INTERNATIONAL: The Rise of Women

Friday, December 2, 2011
The Independent
PeaceWomen Consolidated Themes: 
General Women, Peace and Security

Their `century' shouldn't be perceived as the end of men

On Sept. 21 Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff became the first woman ever to give the opening speech at UN General Assembly session. She called this ‘the century of women'.

Barely a fortnight later, three women won the Nobel Peace Prize for 2011; Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, peace activist Leyma Gbowee from the same country and democracy activist Tawakkul Karman of Yemen — the first Arab woman to win the prize.

Women have made dramatic gains in electoral politics, winning high profile national leadership positions and seats in parliaments around the world.

There are presently 16 elected female Heads of State/Government, three appointed ones and one who came to power through a coup - Rosa Otunbayeva of Kyrgyzstan. About 40 women preside over the 187 existing Parliaments around the world, nine of them in Africa, Uganda, inclusive. Others are Rwanda, Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, Mozambique, Ghana and Gabon. Women are increasingly brighter, graduating, doing better economically.

In one of the most remarkable friction-free revolutions of the past 50 years millions of women who were once dependent on men have taken control of their own fates. Dramatic social change, that affects the most intimate aspects of people's identities, seldom takes such a benign form.

The rise of women cannot be explained as chance or a result of legislation. Since some of these women have made it in extremely patriarchal and gender insensitive societies, it begs the question: Is this the beginning of the end of men?

Changing roles, changing perceptions

Man has been the dominant sex since the dawn of mankind. But for the first time in human history, that is changing—and with shocking speed. Cultural and economic changes always reinforce each other. And the global economy is evolving in a way that is eroding the historical preference for male children. South Korea, for instance, constructed one of the most rigid patriarchal societies in the world. Many wives who failed to produce male heirs were abused and treated as domestic servants; some families prayed to spirits to kill off girl children.

Then, in the 1970s and '80s, the government embraced an industrial revolution and encouraged women to enter the labour force. Women moved to the city and went to college. They advanced rapidly, from industrial jobs to clerical jobs to professional work. Male preference in South Korea is over. The same shift is now beginning in other rapidly industrialising countries such as India and China.

In many societies, the gender preference and sex selection that has been unmistakably slanted against the girl child have changed. French feminist Simone de Beauvoir suggested that women so detested their own “feminine condition” that they regarded their newborn daughters with irritation and disgust. Now the centuries-old preference for sons is eroding—or even reversing. “Women of our generation want daughters precisely because we like who we are. And the era of the firstborn son is totally gone.”

Up to a point, the reasons behind this shift are obvious. As thinking and communicating have come to eclipse physical strength and stamina as the keys to economic success, those societies that take advantage of the talents of all their adults, not just half of them, have pulled away from the rest. And because geopolitics and global culture are ultimately Darwinian, other societies either follow suit or end up marginalised.

In 2006, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development devised the Gender, Institutions and Development Database, which measures the economic and political power of women in 162 countries. With few exceptions, the greater the power of women, the greater the country's economic success. Aid agencies have started to recognise this relationship and have pushed to institute political quotas in about 100 countries, essentially forcing women into power in an effort to improve those countries' fortunes.

Symbols of success

What if the modern, postindustrial economy is simply more congenial to women than to men? For a long time, evolutionary psychologists have claimed that we are all imprinted with adaptive imperatives from a distant past: men are faster and stronger and hardwired to fight for scarce resources, and that shows up now as a drive to win in business; women are programmed to find good providers and to care for their offspring, and that is manifested in more - nurturing and more-flexible behavior, ordaining them to domesticity. This kind of thinking frames our sense of the natural order. But what if men and women were fulfilling not biological imperatives but social roles, based on what was more efficient throughout a long era of human history? What if that era has now come to an end? More to the point, what if the economics of the new era are better suited to women?

The post-industrial economy is indifferent to men's size and strength. The attributes that are most valuable today—social intelligence, open communication, the ability to sit still and focus—are, at a minimum, not predominantly male. In fact, the opposite may be true. Women in poor parts of India are learning English faster than men to meet the demands of new global call centers. Women own more than 40 percent of private businesses in China. In most of rural Africa, women have taken over as the bread-winners for their households.

