As always the NPR podcast The Hidden Brain had my mind churning today (Episode 48*). This one was talking about the double bind women find themselves in when they strive for leadership positions. I am sure any woman reading this doesn’t need much explaining. The basic idea is that if you’re nice (as you are stereotypically supposed to be) you’re weak, and if you’re a competent strong leader you’re unlikable. The lack of representation of women in government and as CEO’s of fortune 500 companies is pretty good evidence of this. And I know professional women experience shades of this regardless of whether or not they are vying for top leadership positions. Just asserting yourself can have you seen as bossy, bitchy, abrasive. Attributes that rarely get prescribed to men when they are assertive. And there are other double binds beyond the scope of the podcast such as additional judgments that go along with their appearance that men often don’t have to face. The expectation to maintain the home, and take a lead role in parenting in addition to their own personal ambitions. For many women it seems like there are consequences no matter what they choose.
What my mind started to think about, in addition to the challenges women face, is why would we consider a “nice” woman a “weak” woman? In terms of leadership attributes studies are showing the importance of empathy in a leader. Another episode from the same podcast (Episode 43) reported that people who were empathetic inspired more people to follow them than those that were authoritarian.
One thing that has always bothered me about the oppression of women and I feel doesn’t get talked about as much is the devaluing of those qualities that we typically associate with women. Why is kind, nurturing, or emotional a bad thing? In a fascinating story (also in podcast form, but written about here) a new method for improving safety on oil rigs was employed where employees (all male) were trained to become more openly emotional. To be vulnerable. The results were astounding with an 84% drop in the accident rate. Many of the workers also forged more meaningful relationships with their spouses and children as a result of being more emotionally open. Today we see how many of the stereotypes that men face, as a consequence of those feminine characteristics that we devalue, are equally harmful and dehumanizing to them as well. The key difference between these gender stereotypes is that one is valued and one is not. Maleness is the standard. I wrote about this in one of my earliest blog posts concerning a biologist who talked about how the male of every species is the one usually depicted in textbooks and used as the star in major animated features. Feminism is a fight for gender equality and important one. But I worry sometimes that too often the fight is women trying to achieve that standard of maleness, as opposed to celebrating those feminine qualities and seeing them as having value, seeing those a strengths, and not weaknesses. I’ve always gotten along with women better than men, because I have always been drawn to that dialogue that is open emotionally. It has helped me grow, become wiser, become stronger, and in my opinion is a superior way to be human.
And that’s what it really boils down to: defining what qualities make for a healthy human. I don’t mean to be binary here in my discussion because there are so many qualities that are beneficial to us as human beings. Distributing those qualities among men and women and automatically assigning value to one because it belongs to a certain gender isn’t really what we should be after. To put it another way, is gender equality about having more female Donald Trumps, or is it about having more female Bernie Sanders? Maybe it’s both, but I’d certainly like a world with less Donald Trumps.
I don’t mean to criticize feminism here, because in the end I believe in the value of a woman’s right for self-determination. If she wants to be a power-hungry authoritarian leader then so be it. I simply have never found much to like in such an individual. Man or woman. My friend Victoria over at Victoria Neuronotes has told me that I am a man who is in touch with my feminine side. I take that as a compliment, but I’d rather think that I have gained a better understanding of how to be human. Women, at least the ones I have known, have always represented the best in humanity to me. As a man I have often felt that I would be better off to try and reach their standard as opposed to what the patriarchy has decided as the standard.
Women have and still do bear so much in this world at the hands of men. Maybe it’s because they’ve been given the freedom to be more human that has helped them survive through so much unspeakable dehumanization by men. Those emotional, empathetic creatures who are great at listening and nurturing. Maybe true gender equality is only reached when we recognize what qualities put humanity at their best and that these qualities are ones we all should strive for. This is why feminism, to me, is not just a plight for women, but something that we all should see as important.
*Note: The Hidden Brain Podcast on Women and Leadership challenged each listener to share it with one man and one woman. I thought it was worth it for more to hear it. I’d love to hear what you have to say about it.