…I believe in equality” the student stated in her introduction, “Men and women are just different.”
It’s no secret that feminism’s relevance today is up for debate, especially on social media (number #1 rule – never try to argue with people on Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!). On one end of the spectrum there is the increasingly popular ‘Women Against Feminism’ fringe (this is the 3rd most popular webpage to pop-up if you search the term ‘feminism’ in Google!), and on the other, well-spoken young people like Emma Watson calling for women and men to re-embrace feminism and the core ambition behind it – ending gender inequality. [Note: For Watson, feminism is the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities. It is the theory of the political, economic and social equality of the sexes.]
While my thesis isn’t specifically about feminism per say, I don’t want to ignore the ways ‘feminist’ ideas and the negative (and occasionally positive) popular perceptions of the term ‘feminism’ have informed and shaped my own position in relation to ‘women’s leadership.’ I'd currently label myself as a 'middle-of-the-road' (as opposed to 'extremist' or 'radical') liberal feminist who believes that women are entitled to full legal and social equality with men, and that given equal environments and opportunities, males and females will behave similarly (Crawford, 2012). I realise that my ideological position (because at the end of the day, feminism is still an ideology, a way of looking at the world, even an extremist position for some people) will directly influence how I frame my arguments on women’s leadership in my thesis. Of course this is an overly simplistic definition of ‘feminism’ (what about LGBTQ issues, reproductive rights, culture and race, etc..? you may ask), however, I don’t think there is any need to become fixated on the details at this point (it is enough to know they exist!).
Unfortunately, in some (not all) of my social circles, there is more than a hint of resentment, scepticism, and perhaps even anger, when I bring up feminism in an everyday social context. Men and women alike seem to be equally suspicious of feminism’s relevance in today’s ‘post-everything’ society. Take the following comments I’ve personally encountered [I must admit that sometimes I intentionally provoke these responses by asking friends and family challenging (perhaps intentionally subversive, but no less valid) questions about feminism and male/female differences!]:
· “We’re born different. You can’t change nature.”
· “But we’re already equal! Feminism isn’t important or relevant anymore. I don’t need it.”
· “Don’t feminists all burn their bras or something? Are you wearing a bra?”
· “Oh, you’re not one of them are you? You’ll grow out of it by the time you get to my age.”
· “But I love men! Feminism is all about superiority, it de-masculinises men and undermines them.”
· “Ugh, don’t get all feminist on me.”
· “Women’s brains are so much different than our brains – you have all these connections happening all the time, it’s crazy in there. But us guys, we can compartmentalise, we have a ‘nothing box.’”
· “Women and men have distinct roles and gifts. We’re just naturally better at different things.”
Similarly, when it comes to women, leadership and gender inequality as a topic of discussion at university [based on the most recent sample of undergraduate essays I have read], many business students are quick to jump to the conclusion that since men are (perceived as) ‘masculine’ and women are (perceived as) ‘feminine,’ they must lead differently. While some concluded that women make better leaders (based on the belief that women are more ‘transformational’ and ‘relational’ than men), others railed against their manipulative, conniving female bosses.
Fragments + Pieces
The most important takeaway for me from these examples is the identification of a default or subconscious assumption - that essential differences just are. These are biologically determined, divinely gifted, unchanging differences – Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus. End of story.
This is what sociologist Michael Kimmel [check out Kimmel's awesome TED Talk here] calls the “interplanetary theory of gender.” It is the popular and, in most cases, subconscious assumption that “the differences between women and men are far greater and more decisive than the differences that might be observed among men or among women” (Kimmel, 2013, p. 4). Whether we subscribe to the nature or nurture argument, we continue to see women and men as markedly different from each other – “truly, deeply, and irreversibly different” – rather than considering the human characteristics both biological sexes have in common (Kimmel, 2013, p. 4). And, unfortunately, it is these claims about fundamental sex differences, which can be framed as 'communal' (feminine) and 'agentic' (masculine), that have often been used (especially in the not too distant past) to justify keeping women in their place (Crawford, 2012).
I appreciate, having thought like this myself, that there is a certain comfort or sense of security in having established and clear parameters by which we know ourselves and others within a safe dichotomy of oppositions, as either male or female, leaders or followers, heroes or helpers. However, the problem with such binary oppositions is the tendency to automatically default to hierarchy and entitlement by privileging one term over the other. Boje (2001) points out that particular binaries have a propensity to exercise ‘power-over’ and dominate in many business and social contexts (in these examples, the left almost always dominates the right): “Central / Marginal, Male / Female, Organisation / Environment, Management / Labour, Capital / Labour, Faculty / Student, US (or the West) / Third World, Narrative / Story” (p. 25).
