you watch the Suffragette film released next month: instructive in what happened to women when they tried to use force to secure the vote.

    “We’ve been in a culture in the West for hundreds of years now where physical strength is not the most important issue.”

    On average, 2 women a week are killed by a current or former male partner.

  6. I have to say, not normally a commenter on this blog, but couldn’t resist.

    Alastair’s refusal to acknowledge even the possibility that men might just have deliberately subjugated and repressed women while rising to the top of every realm is frankly bizarre. Does he really believe in some kind of perfectly Darwinian society where those who rise to the top of education/business/commerce/politics do so purely because they are best suited? Can he truly believe that the fact that in virtually every society in every century on every continent men came to dominate has nothing to do with an inherent and profoundly sinful capacity within men to disempower women? Does he think that no woman ever had the idea to start a school or a parliament or a business, but was prevented from doing so by deeply and oppressively patriarchal cultures that insisted women stick to the home? Of course men established these things – because they largely refused to allow women to get involved! What world is he living in?!

    We can argue about gender differences and whether men might be generally more suited to certain roles in society or not. Fine. But to pretend that the 10,000-year ascent of man is purely down to such differences and has nothing to do with sexist oppression of women by men is at best embarrassingly ignorant.

    • Tim, thanks for commenting. Alastair can defend himself—but I think we need to separate two issues: have men has disproportionate influence because they have oppressed women? and Is this oppression the only explanation for why men have had a dominant influence in leadership?

      You want to say Yes to the first; Alastair wants to say No to the second. I think I want to agree with both of you…

      • Hi Ian. Thanks for reply.

        I guess I agree – there is a legitimate discussion to be had about whether men are naturally better suited to some kinds of leadership than women. Personally, I am reluctant to agree with such an idea, although I might concede there are some general tendencies that men generally possess and women generally do not that could dovetail well with leadership.

        But what I am reacting so strongly to is the impression that patriarchal oppression is not part of this equation. We can dispute whether it is 50% sexism and 50% men’s natural leadership abilities that caused them to take over the world, or maybe it is 80% one and 20% of the other. What I could not believe is that Alastair didn’t address the indisputable fact of patriarchal oppression in his lengthy argument about why men have apparently deservedly risen to the top in every field imaginable.

        I would say it’s probably 90% oppression, but I would be willing to hear aguments why it’s nearer 50/50. But to fail to recognise oppression as at least one of many major factors in the rise of men is farcical, for me.

        Alastair asks a rhetorical question: “If women really are the more effective leaders, then why wasn’t it women who were at the forefront in the development of technology and science, medicine, the formation of institutions of learning, the establishment of political organization, conquest and exploration, religions, nations, trade routes, business, the establishment of infrastructures, etc., etc.?” The answer is blindingly, painfully, shamingly obvious. It is because men have repeatedly, sinfully refused to allow women to utilise their God-given potential and gifts. How can anyone in 2015 not anticipate that is at the very least part of the answer?

  7. James, Tim, and Mads

    A few points:

    1. I never denied that male oppression of women has played a role, and a significant one at that. My claim is rather that some form of male-dominated society is hard to avoid. The question is whether men are going to use their power to serve and empower women or to use it to oppress and subjugate them. Also, when men open up the power structures they have formed to women in various ways, women can generally realize a potential that they would not have otherwise. However, even when men serve and empower women in such a manner, they will remain the stronger sex and women the more vulnerable and dependent. It is this basic difference that is at issue here. Men have a potential for forging power structures that far exceeds women’s, but this potential can be used to enable women to achieve their potential or to stand in the way of it.