The role reversal that's under way between men and women shows up most obviously and painfully in the working class. The list of growing jobs is heavy on nurturing professions, in which women, ironically, seem to benefit from old stereotypes and habits. Theoretically, there is no reason men should not be qualified. But they have proved remarkably unable to adapt. Many professions, such as nursing and teaching, that started out as the province of men are now filled mostly with women. Men have shied away from some careers women have entered.

Style matters

The economic and cultural power shift from men to women would be hugely significant even if it never extended beyond the working-class. But women are also starting to dominate middle management, and a surprising number of professional careers as well. Women now hold an admirably high percentage of managerial and professional jobs. In Uganda they hold more than half of all banking and insurance jobs. About a third of world's physicians are now women, as are a large percentage of associates in law firms around the world—and both those percentages are rising fast. A white-collar economy values raw intellectual horsepower, which men and women have in equal amounts. It also requires communication skills and social intelligence, areas in which women, according to many studies, have a slight edge. Just about the only professions in which women still make up a relatively small minority of newly minted workers are engineering and those calling on a hard-science background, and even in those areas, women have made strong gains.

Near the top of the jobs pyramid, of course, the upward march of women stalls. Prominent female CEOs, past and present, are so rare that they count as minor celebrities.

Women are knocking on the door of leadership at the very moment when their talents are especially well matched with the requirements of the day. But what are these talents? Once it was thought that leaders should be aggressive and competitive, and that men are naturally more of both. But psychological research has complicated this picture. In lab studies that simulate negotiations, men and women are just about equally assertive and competitive, with slight variations. Men tend to assert themselves in a controlling manner, while women tend to take into account the rights of others, but both styles are equally effective, write the psychologists Alice Eagly and Linda Carli, in their 2007 book, Through the Labyrinth.

Success factors

Over the years, researchers have sometimes exaggerated these differences and described the particular talents of women in crude gender stereotypes: women as more empathetic, as better consensus-seekers and better lateral thinkers; women as bringing a superior moral sensibility to bear on a cutthroat business world. In the 1990s, this field of feminist business theory seemed to be forcing the point. But after the latest financial crisis, these ideas have more resonance. Researchers have started looking into the relationship between testosterone and excessive risk, and wondering if groups of men, in some basic hormonal way, spur each other to make reckless decisions. The picture emerging is a mirror image of the traditional gender map: men and markets on the side of the irrational and overemotional, and women on the side of the cool and levelheaded.

It is not yet known with certainty whether testosterone strongly influences business decision-making. But the perception of the ideal business leader is starting to shift. The old model of command and control, with one leader holding all the decision-making power, is considered hidebound. The new model is sometimes called “post-heroic,” or “transformational” in the words of the historian and leadership expert James MacGregor Burns. The aim is to behave like a good coach, and channel your charisma to motivate others to be hardworking and creative. The model is not explicitly defined as feminist, but it echoes literature about male-female differences.

A 2008 study on the top 1,500 U.S. companies from 1992 to 2006 found that firms that had women in top positions performed better. It could be that women boost corporate performance, or it could be that better-performing firms have the luxury of recruiting and keeping high-potential women. But the association is clear: innovative, successful firms are the ones that promote women.

The factors that contribute to the development of the next generation of women leaders can be gleaned from their experiences. Some of the characteristics of successful people, such as motivation, natural curiosity, courage, self-management, enjoying being stretched and rising to a challenge, personal will and fortitude, drive, and flexibility may be innate, but there is no doubt that these characteristics also need to be nurtured and encouraged.

There are five universal factors that, no matter where people are, where they are from, or what sector they are in, make a real difference in encouraging young women to reach success. Not particularly costly or demanding, they have proven to be very effective; basic skills, international exposure, mentoring, role models and early starts.

Demographically, we can see with absolute clarity that in the coming decades the middle class will be dominated by women. Look closer at the African rural woman; their land rights have expanded greatly, they are more involved in commerce and education, spend more time with their children and shape the future of our next generation and most significantly, they take crucial political decisions without much influence or choice from their male partners. They have truly made great strides in the right direction.

It is fabulous to see girls and young women poised for success in the coming years. But allowing generations of boys to grow up feeling rootless and obsolete is also not a recipe for a peaceful future. Women's rising power should not be perceived by men as a threat. It is not the end of men; it is just the rise of women.