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Would we be equally comfortable telling women to get in touch with their masculine side?
on 18 August 2013
This is a clever and interesting book that makes a valuable contribution to the vital debate about how we should build the organisations of the future (since our current organisational structures are clearly failing). So criticising the book seems perverse and small-minded - like taking a pop at Mother Theresa. But I can't help myself. So: this is an interesting book and I urge you to read it, but...
My first problem is that I have an aversion to the approach that takes an interesting idea and tries to turn it into a programme or, indeed, a doctrine - so much so that if a young entrepreneur were to tell me that they were starting a new venture and that it was a, like, you know, Athena Doctrine kind of thing? I would be obliged to poke them in the eye. Which would not be very Athena Doctrine of me.
But I have some more grown up quibbles too. My main issue is that I really do not think that it is useful to attach a label of any kind to sets of valuable human characteristics - like empathy, creativity, intuition, adaptability etc. In the case of the 'Athena Doctrine', of course, the label that Gerzema and D'Antonio have attached to these and other valuable characteristics is 'feminine'. Since they themselves argue later in the book that we should attempt take a 'gender neutral' approach to people, it's hard to see why they think that it is useful to say, in effect, that we should all get in touch with our feminine side.
Funnily enough, the authors recount in their introduction how they ran their ideas past a female academic who 'scrunched up her face like a professor listening to a student offering a terrible answer' and concluded, "I object to you calling these things feminine." I'm on her side. But the guys went ahead and did it anyway.
The authors had surveyed 64,000 people around the world and found that (surprise surprise) we are pretty consistent in perceiving certain characteristics as feminine and others as masculine. You could probably write the list yourself. 'Masculine' attributes include rugged, dominant, rigid, ambitious, overbearing etc. and feminine characteristics include trustworthy, flexible, social, emotional etc. etc. Now this just tells me that we are disappointingly stereotyped in our thinking about gender and that we really should perhaps start thinking about 'useful' and 'damaging' behaviour traits rather than 'masculine' and 'feminine' ones. But never mind.
The next bit in the authors' research is the part that I really do have a problem with. They went on to ask the same audience to rate the importance of the attributes that have now been categorised as masculine or feminine to such things as leadership, success, morality and happiness. The answer is: a majority of people around the world tend to associate 'feminine' attributes with these things.
Now, when the authors talk about 'leadership', it is easy to agree that having leaders who are more empathetic, caring, reasonable, concerned etc would be a good thing. But when the authors talk about morality, for example, I don't know what they are trying to say. The fact that we associate the so-called 'feminine' characteristics of 'loyalty, reason, empathy and selflessness' with morality really does NOT mean that morality is, in any meaningful sense, 'feminine'. Men are clearly capable of moral behaviour, and it seems nonsensical to say that they are calling on their 'feminine' characteristics in order to be moral. There is a hint of a logical fallacy here, as in: All lemons are yellow; Canaries are yellow; Therefore canaries are lemons.
There is another problem with the authors' general methodology. Gerzema and D'Antonio are saying, essentially, that their survey shows that a majority of people around the world think that many 'feminine' qualities are strongly related to, for example, leadership. Therefore leaders should strive to be more feminine. When you say that quickly, it sounds quite reasonable. But it is entirely possible that another survey would show that a majority of people believe, for example, that the characteristics strongly related to being a successful attorney (for example) are predominantly masculine (analytical, logical, aggressive, assertive etc). Would we be so happy to draw the conclusion that female attorneys should therefore strive to be more masculine? I wouldn't, personally speaking, want to say that to an agressive female attorney's face.
Putting to one side my nevertheless fundamental problems with this whole approach of classifying human characteristics in such a simplistic way based on the results of a survey (be it never so grand), the authors also fall into a trap that any self-respecting statistician should be able to avoid. They start to assume that respondents to their survey are walking the talk: they assume that, if a majority of respondents in any particular country, for example, have said that they think 'feminine' characteristics are desirable for this that and the other, then these respondents are fully signed up to a feminist agenda. But a majority of respondents to a survey about health may very well agree that eating less and keeping fit are highly desirable characteristics, and yet themselves be lazy and obese. When Gerzema and D'Antonio argue that there is a correlation between 'countries with higher levels of feminine thinking and behaviour' and per capita GDP, they are making an entirely unwarrantable leap. I can also think of many men who would agree that leaders need to be empathetic, nurturing, caring and sharing but who are, in fact, unreconstructed male chauvinist pigs who run their own empires like particularly malevolent sergeant majors. You may know a few of those yourself. There is (as the authors should well know) a huge gap between what people may say in response to a survey and the way in which they actually behave. In the context of leadership, it is also worth considering what your average respondent is likely to say are the ideal characteristics of a leader. 'Dominant, aggressive and stubborn' (all 'masculine' characteristics, of course)? Probably not.