    2. Once again, the difference between power and empowerment should be attended to. Notice the prominence of claims of the form ‘[male-dominated organization] should do [something on behalf of women to empower them]’ in feminist discourse. So much of feminist progress consists of petitioning others to act on their behalf. In such situations, agency is implicitly and overwhelmingly situated with men. If and when women enjoy power in such a model, it is in large measure because male-driven groups have empowered and advanced them, not because they have forged their own power. Empowerment is the power enjoyed by people who are weaker and more dependent. This does not mean that it is not a good thing and that petitions for empowerment shouldn’t be made, but it does mean that it can’t do the same things that more independent power can do. The problem is that power tends to follow male groups around. An unwelcome corollary of this can be that the more women come into an organization, the weaker it can become. Societies where women are highly represented in leadership tend to fall into one of the following categories:

    a. Situations where women greatly outnumber men for some reason or other (e.g. churches where few men attend).
    b. Situations where one population is subjugated by another, ensuring weak ‘power’ structures (oppressive powers are often highly concerned to subdue, weaken, or eliminate the males of the societies that they dominate).
    c. Situations where power is concentrated in a central power, upon which other parties are made dependent. For instance, people often celebrate the female majority in Rwanda’s parliament, while forgetting to consider that, as in countries like Cuba, this may not be unrelated to the authoritarian character of the regime.
    d. Increasingly impotent institutions that retain the trappings of power, while lacking the substance.
    e. Situations from which power has migrated or is in the process of migrating to other institution (e.g. power moving from politics to business).
    f. Situations where power is steadily displaced to a hegemonic agency (personal or institutional) that actively disempowers any potential competition on any level and erodes mediating social structures.
    g. Situations where men are passive, disinterested, or where they habitually step back and let others take the lead (here again we must ask why and must also probe the significance of the word ‘let’).
    h. Undeveloped societies, where few if any wider political structures exist and where what ‘power’ is exercised exists in fairly intimate and immediate community networks.

    The state of being empowered—as dependent power—cannot substitute for a more direct and fundamental capacity for power. The more that it tries to do so, the more that it will be left with nothing and power will move elsewhere. This is something to keep in mind when considering Church leadership, where greater empowering of women through making them front line leaders may lead to the Church’s power vis-à-vis wider society being weakened to the detriment of us all. The stronger presentation of women in leadership is not the same thing as the stronger representation of women in leadership.

    3. When Ian says that there are two questions at issue here—‘have men had disproportionate influence because they have oppressed women?’ and ‘Is this oppression the only explanation for why men have had a dominant influence in leadership?’—I agree with him. Like him, I would answer these questions ‘yes’ and ‘no’. And I would suggest that the second question explains a lot, lot more of the difference than many seem to want to admit. I believe that male dominance has been extremely cruel and oppressive to women historically and into the present day, very much in line with the judgment after the Fall. This is not a good thing, and Christians have a responsibility to forge a society that honours and empowers women. However, Scripture also teaches us that women are the weaker—not ‘lesser’—vessel: if we are to honour women, we must do so in a way that takes reality into account. This may involve men continuing to be far more present than women in positions of leadership and social power, but using their power for the sake of women.

    4. Our sense of leadership is shaped by some very basic natural instincts, instincts that we cannot easily wish away. We react to bodies. Deeper voices register as more authoritative, not because we are sexist, but because we are embodied creatures who respond to bodies and their features. Greater height is associated with social power and status. Physical strength, weight, hardness of features, toughness of skin, etc. are all factors in creating a sense of dominance. The expansive and commanding body language that comes naturally to certain body types has to be studied by those who lack them. Men generally have a healthy natural instinct to protect women as vulnerable. In conflict situations of any kind, men more typically and instinctively tend to relate to women more as non-combatants to be protected than as combatants who they can treat with the roughness with which we treat other men. Women have more neotenic physical traits (traits associated with children), while men have more physical traits that signal age and mature strength and the authority that is associated with those things (deeper voices, less delicate features, hairier bodies and facial hair, stronger brow ridges, larger body size, tougher skeletons, rougher skin, smaller tear ducts, etc.). People naturally react to neotenic, childlike traits with the urge to protect, but associate less neotenic traits with independence and authority. Purely as a result of their bodies, men will generally be more naturally be perceived as leaders: we are beings who respond to physical markers of strength, toughness, and age.

