This post originally appeared on APEsphere on January 7, 2010 at this URL.
In a recent article, “Womenomics: Feminist management theorists are flirting with some dangerous arguments,” The Economist takes a position on an age-old feminist debate: are women the same as men (and therefore equal) or are women different from men (implying that men and women are unequal)? Since at least the early 1980s, feminist scholars have recognized that this debate is a trap because it makes men the measure of all things. If women have to be the same to be equal, then they must live up to a male standard that doesn’t fit their experience (especially if that standard includes a stay-at-home spouse and no childcare responsibilities). If women claim to be different, then difference can be used to justify inequality. But The Economist comes out firmly on the side of preferring the sameness argument: women should be tough and manly in order to compete with men on their own turf.
To be fair, The Economist makes some very valid points, especially in light of the simplest version of the difference argument. Claims about women being wired differently than men, even from self-described feminists, emphasize stereotypical gender differences and undermine the goal of creating equality. The hard-wired claim ignores the fact that gender differences in brain structures are minimal at birth and then respond to external input, so that stereotypical gender behaviours are learned and vary cross-culturally. The Economist makes a valid point in stating that “arguments about the innate differences between men and women are sloppy and counterproductive.” They also rightly point out that variation within subgroups, in this case men and women, is usually bigger than the difference between them. This means that, while it may be true that risk-taking and bare-knuckle competition can lead to disasters like the recent financial crisis, one should expect women in the financial industry to share these traits with men who have similar experiences, situations, and incentives.
But on other points The Economist is confusing the issues. The article seems to want to maintain a male standard by arguing that women should get tough and compete with men by being more stereotypically manly. It claims that first generations of successful women, like Margaret Thatcher or Hilary Clinton, “insisted on being judged by the same standards as men” and “on getting ahead by dint of working harder and thinking smarter.” But why should women have to be manlier than men to fulfil their potential? When I interviewed women and men who worked on Wall Street in the 1990s for my book, I found that some women were able to be successful on men’s terms, especially if they had powerful mentors, but that women who moved up were also held to double standards: expected to be tough, competitive, aggressive workaholics on one hand, and yet to be nice, nurturing, kind, and family-oriented because they were women. It is, of course, impossible for anyone to fulfil these expectations simultaneously. The Economist prefers to ignore the huge body of research that finds that women are subject to higher standards than men, which means that men receive more opportunities to perform and higher evaluations for the same performance as otherwise similar women. As a result, average men have an advantage over above-average women. In fact, those pioneering women who succeeded by men’s rules had to be beyond extraordinary in order to compete successfully with mediocre men. That is hardly a level playing-field for establishing a meritocracy. (I have made similar observations in previous blogs.)
The Economist’s efforts to assert the benefits of a sameness approach for creating “old-fashioned meritocracy” in business is particularly critical of Avivah Wittenberg-Cox and Alison Maitland’s arguments in Why Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution. Admittedly, the book does engage in some “difference” arguments that claim that women and men have different but complementary strengths and that organizations need to recognize men and women as both equal and different – arguments that could come straight from the 19th Century First Wave of feminism. But The Economist’s homage to Second Wave principles of treating women the same as men (with the exception of recognizing women’s greater role in raising children) wants to ignore or negate the wealth of literature on gender and organisations that has developed since at least 1990. Scholars like Joan Acker began arguing at that time that organisations assume heterosexual male career patterns, which involve no reproductive events, no childcare responsibilities, and ideally a spouse who can take care of all non-work aspects of life. (Obviously this ideal does not even fit most men in the 21st Century.) This ideal worker norm and other assumptions about which traits are necessary for success in business are based on custom rather than efficiency, and establish particular subgroups of men as the standard against which all others are judged – simply because these men created the rules and standards. The feminist argument is not that organisations should promote women in general, but that women may have something valuable to offer that has previously been overlooked because the criteria for success have heretofore been based on traditions that privileged groups of men created in their own image. As Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland argue, if organisations do not appreciate or nurture women’s skills and experiences because of obsolete standards and traditions then the loser is the organisation. Wittenberg-Cox and Maitland are simply making a business case for diversifying the standards for success: women represent the majority of consumers and of available talent, so organisational success depends on marketing to women and tapping women’s potential as employees. For that reason, feminist scholars who aim to transform the workplace to become more gender-balanced and accommodating of women’s experiences and skills are correct about the need to audit the entire building for “gender asbestos.” Sexism is built into corporate structures and processes in ways that prevent meritocracy from being achieved through any efforts toward “gender-blind” treatment. This leads to a need to broaden the criteria for success so that individuals who demonstrate skills and insights that are useful to their organisations’ bottom lines, whether they are women or men, can earn success in business.