The authors, by pinning their colours to the mast of gender, are in danger of the kind of stereotyping that they presumably wish to avoid. They don't help their case by falling into a couple of elephant traps of their own making. On page 19, having simply announced that non-profit organisations have 'feminine-leaning ideals' and that 'much of the non-profit sector is feminine in style and focus' (why should non-profit organisations be the exclusive domain of femininity?) they commit this complete howler: 'Of course', they write, 'non-profit organisations also depend on lots of masculine energy.' Masculine energy? I beg your pardon?! The sexist lapse is even more unforgivable since, a few pages earlier, they had shown that 'energetic' was one of the characteristics considered by their survey panel to be gender neutral.
Another example of the thin ice on which they are skating is revealed when they discuss the role of women in the Israeli military, While acknowledging that Israeli women can and do serve in combat roles, they write (p79) that 'Those who possess such traditionally feminine qualities as patience and empathy can prove invaluable in danger points like checkpoints.' So, women soldiers could serve on the front line but, really, their feminine qualities are best used defusing the aggression of (presumably male) motorists at checkpoints. Careful guys - you could be losing your women readers at this point (and, again, I wouldn't like to debate that particular point in person with an Israeli woman solider).
My final, perhaps biggest concern, lies with the enterprises that the authors use to illustrate the reality of the Athena Doctrine. It is very impressive that the authors have taken the trouble to trek around the world, meeting people face to face and recording their conversations. Maybe someone should tell them that the telephone has been invented, but their efforts undeniably give the book a sense of journalistic realism. The enterprises that they describe are often fascinating - this is the book's greatest strength - and they are all in some way, undeniably 'modern': there is a vague thread connecting them that has something to do with networking, trust, higher purpose, social contribution and the like. All wonderful things. But the authors are often reduced to merely asserting that these are 'Athena Doctrine' ('feminine') kind of enterprises. I couldn't for the life of me see what justification they had for making that claim in the majority of cases.
Here are a few examples, chosen at random. The UK-based WhipCar: a clever idea that lets people rent other people's cars when they would otherwise be sitting unused in the driveway. It works, largely because people rent off other real people and feel obliged not to trash their cars. Israel's Tmura organization persuades young entrepreneurs to donate shares in their currently worthless start-ups to the charitable venture. The accumulating value of shares in the few enterprises that become commercially successful is used for charitable purposes. Nice idea. Germany's Friendsurance allows groups of people who have some form of connection to buy insurance: low numbers of claims results in rebates of premiums; peer pressure encourage people to behave responsibly. Sign me up. What is essentially feminine or 'Athena Doctrine' about these enterprises? You tell me.
Other examples, such as India's Self Employed Women's Association or Peru's Women's House, have a clear feminist agenda - but where's the news in that? My favourite non-example was Peru's celebrity Chef, Gaston Acurio. He's a celebrity chef, and he is helping to bring the world to Peru and Peruvian food to the world. Good for him - but what, in the name of Athena, is feminine about that?
I think that it is of genuine interest (and is potentially a hopeful sign) that a majority of people around the world are saying that the successful leaders and organisations of the future are likely to be those that are empathetic, concerned, trustworthy, emotionally intelligent and all the rest of it. It is also undeniably true that these qualities are traditionally seen as feminine, for good reason: I buy into the idea that women are biologically 'wired' to be more like this than are men because of our deep past.
But shouldn't we be trying to rise above our biological nature and our old-fashioned stereotypes? Is saying 'men need to get in touch with their feminine side' really twenty-first century thinking? I'm probably being a miserable old (male) curmudgeon. Read the book anyway.