Are Men Overrated? Are Women Underrated?
Off the top of my head in no particular order: John Ensign, John Edwards, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, Mark Sanford, Elliot Spitzer, David Paterson, Haley Barbour, Bernard Madoff, Kenneth Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, Clarence Thomas, Andrew Fastow, Osama Bin Laden, Muammar Gaddafi, Newt Gingrich, Idi Amin, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Slobodan Milosevic, Jimmy Swaggart, Jim Bakker, Arnold Swarzenegger and Anthony Weiner.
What do all of these men have in common? All are/were flawed, yet they held power and sway, long after their imperfections were identified. Many were allowed to dust themselves off and reclaim their authority. Some did good things for the world at times; some of them still continue to do so. But each was self indulgent enough to believe their own hype. Each chose selfish needs over the well being of others. Many had wives who were complicit, wittingly or unwittingly, in their malfeasance.
Why have so many men of inferior quality permitted leadership roles? Men and women of good conscious tolerate, enable, support, forgive and validate them. Are men overrated? Or is it that women are underrated? What is it about so many human societies that allow certain men to dominate regardless of their flawed nature?
From the archaeological and historic record it seems that men began to dominate at the time of domestication of plants and animals (ca. 10k years ago). One might think earlier societies that relied on hunting would hold men in higher esteem, but that was rarely the case. Early band level societies were typically egalitarian. Those societies intuited what anthropologist rediscovered in the 1970s, that the majority of calories produced in most band level societies were generated by the work of women. Women harvested roots, seeds, berries and leaves while men were off chasing high risk game. And not surprisingly women simultaneously managed their households, reared children and kept the home fires burning. When her partner did return, whether or not he had captured large game, small game, or none at all, the family still survived.
It was not until human societies shifted to dependence upon agriculture and pastoralism that men became significant leaders and dominant figures. This probably wasn't the extra work expended in planting or harvesting; these tasks continued to be shared by women and men. More likely it was the need to defend their food supply that empowered men. Once societies put down stakes and invested their time and energy into one plot of land or one group of cattle, the protection of that “property” was tantamount to survival.
Most likely territorial warfare brought men to leadership roles in sedentary societies. Warfare and militarism made men's brute strength and combative tendencies more suited for the “survival of the fittest” in a “dog eat dog” world. Sadly, this combative nature is still bred in many of our young males, even if we now live in societies where we have sufficient resources to resolve our differences without conflict and where most of us obtain our food in grocery stores not directly from the land.
So are men overrated in modern society where they dominate leadership roles in politics and the work world? Perhaps their intrinsic brute strength is no longer needed, but until we create a society that is less brutal in its nature and less combative in intergroup relations, there will continue to be some need for a “King of the Hill” or “K Street” mindset. The basic success of capitalism has at its heart the idea of competition and the rise to the top. And politics is all about battles and competition and combativeness. In American society candidates rarely have equal access to delivering their message to the electorate. And the Supreme Court has now ruled that money is some form of free speech so this is unlikely to change any time soon.
If politics is a “King of the Hill” game, why is there no real top dog Republican front runner in the Presidential race? The surviving front runners are all men and they are all flawed. In the business world a number of the male gods of the Corporate World have led us astray. Men in leadership roles seem to have more difficulty staying clean and ethical than their female counterparts, and yet “male” is the default leadership setting. It hasn’t been too many years since men were legally hired and promoted before women simply because of the assumption that “he” had a family to feed (always an ironic fiction based on circular logic).
One reason men tend to lead more than women is because of their upbringing. Men are taught to covet the mighty ring of power and to equate leadership with power. More often women are satisfied with supportive roles because of our upbringing. The business world can be every bit as brutal as politics, and old dogs are not about to relinquish their power base. Old dogs llike Bush and Romney set up their sons W and Mitt in business and politices; they were not self made, nor would they expect to be. They inherited their claim to power along with their wealth. And for W there was a fair amount of getting him out of scrapes, along with brother Neil of the Savings and Loan collapse.
Speaking of scandals, remember who blew the whistle on the Enron fiasco? Sherron Watkins. And who exposed Worldcom? Cynthia Cooper. Who exposed the FBI mishandling of intel on Zacarias Moussaoui which led to a reorganization of the FBI? Coleen Rowley. And who tried desperately to blow the whistle on Wall Street's derivative market but was stonewalled by Greenspan and friends? Brooksley Born. Where are these heroic women today? They live in relative obscurity away from the spot lights. Certainly they all experienced push back from their heroic actions. Perhaps the men in their circles of influence were highly overrated; perhaps more importantly women such as these have been underrated in our history.
Our enculturation as women makes many of us hesitant to step up unless we are called to do so by a very strong sense of duty or service and only after their primary motherly duties have been fulfilled. A case in point is Nancy Pelosi, who waited until after raising her children to run for political office. Like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Pelosi has been not only objectified but vilified, even demonized in a manner reserved only for women. History will show she was an extremely effective leader and her period as leader was one of the most productive times in the recent history of the U.S. Congress. But she was also criticized for not getting Anthony Weiner to resign more quickly. Apparently exceptional, effective female leaders are also responsible for the more irresponsible men around them. Ouch.
There are plenty of good citizens, female and male, who contribute without seeking or obtaining fame or fortune. These are the unsung heroes of shared governance and often prove to be the very best leaders. But politics and the corporate world are more often led by those less suited; they desire to reach the top and obtain the ring of power. And there are those, like Mr. Weiner, who relish it so much that they lose any sense of control and dignity.
But the take away lesson is not that women are inherently better leaders than men nor are they better people. The point is that anyone who aspires to lead should be watched with suspicion. Reluctant leaders with a history of supporting from the ranks are more likely to serve the needs of their constituents with honor than those who are there to serve the needs of their own egos. They are also more likely to serve in the position they are elected or assigned rather than looking beyond to the next ladder rung which often entails stepping on people and ethics along the way.
In ancient times the Iroquois Confederacy maintained a balance that allowed men to serve in leadership, while women held on to their power through their apron strings. Women nominated candidates (more often than not men) to positions of leadership in politics and the military. They typically chose candidates reluctant to lead, but who otherwise had strong character qualities and abilities. If a person failed to lead successfully, the women’s counsel would evict them from their leadership roles and replace them with someone else. This balance where women continued to control the leadership through their supportive power of consensus may have been an idyllic system. Ultimately the Iroquois Confederacy was overthrown by European colonizers, not because the Europeans were patriarchical, but because they had two very deadly weapons, guns and disease.
Another take away lesson from our Iroquoian sisters is about accountability. Never ever re-elect a candidate or renew a board member or administrator unless they have proven themselves to their constituents. As a teaching faculty member I am expected to evaluate my courses and my students’ progress regularly. This is how I am held accountable. But administrators are often held to a much lower standard if any at all, because leadership is often perceived as too nebulous to measure. Like legislators, I think all leaders and administrators should be expected to sign their names to the products they help create or get approved as a type of accountability. The quality of the items that they approve, or the lack thereof, can serve as a measure of their effectiveness, their independence, and their true value as leaders.
Perhaps men are still overrated in our society and women may still be underrated. Some women even underrate themselves. Ultimately we all need to be less tolerant of behavioral flaws in our leaders regardless of their gender or any other physical characteristics and focus more on their qualifications, their abilities, and to make them responsible for the actions and inactions. Of course the economic system is stacked to maintain the status quo. But the internet and social networking and a demand for greater transparency can help to counter those hold cards if citizens and consumers will do their part to demand accountability. After all, isn’t that what shared governance is really all about?
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