    5. Male violence is a factor. One of the sexes can generally fairly easily kill the other with its bare hands and that does affect things. For instance, while the study that James links to about women being more aggressive than men in their intimate relationships cuts against the narrative of domestic violence as a male phenomenon, we focus on male domestic violence with very good reason: male violence poses a level of threat to bodies and lives that female violence seldom can. This said, violence isn’t a pronounced factor in many other forms of male power. The most powerful men in society are seldom the strongest physically and physically strong and violent men are primarily the ‘grunts’ of society. They are the ones who build our houses, roads, and cities, who collect our bins, who transport our resources, who grow or fish for our food, who chop our trees, who construct and operate our machinery, who fight our wars, and who overwhelmingly populate our prisons. Physically strong men are typically treated as the most disposable persons in society. The men who dominate, by contrast, dominate more because of the male capacity for social dominance, not physical dominance. Socially dominant men overwhelmingly build our institutions and power structures and physically dominant men overwhelmingly serve socially dominant men in building the infrastructures for these.

    6. On James’ study about women being more aggressive in intimate relationships, there are a number of things to take into account. First, agonism is not the same as antagonism. Antagonism is a negative dynamic of opposition between enemies. Agonism is a positive dynamic of opposition between opponents (like political debate, competing sports teams, sparring partners, etc.). We are engaged in an agonistic relationship in these comments. We are not, I hope, engaged in an antagonistic relationship. Agonistic relationships occur between friends all of the time. We test the strengths and weaknesses of each other’s positions, we bond through competition and the exploration of the limits of our capacities together, we engage in friendly teasing, etc. Men naturally enjoy and practice agonistic relationships much more than women, who are more likely than men to perceive such relationships as threatening and antagonistic. Second, the presence of aggressive behaviour in intimate relation is a dysfunction, not a natural and healthy form of relation. By contrast, agonistic dynamics are a healthy and natural feature of many male relationships, to a higher degree than of women’s. Third, women may be more prone to violence in intimate relationships, but men are more prone to violence in non-intimate relationships. This, I suspect, has much to do with men’s greater social orientation to and investment in broader and non-intimate relations. Men seem to have a relatively higher existential need for status and respect, which makes them more prone to violence where this is denied them or attacked, primarily in the broader social realm. Women seem to have a relatively higher existential need for belonging and love, which makes them more prone to violence in contexts where this is denied them or attacked, primarily in the realm of intimate relations.

    7. There is something seriously wrong when we rely so heavily upon the social sciences for our understanding of human nature that we can deny truths that should be fairly obvious to us or affirm things that run against all common sense. The social sciences view humanity from the outside. However, we are human beings and should be able to develop a deep affinity and acquaintance with humanity from the inside. This is a process of attentiveness and noticing. Unfortunately, as the results of such attentiveness and noticing are frequently not friendly to prevailing dogmas, people can prefer social science results that fly in the face of logic and experience. For instance, the claim that women are more natural leaders really should instantly raise questions when considered in light of the course that the development of human societies has taken virtually everywhere. This doesn’t mean that the claim is altogether without substance, just that, when properly qualified, it doesn’t actually clearly support the prevailing egalitarian dogmas after all. What it does support is the claim that women have tendencies that confer advantages to groups (and sometimes also to themselves) in specific circumstances. It might explain why committees with a greater number of women on outperform those with fewer, while top leaders will still tend to be male. Likewise, the claim that women are actually the more aggressive sex, while seeming an attractive punch in the eye of patriarchal gender essentialism, actually turns out to be nothing of the kind. Rather than just questioning such individual studies, we should question our posture to the social sciences in general.

    8. The statements I have made have been primarily informed by close attention to human behaviour and psychology, because I believe that this is the generally the best way to understand human beings, especially as individuals and smaller groups (very large groups like electorates are more unpredictable and the social sciences confer more of an advantage to our understanding here). I do not deny the value of the social sciences, however, and I pay close attention to them too. Carefully handled and interpreted, their results can be quite informative. Here are a few results that should be grist for the mill, for starters:

    a. Sex differences in personality are much greater than commonly thought. While most studies focus on a single metric of personality (where differences tend to be minor), when we take all of the differences into account and study differences between global personalities, the differences are much, much greater. The study suggests that men are far more dominant, reserved, utilitarian, vigilant, rule-conscious, and emotionally stable, while women are more deferential, warm, trusting, sensitive, and emotionally reactive. Frankly, none of these findings should come as a surprise to anyone.
    b. There is a huge confidence gap between men and women.
    c. Men have greater phenotypic variability than women and are more likely to be outliers, on a wide range of traits. This theory is commonly explained by reference to men only possessing a single X chromosome, leading to a greater potential for recessive traits to be expressed (see also de Moivre’s equation). According to this theory (and much research), the most intelligent and gifted people in many areas, for instance, will overwhelmingly tend to be male. As the most powerful people in society are often exceptional people, this is important to take into account.
    d. Male and female personality tend to operate differently, not just as a result of innate tendencies, but also as a result of conformity to norms, a process that can often be accentuated by socialization in mixed contexts, where the urge to differentiate leads to an excessive polarization of traits. Here I would suggest that it would be helpful to study the relative strength and nature of the centripetal force of conformity within male and female groups. I am fairly certain that it would turn out that male groups allow for much more variation on many key metrics as part of the natural operation of their groups (more and stronger variations in opposing values and beliefs, for instance, because of our greater preference for agonistic relations). It is also worth noticing that the women who can play by less accommodating male rules within male-oriented organizations will tend to achieve higher results than women who advance in more egalitarian organizations that make accommodations across the board for women’s life-work balance, etc. Men and their groups are most equipped to form new power structures and powerful organizations and the most powerful women tend to be those who are most comfortable playing a game that skews strongly in men’s direction. The most powerful women are generally those who get into this process at the ground floor, playing a male game, then receiving accommodations as a reward and means to retain proven talent.
    e. A glass ceiling upon communal oriented people applies to both men and women. Agentic people naturally rise in organizations and agentic traits are more valued at the top than at the bottom.

    In conclusion, for those who want to explain the development of male-dominated societies overwhelmingly in terms of male oppression of women, I would suggest that you should attend to the dynamics of power-creation and the differing tendencies of males and females and their respective groups. Blaming most differences in outcomes on male oppression sets up society for a costly, futile, and potentially damaging quest to negate natural differences. It sets women up for resentment and renders their value contingent upon their capacity to play male-oriented games as well as men. It frames the relationship between the sexes in an overly antagonistic fashion. It holds men back from playing to their strengths and stigmatizes them for excelling. It fails to address some of the more basic injustices in the failure of men and male-dominated societies to recognize and honour women as women.

    • Like Ian, I appreciate the work you put into that 2,500 word essay, Alastair, although there’s a lot to get through in one sitting. To address your main points:-

      * I agree that aggression isn’t adversarialism, but, in requiring disciplined thinking, restraint, and rhetorical skills, the latter’s a learned behavior. It’s possible that men, on average, find it easier to learn, but I’ve not seen compelling evidence for that. Even if it’s so, it’s just a question of altering teaching methods

      * In accepting that physical strength isn’t determinative of power in civilized society (as Thomas Hobbes noted with illuminating bluntness, since we must all sleep, the weakest can kill the strongest), you set aside the greatest demonstrable difference (again on average) between the genders

      * Even accepting, arguendo, you claim about men establishing power networks, as shown by the Nordic countries, now they exist, gender’s no barrier, and given the rude health of those nations, not indicative of decline

      * The social sciences are far from perfect, but subjective judgment and “common sense,” in failing to control for biases and assumptions, are very much less so

      Once again, thanks for fleshing out your views at such length, and clarifying some important points. I’m glad that, even if we disagree on gender roles, we can at least agree on the pervasiveness and negative impact that inequality’s had, and continues to have.

