When Men Should Not Help Women Lead

On July 20, 2017, Nina Hachigian and Julianne Smith published an article (archive links* 1 2) in Time magazine titled “How Men Should Help More Women Lead.” In this post, I present some thoughts contrary to their views, which might be best summarized in their closing words: “We need a cultural shift, and men need to show the way. Women want to lead, contribute, excel. Please help us do it.”

An important problem with the view of Hachigian and Smith (H & S) is that it is small-minded — that, in other words, it fails to think big. Consider their words:

Just watch the Sunday talk shows and prime-time cable news panels, which showcase the utter domination of men in foreign affairs and policy more broadly. But it is also true in media, on the Hill, at the State, Defense, and Homeland Security Departments, as well as in the intelligence community, military and with contractors. Women occupy 30% of top leadership positions, at best.

Let us interpret those remarks in light of current realities. Politifact (Greenberg, 2017) observed that, in recent years, the public has held profoundly negative views of Congress and the media. Pew Research Center (2017) reported that public trust in government has likewise been at its lowest levels since at least 1958. Americans tend to feel that those institutions fail to provide ethical and effective information and leadership.

In other words, H & S were so preoccupied with getting women into positions of power that they failed to notice what those positions entail. It is as if the authors felt that male leaders were getting too much of the blame — that we needed more female millionaires in Congress, for example, to dispel any suspicion that men might be responsible for the failures of that institution.

It might be different if the women in Congress had made a visible and special contribution. They have not. They have not distinguished their sex as a palpably different force — in the way that, for instance, a comparable number of disabled or twentysomething representatives would be likely to do. By and large, the women in Congress have become part of the problem.

H & S provide a hint that they are on the wrong track when they say, “Please help us do it.” What, really, are they asking for? Help women become more numerous in male-designed forms of government and media? Instead of leading as a woman, with a woman’s strengths (e.g., Angela Merkel, running as the mother of her nation), they beg us: Please, promote the kinds of women who will be just as bad as these male leaders who have so thoroughly squandered the public trust. God forbid that anyone should associate them with Mother Nature, Justitia, or Lady Liberty.

It is nice to believe that women are saints, that their presence is magic. And to some extent, in fact, people do. We will get to that shortly. But leadership within today’s Congress, government, and corporate suite often involves behaviors and attitudes that are less than admirable.

The most prominent recent example: Hillary Clinton. Those of us who have been exposed to feminist ideology for too many years may assume that, of course, women should have supported Hillary in the 2016 presidential election. That, however, would be another example of smallmindedness. If you really want what H & S call “a cultural shift,” you don’t get lost in the petty sexism that always favors the female candidate. Instead, you keep your eye on the ball: you choose the person, male or female, who is most likely to deliver the cultural change you desire. In the 2016 campaign, that person was Bernie Sanders. Where Hillary simply assumed that she and her type were superior to a vast, “deplorable” (often female) swath of the American public, Bernie pushed for policies that would more fairly share education, health care, and wealth among all Americans. And polls said Bernie was more likely to win.

In other words, when your country is on the wrong track, it is not helpful to put more women on the train. The first objective should be, instead, to relocate this enormous locomotive to a very different place.

The problems in the H & S editorial begin with its title. The title says that “Men” should help women lead. Not “leading” or “powerful” men. Just men. So, OK, I’m a man. What should I do? Well, according to H & S, I should start by taking “the ‘no manel’ pledge.” I did not know what that was. Judging from the top results in a Google search, it seems to have been something H & S invented. They did not explain it, beyond a vague statement that its purpose was “so more women have a chance to share their ideas.” This left me at a loss. I mean, there’s a whole Internet, waiting for you. If you want to share your ideas, start a blog.