In terms of the male/female binary, Kimmel proposes what he terms a ‘radical’ idea: Gender difference is the product of gender inequality. Rather than male/female differences producing a natural hierarchical order, Kimmel claims that “in fact, gender difference is the chief outcome of gender inequality, because it is through the idea of difference that inequality is legitimated” (p. 4). Thus, gender differences are "the socially constructed product of a system that creates categories of difference and dominance” (Crawford, 2012, p. 120). Judith Butler, a feminist poststructuralist and author of Gender Trouble (2004), asks a similar question: Is subjection not the process by which regulations produce gender?:
Thus, a restrictive discourse on gender that insists on the binary of man and woman as the exclusive way to understand the gender field performs a regulatory operation of power that naturalises the hegemonic instance and forecloses the thinkability of its disruption. (p. 43)
Another point I want to touch on briefly is the way feminine and masculine traits are commonly framed as mutually exclusive. Again, people want to know themselves by what they are not – the more masculine (assertive, aggressive, competitive, etc…) you are, the less feminine (compassionate, emotional, nurturing) you will ‘naturally’ be, and vice versa. So we end up with ridiculous spectrums like this which, however ‘logical’ they might look, continue to reassert damaging traditional gender stereotypes:
Nicola Walter, author of Living Dolls: The Return to Sexism (2010), sums this up nicely: “The way that masculinity and femininity are now so often seen as mutually exclusive, so that the more masculine you are the less feminine you are, operates against women who seek power. Because in the eyes of those influenced by traditional stereotypes, a man seeking power enhances his masculinity, but a woman seeking power reduces her femininity. And this can be extremely negative for a woman who goes into politics [or business], as it makes her seem not quite human, as though she has given up something essential about herself” (Walter, 2010, p. 211). Obviously this perception/assumption has profound implications for women in leadership, creating a double bind (as Eagly & Carli, 2007, would say) which compels female leaders to walk a tightrope on the identity 'spectrum,' neither entirely losing their perceived inherent femininity (regardless of whether it is natural to an individual woman or not) nor being 'overly' emotional, feeling or nurturing (and thus, not assertive or strong enough to be taken seriously).
I realise this post is extremely fragmented, and I apologise for its ambiguous nature! This is a huge topic and difficult to dissemble and argue convincingly in one short blog post, but I felt that I had to lay out my current position and the ideas I’ve been struggling with and questioning before starting to fully flesh out a well-researched, theoretical argument. It’s refreshing to just play with different ideas and perspectives. And hey, you know what, my position might change as I learn more and consider different viewpoints, but I’m okay with that!
I think one of the most important things for me is to be careful not to frame everything negatively – yes, women face difficulties in the workplace, but it's not necessarily beneficial to constantly focus on the problems. I'd rather look upwards and outwards to what can be, opening up a discussion which is not only about women's disadvantage, but encourages 'new,' more inclusive ways of looking at, knowing, and practicing leadership.
And to clarify, unlike the confused student in the introduction - I am a Feminist, and I believe in gender equality! Women and women are different. Men and men are different. Women and men are different. But we're all human, and as such we should all have access to the FULL range of human emotions and characteristics (both masculine and feminine) regardless of biological sex.
New Books, More Books, Books EVERYWHERE!
More books ordered from Book Depository! I’m very excited about these ones as they are almost all new (published this year) and have fantastic reviews. The Gracekeepers is recommended by Ursula Le Guin herself. The Nightingale was voted Goodreads top historical novel of the year (over 57,000 votes). I know I’m slipping in one by a male author, but All the Light We Cannot See won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction 2015, and I want to keep on top of Pulitzer and Man Booker prize-winning novels whether or not they are appropriate for this project.
Boje, D. M. (2001). Narrative methods for organisational & communication research. London, UK: Sage Publications Ltd.
Butler, J. (2004). Undoing gender. Oxfordshire, UK: Routledge.
Crawford, M. (2012). Transformations: Women, gender, and psychology (2nd ed.). McGraw-Hill Education.
Kimmel, M. (2013). The gendered society (5th ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Walter, N. (2010). Living dolls: The return to sexism. London, UK: Virago Press.