      • James,

        To your points:

        1. The key issue here is the orientation of preference. I am sure that many women could be very effective in agonistic relations. However, they don’t show the same preference for them as men. Watch young children at play and you will often already see such preferences at work. The boys who like play-fighting relate agonistically naturally because they want to. They don’t have to be taught to do so. Women are less likely to have the same high natural preference for agonistic relations.
        2. The most immediately obvious difference between the sexes is hardly the only difference between the sexes and really doesn’t explain matters when you look more closely. Why aren’t we ruled by the physically strongest men? Why aren’t the physically strongest men and the men with the highest levels of aggression most highly represented at the top of society (indeed, why are they often most overly represented in some of the most menial positions in society)? Male social dominance outperforms male physical dominance nine times out of ten. This doesn’t mean that I dismiss it. I just think that it is a convenient scapegoat for those who want to frame patriarchy as violent oppression.
        3. The Nordic countries definitely haven’t solved this.
        4. Wise and principled subjective judgment can definitely occur in a manner that addresses biases and question assumptions. Considering that the last few weeks have witnessed an extremely damaging verdict on replicability in the social sciences and a fairly damning report on social science’s capacity to attend to the range of voices necessary to question its own assumptions and biases (see also Christian Smith’s recent book on American sociology), I’m not convinced that social science is especially reliable. Besides, social science’s focus upon W.E.I.R.D. subjects (sometimes the difference between anthropology and sociology seems to be that the latter is performed on Western subjects and prefers a methodology founded upon quantification) produces research with supposedly universal application that is often far from widely applicable. By contrast, the person with deep attentiveness to human nature may find that their insight travels a lot better. Even were social science more reliable, though, I would still make my point: if we want to understand the dynamics of human nature, we have much more to learn from an acutely observant novelist than from a social scientist. Our cultural addiction to the social sciences has weakened our moral discourse too. Besides, on top of everything else, the situation is made so much worse by the ineptitude of the media in reporting the findings of the social sciences, the public’s generally devastating illiteracy in statistics, and their inability to act as good critical interpreters, recognizing how the framing and assumptions of studies shapes their findings. The result is that the public is often unwittingly fed regurgitated ideology coated with the validating patina of Objective Science.

        I can strongly agree that the suppression of women and the failure to empower them has had a very negative impact. That said, I think the notion of ‘inequality’ is a very unhelpful one here. As Peter Westen once argued, ‘equality’ is an empty formal concept, meaning little more than like cases should be treated alike and unlike should not. Of course, in many respects, it is not at all clear than men and women really are equal. Added to this, equality of opportunity is fairly incoherent and unrealistic. Equality of outcome has problems all of its own. The incoherence and vagueness of the concept of equality allows for a host of unhelpful assumptions to get smuggled into our thinking and public discourse. I think James K.A. Smith is right to take aim at the concept of (in)equality as it functions within our public discourse (in the summer edition of Comment magazine), arguing that the real issue seems to lie in a loss of fraternity, a loss of a sense of the peculiar duty of those with power and privilege to serve the weaker, poorer, and more dependent among us, a loss of the sense that every individual must be invested in society and society must be invested in every individual. Also, as John Milbank observed in his recent article on Corbyn, a liberal discourse of individual rights (in which context equality appears) often substitutes for a far more accurate and appropriate discourse on the social aspiration towards the just and generous distribution of goods established through the operations of the various parts of society in its mutual pact.

        So, no, I am not opposed to inequality in principle. I see good reason why men do and should continue to dominate in positions of power (albeit in more responsible and just ways). More importantly, I believe that such an inequality can be good—far better than a forced equality would be—and that it can be good for women. When people play to their greater strengths for the good of all within society, all within society can benefit.

        • Equality is simply judging people on what they do, not by who they are, which can manifest both formally and informally. Unless you’re proposing that women be discriminated against on the basis of their gender, Alastair, you don’t disagree with this. If you don’t want half the human race to be excluded from positions of power, what do you want?

          Equality is wholly compatible with unequal gender balances, just as equality of opportunity is, contra the false choice in the article you linked, wholly compatible with a society without poverty. So long as some fields and resources are restricted, there won’t be equality of outcome; we can but make the playing field as fair as possible.

          If you don’t want to accept the social sciences, you can look to the hard sciences, which have yet to establish the gender differences you claim exist; just as you can look to the Nordic legislatures, or to the backbiting that often takes the place of physical aggression amongst girls, quite possibly due to socialization. There may be psychological differences in gender, or may not, but what we can be sure of is, if they exist, they’re a lot more complex, and with many more exceptions, than your appear to suggest.

