Following 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.
Follow me on Twitter @psephizo
Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?