Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Maybe Women Really Should be Running the World

By now we’ve all heard the grim statistics suggesting that women are more robust than men. Males are more likely to die than females at every stage of life, including in utero; boys disproportionately suffer from autism and dyslexia and an assortment of behavioral disorders. They also have weaker immune systems, and are far more likely to die of heart disease and cancers that affect both men and women.
We’ve also heard the gloomy statistics testifying that men are falling behind and down vis-à-vis their female counterparts in the workplace. More than half of all college enrollees worldwide are now women; women dominate American colleges and professional schools, with three women for every two men who earn BAs. As of 2010, there are now more women than men in the American workforce, and of the fifteen job categories projected to grow in the 21st Century, all but two of these are dominated by women.

Such trends suggest that women possess certain advantages in the job market as we move ever further into the post-industrial information age. Increasingly, the unionized blue collar jobs of the industrial sector that favor men have been replaced with white collar or service sector jobs that require multi-tasking, social intelligence, communication skills, diplomacy, teamwork—skill-sets disproportionately possessed by women. The relative advantages that women are coming to enjoy in the labor market grow ever more pronounced with declining gender discrimination and as more progressive family leave legislation give women greater opportunities to compete with men on an even playing field.

Women may also be better at running governments than men.

In repeated studies, women have been shown to have a lower tolerance for corruption: a cross-national statistical study has shown that women pay fewer bribes than men, and that the level of corruption in a country is lower when women have a greater share of parliamentary seats, high-level government positions, and make up a higher portion of the labor force. Another World Bank Report conducted analysis on 150 countries around the world, demonstrating that the higher the percentage of women in government, the less corrupt that government is likely to be.

A few countries (essentially wrecked by men) have tried the experiment of putting women in charge. Michael Lewis’ new book, Boomerang, describes the financialization of Iceland’s economy when the men of the country left their jobs in the fishing industry en masse to take up positions as bankers. As a result of their shenanigans, the country’s financial institutions were leveraged to the hilt, ultimately collapsing the currency and pushing the country into default when the main banks failed in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis. Says Lewis:

One of the distinctive traits about Iceland’s disaster, and Wall Street’s, is how little women had to do with it. Women worked in the banks, but not in the risk-taking jobs. As far as I can tell, during Iceland’s boom, there was just one woman in a senior position inside an Icelandic bank. Her name is Kristin Pétursdóttir, and by 2005 she had risen to become deputy CEU for Kaupthing in London. ‘The financial culture is very male-dominated,’ she says. ‘The culture is quite extreme. It is a pool of sharks. Women just despise the culture.’”

Pétursdóttir left well before the meltdown and started a bank of her own “with feminine values.” According to Lewis, this is one of the few profitable financial insitutions remaining in Iceland. The male PM—widely reviled for failing to prevent the crisis, was also ousted—and the country voted in the female-dominated Social Democrats and Iceland’s first openly-gay female prime minister who campaigned on the promise to end the “age of testosterone.”

Elsewhere, women have played key roles in democratic transitions, postwar reconstruction, reintegrating combatants, and promoting ethnic reconciliation. Rwanda offers one of the starkest illustrations of the critical role of women in these processes. When the 1994 genocide wiped out 10 percent of the population, women became 70 percent of the country’s population, catapulting them for the first time into positions of leadership. Today, women are equally represented in the government and have headed up numerous reconstruction initiatives:

Quite simply, [women] are the majority constituency and the most productive segment of the population. Rwandan women play a vital role not only in the physical reconstruction, but also in the crucial task of social healing, reconciliation, and increasingly, governance.

Over the past decade, there have also been salient examples of women whistleblowers in government and business. This is particularly noteworthy given the relatively low percentage of women who occupy high-status positions in either field. The financial collapse of 2008 might have been prevented had Brooksley Born, the head of the Commidity Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) under the Clinton administration, won her battle against the combined forces of Greenspan, Rubin, and Summers to regulate the enormous financial derivatives market.

There was also FBI Agent Coleen Rowley, who testified before Congress about the agency’s failure to act effectively on intelligence that could have prevented 9/11. Sherron Watkins wrote the famous memo at Enron alerting Ken Lay to the corrupt accounting practices within the firm, and internal auditor Cynthia Cooper blew the whistle on similar shenanigans at Worldcom. Given that women make up a tiny portion of executives at major financial institutions (less than 5 percent), these individuals stand out all the more.

Women may even be better at running businesses than men. According to a recent Business Insider report, female-led companies are more financially sound, less risky, less prone to bankruptcy, and more likely to take care of their staff--laying off fewer employees during the most recent recession. Women also make better investors than men, earning more on average than men in the marketplace because they tend to be more risk-averse and less likely to trade on impulse.

Some have objected that these patterns ignore the possibility that women are shut out of old boys networks and therefore do not have the same opportunities to engage in graft or that women’s roles as caretakers in society have led them to adopt less risk-taking behavior. However, the fact remains that women tend to have a salutary effect on corporate and democratic governance. This suggests that increasing women’s participation in political and economic institutions is very likely to increase their transparency, accountability and efficiency—irrespective of whether the pro-social behaviors associated with women are rooted in social norms or evolutionary biology.

Before I am unfairly smeared as a man-hater, I wish to clarify that I am a big fan of men—some of my best friends are men and most of my role models are men. This is also not to say that all women have a salubrious effect on governance (see Katherine the Great, Margaret Thatcher), nor to overlook the examples of men who have sacrificed their own lives and private interests for the betterment of their societies (Nelson Mandela, Gandhi). It is merely a modest appeal to achieve a greater gender balance in the highest political and economic bodies around the world. Future generations of humans will thank us.