  8. What a relief to FINALLY read something sensible about all this – things I’ve been thinking for many years but which nobody else wanted to consider. Thank you!

  9. Can he truly believe that the fact that in virtually every society in every century on every continent men came to dominate has nothing to do with an inherent and profoundly sinful capacity within men to disempower women?

    If this is the main explanation for power differentials between the sexes, what is missing is always some persuasive account of exactly how men are and were able to get into this dominant position absolutely everywhere. As one of my reactionary Catholic friends put it, “Frankly, dominating a whole other sex sounds like a lot of work.”

    • Don’t have time to go into detail on Alastair’s response, but on this point I would merely note that it is only men who are blind to their position of authority and power who find it inconceivable to conceive of deep-rooted and systemic sexism. Go ask any woman anywhere just how it is possible for men to have dominated their society and they’ll have an answer, I promise you. Of course we as individual men don’t see ourselves as propagating patriarchal oppression, who does? But it only takes a modicum of historical inquiry to figure out how men constructed cultures and societies in which women found it very hard to get to the top.

      If you want concrete examples, here are a handful literally off the top of my head:

      Denying women both the vote and the right to stand as political candidates.
      Denying women education, at either secondary or degree level (which then meant women could not rise up the ranks in a profession or career which involved authority, e.g. finance or law).
      Upholding a social ethic in which it was deemed unfeminine for women to take part in the public realm or do much outside of the home.
      Constructing a legal system in which women’s testimony counted for less than men’s, or not at all.
      Creating a financial/banking system in which women had less financial autonomy or ability to use money then men.
      Upholding a culture in which women must marry very young to men much older than themselves.

      I could go on but I think I have made my point…

      • I can only note how utterly parochial this response is. It is certainly not an account of how things came to be this way everywhere. Notably, it doesn’t have much to do with the origins of this at all.

        Some of us require more than bluster and handwaving.

  10. Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

    I certainly would agree that there are fundamental differences between men and women.

    What I question, I suppose, is your emphasis on “truths that should be fairly obvious to us”. We are all a product of a certain environment and experience. Your outlook on the world (similarly mine) is unique to you, and what might appear to be obvious and self-evident to you, might not, of course, be objectively true. I do find it somewhat convenient that what appears to you to be “obvious” also happens to validate your own position of power. That doesn’t render it wrong, of course. But history would suggest that the argument that something is “natural” (or “unnatural”) has been misused terribly by those in a position of power who sought to oppress others. Marriage between different races for example.

    I also feel, as a woman, that you leave us in something of a bind! Power is not ours. We are the “weaker vessel” you quote, and so will struggle to seize it (I’ve just been looking at the history of the Suffragettes and what happened when women used force). But you argue there are dangerous consequences to it being granted to us. I’m not sure where that leaves us. Beyond accepting your thesis. It sort of seems to go round in a circle that always winds back at confirming what you believe to be “obvious”.

    I haven’t got time to look at all your links, though well done on sourcing them all, but just on the point of women in leadership, I think you have to be wary of confusing correlation with causation (your point on women in Cuba). Studies suggest that boards with more women on them tend to perform better. I think it’s too soon to say that there is causation there. But the same would be true if having more women bishops coincided with a decline in numbers, for example. Correlation does not equal causation. But I feel slightly worried that you would cite “obvious truths” to argue such a case.

    I am on board with talk of improving leadership in the Church, but I do think the Bible would suggest that our earthly ideas of leadership and what is “natural” might not necessarily be right. The response to physical strength, a lower voice etc. My understanding of the Bible is that Jesus rather subverted this idea and sought to serve.

  11. Apologies if anyone has already pointed this out – but misandry doesn’t (yet) exist! There may be individual females who ‘hate’ or make judgements against men, but misandry is NOT operating as a societal force that subjugates and marginalises men. Men do not face large-scale entrenched oppression because of their gender.

    This then makes it invalid to turn arguments on their head in terms of “what about humble men? Should we not be concerned that they, too, are overlooked? Secondly, is it not possible for showy women to be promoted past their level of competence?”. There may come a day when these things should be addressed, but we’re a long way from it yet!


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