To elaborate, H & S said, “If Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron can staff half their cabinet positions with women, men and the institutions they run can refuse panels and other public opportunities that have no women.” OK: next time I am staffing cabinet positions, I will try to remember this advice. Likewise for their next tip: “Second, please mentor and, more importantly, sponsor junior women if you don’t already.” I did try that once — I married a much younger woman, I mentored her for years, her career matured, and she left me. But, fair enough. If I happen to find another young woman who wants to be mentored by me, I’ll consider giving it another go.

Seriously, the H & S article was ridiculous. Like many American men, I struggle just to get by. I don’t think these two highly educated, powerful women were so stupid as to think that men like me had anything to do with “whiskey night at the cigar lounge in the golf club,” “rotating the location of [our] after-work outings,” or choosing which employees will be given “challenging and time-intensive assignments.” To the contrary, it was as if they wanted to flaunt their elite status — to look right through men like me, not even seeing us.

No doubt there are male corporate leaders who make it difficult for women to climb the corporate ladder. The logical response to such men would be to write an article whose title and text make clear that you’re talking about corporate policy. In that case, though, I don’t know that Time would publish it. Time would normally want material that would seem relevant to a broad readership. Most men are not in positions that have anything to do with what H & S are talking about.

In this article, then, as in others critiqued in this blog, we have female authors who use complaints about powerful men as an excuse to attack all men. This seems to be the basis of their claim that “You, like just about everyone, are unconsciously biased against women and people of color. You will tend to think they are less qualified, too aggressive, and not leadership material.”

Note, there, the disingenuous reference to “people of color.” Not a word about blacks or Hispanics in the article otherwise. They’re on their own. But here, suddenly, where it’s convenient, we have this phony insinuation that privileged white women like H & S suffer just as Rosa Parks suffered.

Am I — are most men — really unconsciously biased against women? Not according to the “women are wonderful” effect. Krys et al. (2017) point out the established conclusion that, across cultures around the world, “women are evaluated more positively than men overall.” That was my own tendency, and it was consistent with research demonstrating significant English-language bias favoring women in everyday speech.

H & S gave us a bait-and-switch in their title, claiming to have a complaint against all men that turned out to be a complaint against just a subset of corporate leaders; and then they gave us another bait-and-switch in the claim, just quoted, that “just about everyone” was “unconsciously biased against women.” In this latter case, we see that, actually, they were talking only about women who might seek dominance: “You will tend to think they are less qualified, too aggressive, and not leadership material.”

H & S did not cite research supporting that view. There certainly was evidence opposing it. If “just about everyone” were biased against female leaders, or if that alleged “unconscious” bias had any power, women like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel would not have become their countries’ dominant leaders for periods of many years. Hillary Clinton would not have been selected as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. Companies and universities would not be falling all over themselves in the quest to find and promote women, often preferring less-qualified females over more-qualified males (e.g., Kaiser & Wallace, 2016; Williams & Ceci, 2015).

In her review of research on gender bias against female leaders, Elsesser (2016, p. 163) found, “Studies that create leaders in the laboratory or offer vignettes of hypothetical bosses tend to report the greatest gender bias, while those that study actual bosses in the workplace typically reveal little or no bias.” Moreover, those laboratory studies demonstrated that H & S were gratuitously wrong in their attack on men. It was women, not men, who were most inclined to be hostile to hypothetical female leaders. In Elsesser’s words (p. 166, citations omitted),

Women are not only more likely than men to prefer male management, but are also more likely to evaluate female leaders more negatively than men. . . . The term “queen bee syndrome” was coined to describe successful women, often in male-dominated positions, who, as a result of their competitiveness with other women, undermine the success of other women. Intra-gender competition between women has been well-established in the research literature.

Elsesser (p. 167) cited the example of a study (involving, again, a hypothetical situation) finding that female participants, but not male participants, would “penalize women who succeed in male gender-typed jobs to salvage their own self-views regarding competence” (Parks-Stamm et al., 2008). The reality may be, not that men are holding women back, but that women like H & S use false accusations against men as a pretext, to unite competitive women who might otherwise be at each other’s throats.

