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The Woman’s Perspective?

January 16, 2011

I was listening to CBC Radio the other day on my way to work, and the topic was gender parity in business. Both panelists agreed that parity was to be sought after, but disagreed on the methods – legislating parity vs (I don’t know, I got to work and had to get out of the car). How to achieve parity is, of course, a worthy and interesting topic, but I was sidetracked by a related but tangential comment from one of the panelists. In setting up his argument, one of the speakers said that achieving parity is important, because corporations will benefit by having a woman’s perspective on their boards.

My first instinct was “Give me a break, a woman’s perspective? As though all women think differently than all men, all women have the same perspective, that women bring peace and nurturing motherhood to whatever they do, and that this injection of femininity is what companies need to stay innovative and relevant?”

I held myself back though, and tried to look at the question as though it were the first time I had heard it: Is there a woman’s perspective?

On the “No” side are all the reasons I just mentioned. One of the major criticisms of second wave feminism was that it treated the experiences of middle-class, able-bodied, heterosexual, white women as the generic experiences of All Women – paying little attention to the fact that some women are multiply-barriered, and that the experiences, challenges, and -yes, perspectives- of women vary greatly based on their specific life circumstances. There could be no real “Women’s Perspective,” only the perspective of each woman.

However, there is a potential “Yes” side. There are things that women have to think about, and in very personal ways, that men for the most part do not. Reproductive freedom is a different issue for women than it is for men, as is sexual violence, maternity/parental leave, equal pay, and many other things, I’m sure. Even though women all have different experiences (see above), there are some things that women tend to have in common. Men can and do think about these issues, but as the issues affect men and women differently, it could be that argued people of both genders are required on boards and committees to make sure that  everyone’s interests are represented.

Here’s the flaw in that argument: there is no guarantee that just because someone has lady-bits, she will always work for the best interests of women (see: Margaret Thatcher). Really though, she shouldn’t have to. She should be able to work for the benefit of all her constituents in the best way she can, just as male board members and politicians are free to do.

Also, the constraints of the position may prevent her from being able to work on behalf. Institutions have their own gendered logic, and workers have to conform to that logic in order to succeed in the position. To be promoted to senior positions, workers have to be assertive, able to work long hours, able to fit within social organization (the “old-boys club, as it were), willing to prioritize work over family, not needing time off for parenting (female workers of childbearing age are often seen as unreliable due the fact that they might go on maternity leave at some point), and able to make decisions based on the demands of the numerical majority. Women who are promotable according to those rules, are not likely the same women would advocate on behalf of vulnerable populations or take unpopular positions on controversial issues. They would be square pegs, not very different from the male square pegs who would be their colleagues.

Regardless of whether or not there is a Woman’s Perspective, I don’t think that is an appropriate reason to call for gender parity in top management anyway. Think about it in analogy: We should open up boardrooms to members of ethnic minorities, because we really need to have a Black (Chinese, Aboriginal, Hispanic) perspective at the top of major corporations. Doesn’t sound quite right, does it? Having ethnic perspectives has nothing to do with why the overwhelming whiteness of boardrooms is problematic.

The problem is that there are qualified, interested, motivated people who want those positions and work hard to achieve them, but who are obstructed based on their gender. I don’t want to be promoted because I am a woman, I want to be promoted because I deserve the job – I just don’t want to be *not* promoted because I’m a woman.

As long as the only promotable women (and men) are square pegs, companies and society will not benefit from gender parity on boards anyway. The individual women who have worked their asses off, though, and been held back by their gender – they will benefit. And maybe, maybe, if more women get jobs in higher positions, the attitude about women in business will change and women won’t have to become desexed in order to be promoted.

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