Wednesday, January 12, 2005

Gender balance in government

We need more women in government.

I recently watched the movie “Spiderman 2” with my wife and son. Andrew and I had already seen it at the theatre, but we convinced Pam that she should see it. We rented and played it at home. After about 30 minutes, she commented, “This is such a guy movie.”

Andrew and I were taken aback. Spiderman is portrayed as a rather soft individual as a human being in these movies, which is apparently how he is depicted in the comics. He loves a woman, but cannot profess that love for fear of putting her in danger. Her strong feelings for him go unrequited. The primary plot in this movie is about the human character dispensing with his superhero identity, going so far as to throw the Spiderman costume in the trash. He does this so he can focus on the his full human life: taking college courses, caring for his aunt, focusing on his relationships.

But Pam still pointed out that the movie focuses on aggression, power, the hard line between good versus evil, accumulation of wealth, the desire to get ahead in the world at the expense of others.

What does this have to do with the gender balance in government?

Assign the movie’s contrast with political structures. [This discussion can get rather generalized, stereotyped, and academically simplistic, so bear with me.] We hope we select reasonable individuals as government leaders. We expect them to act in reasonable ways, and balance the needs of different social segments. Certainly, each leader will tilt toward the segment that got him/her there, which is how it is supposed to work.

But what if this gender stereotyping is correct? Males: more aggressive, driven by power, likely to pursue that power by viewing others as obstacles to conquer. Females: more caring, more likely to evaluate the social and emotional needs of others – subsuming the aggressive tendencies in order to gain an objective. If these stereotypes are actually more like tendencies, than we are more likely to have leadership that implements an "us vs. them" methodology to carry out government actions.

Yes, yes, yes, I know: we all know aggressive women, and men who are willing to show their softer (read: not aggressive) emotions. But if the scale on each gender does tip (even slightly) in the above-described manner, then what does it mean for government?

It means that our preponderance of males in American government tips the balance toward more confrontational negotiations, rather than less; toward hardening of positions, rather than compromise; toward more dogmatic pursuit of narrow proprietary values, rather than acceptance of the variances in mankind (sorry, can’t avoid some words, regardless of the gender bias).

Finland is one country where women have attained high social and political status ( ). Finland’s government has a very high percentage of female membership. The current president is a woman, Tarja Halonen. The current Parliament consists of 37% women. Finns do not use the pronouns ‘he’ and ‘she’; when they use the pronoun form, they use a word that is gender-neutral (and no, that word does not translate to ‘it’).

Such is the case in many European countries. I am not arguing that this makes them better countries than ours. But the lack of such a gender balance is rather surprising in a country like ours that values our supposed egalitarianism.

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