There have been plenty of ruthless female leaders and wannabes. I’m less concerned with the leader’s sex than with the nature of the institution and the accompanying concept of leadership. I do not think employees, customers, or the American public generally, benefit from a culture that gives us power-mad egomaniacs as leaders. You see, I spent a few years working in a New York law firm that helped Fortune 500 CEOs exploit their companies for every penny they could get. They were disgusting. Pigs really don’t impress me.

This is where H & S turn to fantasy, in their advice to “men” (which, in their vocabulary, means CEOs):

[T]ry to reduce the culture of crazy work hours. Very late nights are pervasive in national security and other sectors, and they are often unavoidable. But research shows that your team is making mistakes and sub-optimal policy decisions if they are not sleeping and unplugging enough. Measures to reduce long hours will improve quality, make your workers more content and will also grant parents additional time at home. Each of these measures also benefits men.

In other words, H & S are preoccupied with powerful women seeking highly competitive positions based on superior ability and extreme competence — but. But not when the work hours get too long; but not when the baby comes along. Then, whoa, it’s time to dial back the crazy work hours, to switch from talking about top leadership to a concern with “time at home” for “your workers” down there on the assembly line.

Like other whining elite females who consider themselves entitled to promotions, H & S want it both ways. They can see that people at the top find it “unavoidable” to devote their lives to their work — that in today’s corporate culture, only those who are willing to give everything they’ve got, for years on end, will be tomorrow’s leaders, within their organizations and industries. If you want to screw around, you can still be one of the “workers”; you just won’t be breaking any glass ceilings.

H & S are right to worry about the effects of such a leadership culture. You wind up with people — predominantly male — who are very good at what they do, according to managerial priorities that can be very out of touch with what employees, customers, families, and society need. You get a testosterone-fueled executive suite that goes like gangbusters — until it crosses a line or hits a wall (see e.g., White, 2015). Then you get the monopolies, the sweatshops, the bankruptcies, the indictments, the mass layoffs, because those sick bastards were just having too much fun to quit. Human beings become the rug on which they wipe their feet and, being sick, they find they rather enjoy that.

If you think women can best improve the world by joining that culture, go for it. But I, myself, am more inclined toward the message from Elsesser’s (2016, p. 168) summary of other research (citations omitted, typos corrected):

Individuals may “think manager – think male” in typical situations, but . . . [also] “think crisis – think female” . . . . [F]eminine characteristics . . . may be more desirable in crisis situations. . . . [In one study, participants rated certain] attributes as to whether they were more characteristic of a typical male or a typical female leader. For a thriving company, the characteristics that were associated with a good leader were also predominantly associated with male leaders. These included independence, competition, dynamic, and striving for power. Indeed only one characteristic typically associated with female leaders, fairness, was considered valuable for a thriving company. However, with regard to companies in crisis, the characteristics desired in a leader were more likely to be those associated with female leaders (ability to build confidence in others, cooperation, communication skills, ability to encourage others, ability to work in teams).

It is true that, as H & S suggest, the changes they confusedly seek would benefit men. They would particularly benefit men who have adequate testosterone but just don’t happen to be psychopaths. In other words, a corporate culture oriented toward the stereotypically feminine characteristics Elsesser mentions would be one in which intelligent, motivated, and yet reasonable men would also have a fair shot at leadership. In such a culture, there might still be more men than women in the C-suite. But in any case, the chosen leaders would tend to be naturals, sought out and promoted by others for their visible suitability, not advanced by their own selfish, unscrupulous striving on the backs of others. Harking back to an earlier day, we might even return to a leadership mentality in which the person put into high office would take it, not for the sake of his/her own ego gratification, but rather in response to the call to serve, mindful and regretful of the costs such duty would impose on his/her family.

