Chris Dillow has been reflecting on gender and decision making. The piece, with its rather gratuitous photograph (watch this space for the Johnny Depp sequence illustrating my next unemployment analysis), implicitly questions whether female underrepresentation in senior posts is a problem – if there is no difference between men and women, then ‘it’s not obvious why a political leader’s gender should matter’.
This argument misses the point. If you believe that women and men are equally able to undertake particular jobs, it stands to reason that there is a huge problem with only 19.5% of political leaders being women: the best people cannot be in these posts as the skills of half of the population are not being fully utilised. Common sense, as well as research evidence, also tells us that diverse teams make more informed decisions – and you only have to look at the progress that has been made on family friendly rights by women in the House of Commons to understand that when those in power have a wider range of experience a broader set of concerns are highlighted (a point that applies to all equalities groups). Equal representation in politics helps to ensure that the needs and interest of our diverse population are taken into account.
There are other gripes I have with the post, including its simplistic summary of gender differences in behaviour and of the social, economic and family pressures that impact differently on the lives of women and men. For example, this study is described as concluding that ‘women are less good at negotiating’ when the actual literature reports that:
One reason why we see gender differences is that the world treats men and women differently. People have different expectations and reinforce different types of behavior by men and women… They perceived the women who attempted to negotiate as less nice and overly demanding… One of the unsatisfying, but motivating, pieces of the findings is that you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.
In unequal societies, the lives of both men and women are inevitably affected and limited by the social context. A current example of this pattern is provided by Professor Sylvia Walby, who has been looking at the impacts of the financial crisis by gender. These include a reduction in (already low) levels of female education in the developing world, reduced female employment in export-oriented industries and reduced access to health and social services. She quotes the World Bank’s analysis that:
While negative economic shocks are harmful to the infant mortality of both boys and girls, they are worse for girls: a one unit fall in GDP increases average infant mortality for girls by 7.4 and for boys by 1.5 deaths per thousand births. This is likely to increase the burdens on women more than men, since mothers are disproportionately the providers of health care in poor households.
Increasing female representation in leadership roles is a serious subject – essential both to ensure that society can benefit from the application of everyone’s skills (and that opportunities to realise skills and abilities are therefore more equally shared), and as a means to ensure that challenging entrenched gender inequalities remains on the political agenda.