I’ve gone through the reasons why, even though I am male, I still proudly call myself ‘feminist’. There is, to be sure, an additional motivation to push for equality that is rooted in guilt, but I find guilt to be a particularly poor reason to do anything. Be that as it may, it is still exceedingly tempting to simply move the goalposts and claim the win – to announce feminism as a job well done. After all, grading on a curve, Canada/USA is a pretty amazing place to be a woman. Women can hold high office, can drive in cars unescorted by male family members, can pursue higher education, can own property (rather than being property). When you think of the arc of history, or even just look around the world, there’s not a lot of better times/places to be female.
Of course, we don’t grade things like this on a curve, nor should we. The danger of evaluating ourselves based on things that are worse is that we begin to devalue the obstacles and problems still faced by women today. The fact that this is the best the human race has ever done for women, when considered in the context of the terrifying things women still experience here, should be a call to arms that work still must be done.
What we should be looking for, rather than simply arbitrarily announcing the mission accomplished, is a steady improvement towards equality on a variety of measures. Access to education, representation in political circles, and success in business:
The ratio of female senior executives at Fortune 500 companies declined this year, according to a new tally, suggesting women still have a long way to go in achieving gender equality in business. Women held 14.1 per cent of so-called C-suite positions this year, down slightly from 14.4 per cent last year, says the report released Wednesday by Catalyst, an international advocacy group for women in business.
Only three of the Fortune 500 companies — Thrivent Financial, manufacturer ITT and apparel maker Limited Brands — had at least half of their executive officer posts occupied by women. In comparison, 136 of America’s biggest companies, including corporate behemoths Apple, Citigroup and News Corp., had zero female executive officers [emphasis mine]. Oil giant Exxon Mobil, the No. 2 company on the Fortune 500, had no senior female execs despite maintaining one of the largest upper management staffs in the world, with 20 executive officers.
There are a few ways to interpret this stat, but none of them are good. The most optimistic interpretation is that this is simply a cohort effect, and that while women haven’t reached the board rooms yet, it’s only a matter of time before the old guard clears out. The most cynical interpretation is that as soon as corporate America/Canada got the chance to use an unsteady economy as a smokescreen, they began quietly divesting themselves of high-powered women. Neither interpretation really makes up for the fact that 136 out of the 500 largest companies in the country had no female executives whatsoever. Zero. Zilch. Nada.
The most frustrating thing about findings like this is that they’re like learning that your boss has decided to install Windows 95 on everyone’s computer because that’s what ze’s used to. By failing to increase diversity (never mind the fact that it actually decreased), we are hamstringing ourselves:
Catalyst says its research has shown time and again that having more women in the boardroom and in senior executive positions correlates with higher profitability and efficiency, but also better corporate ethics. A separate study the organization released Wednesday looked at three indicators of corporate performance at Fortune 500 companies between 2004 and 2008. Companies with the most female directors on their boards significantly outperformed those with the least on two of the three measures, and had no appreciable difference on the third.
A lot (a lot) of economics is based on rational agency principles – basically, that entities will engage in actions that promote their self-interest, and avoid actions that undermine their self-interest. On its face, this seems entirely reasonable. What kind of person or group of persons would behave in such a way as to put themselves at a disadvantage? Of course, the problem with these kinds of economic models is that they fail to take into account one of the fundamental forces that drives every human endeavour: short-sighted stupidity.
Of course, whenever I say the word “stupidity”, you should instead substitute the word “flawed psychology”. After all, we know why this kind of things happens:
A Catalyst paper published in October found that female MBAs were just as likely as male counterparts to negotiate for higher salaries or more senior positions during the hiring process. When women do rise the corporate ladder, it’s more frequently by being promoted within a company, whereas men tend to move up by getting hired to a more premium job elsewhere, Gillis said. “Women are promoted based on performance and men based on potential.”
Differential evaluation of performance between women and men based on past vs. future performance. Gawrsh, where have we heard that before? Ah yes, our old friend System Justification Theory once again sheds light on why an organization may not behave strictly rationally when it comes to diversity – it may not have the capacity to think differently. You know what would help with that? Having more women on the board.
While this finding is disheartening, it does provide us with a valuable yardstick against to measure how much we can put feminism on autopilot. We have not yet progressed as a society to the point where gender problems will solve themselves. We must still push, must still struggle, must still fight to get to the point where gender equality’s warriors can beat their swords into plowshares. No matter how tempting it may be to survey the outlying landscape and decide “good enough”, we have to resist that instinct toward self-congratulatory complacency. Otherwise we run the risk of ignoring things that really aren’t good at all.
Like this article? Follow me on Twitter!