In that sort of world, men could be men without having to be scumbags, and women could be women without having to be men. If promotion became less of a vote upon one’s worth as a human being, applauded by sycophants in the harem, and more of an organic sorting of people according to natural ability and psychosocial suitability, then perhaps we could begin to grow — as H & S suggest — a saner corporate culture, in which the “women are wonderful” effect might result in the promotion of women (and men) who are good to their people and good for their companies. Work hours could retreat to more productive and liveable levels, not through corporate diktat that would probably be ignored by the ambitious, but rather by trust that one’s fellow workers agree on the entity’s core values.

As in the H & S article, the phrasing used by Elsesser (2016, p. 169) sometimes conflates “men” in general with “male corporate leaders” studied by researchers:

[Results from] 45 studies suggest that women were more likely to exhibit the management styles that are considered the most effective, while the less effective leadership styles tended to be utilized more by men.

Again, as recently illustrated in presidential politics, a disturbingly high percentage of the men using less effective leadership styles are mentally ill. American concepts of leadership have somehow become perverted, over the past several generations, to such an extent that decent people, male or female, are relatively unlikely to be promoted. For purposes of a discussion of sex-based discrimination, the more interesting exploration would compare what should be promoted and what actually is promoted.

Feminists probably would have been more effective in normalizing female concepts of the workplace, and of organizational success, if they had treated ordinary men as allies rather than adversaries. Doing so would have avoided a focus on women as the weaker sex — unable to succeed without male assistance, in the view of H & S. The spotlight would have been cast, instead, on the variously nutty, inhumane, and/or counterproductive nature of many contemporary workplace beliefs and expectations.

H & S are very much on target in suggesting that “more diverse leadership groups are more creative, innovative and more likely to avoid ‘groupthink.'” Yet they convert that insight into another opportunity for sexist smallmindedness. Intellectual diversity does not necessarily result from adding a privileged white woman with an elite education to a group of privileged white men of similar education. You will probably get more diversity, and more effective diversity, by just consulting representatives of your present rank and file.

Similarly, H & S seize upon the old complaint that men interrupt women, but fail to acknowledge research refining that impression. For instance, The Economist (R.L.G., 2014) cited Tannen (1990) for the view that, in conversation, men tend to be seeking to determine and establish status, while women tend to be seeking to determine and enhance connection. R.L.G. also cited Aries (1976) for the finding that this behavior is not sexist: men do this, not only with women, but also among themselves, such that a loudmouth may achieve putative dominance over a quieter but potentially wiser male. R.L.G. advises,

So, boys and girls, if you have something to say, speak up—your partner may not necessarily hand you the opportunity. And if you find yourself having talked for a while, shut up and listen. Your partner isn’t necessarily thick: it could be the other person is waiting for you to show some skill by asking a question. . . . [T]he best way to think of this is not the simple frame that women need to learn how to combat “old-fashioned sexism”. Rather, both sexes need to learn the old-fashioned art of conversation.

Men as well as women are disadvantaged by those, of any sex, who frustrate conversation by failing to pursue participation on substantially equal terms. In place of H & S’s one-sided contention that men need to help women deal with this, the informed conclusion seems to be that men and women alike need to take more responsibility for putting limits on aggression, in conversation and elsewhere. Until that happens, a man or woman who chooses to swim with the sharks may be best advised to grow a tough skin.

The H & S article demonstrates, once again, that strident, ill-informed feminist lecturing of men had its day. It did its good, and also its damage. But the world has moved on. Men and women are much more varied, and have much greater potential, than is contemplated in the narrow, outdated perspective from which this Time article emerged. We do need a change of culture in the workplace. Ideally, it would help to enlighten people like H & S, so as to help them stop this ignorant practice of demeaning people on the basis of their sex.

* * * * *

* Regarding archive links: web programmers can insert an instruction, honored by the Internet Archive, that frustrates web capture. At present, Time appears to insert such an instruction in the H & S article. It is presently feasible to view the archive link nonetheless, by clicking on the X located near or inside the web browser’s address bar, at the moment when the captured article flashes onscreen.

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