On Friday, Sir Alex Allan resigned as the UK Prime Minister’s independent advisor on Ministerial Code. His decision followed the premier’s declaration of ‘full confidence’ in Home Secretary Priti Patel, despite a Cabinet Office commissioned enquiry reporting evidence of bullying and instances of Patel shouting and swearing at staff.
The investigation followed the resignation of Sir Philip Rutnam who is currently suing the government, claiming Patel instigated a “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him, after he reported that she had mistreated civil servants. It has also emerged that a former government employee received £25,000 in compensation in a ‘without prejudice’ (admitting no liability) payout, following the female staff member’s own allegations that she had been bullied by Patel.
These high profile cases, occurring within the seat of UK governance, perhaps serve as a bellwether indicating the current state of progress in the fight for female emancipation. Women’s standing within our society has vastly improved during the last century. But despite this success, I am concerned that feminine progress may have stagnated in a preliminary stage of advance.
Sociologist Henri Tajfel was a key thinker, contributing to the development of post-war social psychological thought. Henri traced the plight of minority groups (those at a relative disadvantage compared to a higher status group) as they attempt to gain acceptance within their wider social setting. According to Henri, emancipation has typically occurred in successive stages.
- The minority group initially attempts to behave in a manner more typical of majority group members, in the hope of being better accepted.
- A marginalised group will attempt to redefine attributes associated with their culture, in a manner that presents their values in a more positive light.
How does the plight of feminism fare in relation to theses two stages of emancipation?
A tall story
A much quoted study in the 1980s found that 97% of CEOs within fortune 500 companies were 5ft 8 (1.73m) or over. However, according to the National Centre for Health Statistics, 90% of American women of working age fall below this height, along with a quarter of US men.
So here we see an example of an attribute associated with the majority group (men) being construed as superior to the contrasting attribute of the minority group (women). Even men who exhibited height similar to that of women (that is, 90% of women), appeared to have been overlooked (literally) during the CEO selection process.
Why are men taller than women?
Amongst species more generally, male/female height disparity denotes an ancestral history of physical combat between males, over access to females. If male/female height disparity in humans has also evolved under the same circumstances, then we should expect this inter-sex imbalance to represent just one of many sex differences resulting from a history of warfare.
I believe that several related characteristics are typically valued within the context of leadership in our society, alongside height. Some such attributes include assertiveness, extreme self-assuredness (to the exclusion of outside influence), dominance, non-violent aggression and a ‘cut-throat’ resolve. And these qualities have historically been cultivated by men, who for 200,000 years have engaged in ruthless warfare, in order to enhance their personal interests.
Less than Priti
Many women who have succeeded in breaking through into the higher echelons of leadership, have done so by competing with men on their own terms, and adopting a more aggressive resolve. The Prime Minister’s recent overlooking of the Home Secretary’s bullying and aggressive behaviour, may unfortunately indicate that this kind of behaviour is still viewed as acceptable for individuals trusted with administrative oversight.
And perhaps, in many instances, adopting the behaviour of the majority group, has been the only way in which women have been able to obtain improved standing in a world where what is of value, is so often associated with male priorities.
In Henri Tajfel’s analysis, this is an example of assimilation: minority groups improving their standing relative to a higher status group, via the incorporation of the latter’s values and practices. But this only represents the first stage of progress within the process of minority group emancipation.
Just as 10% of US women are over 5ft7, some women are aggressive, uncooperative, even ‘ball-breaking’ dare I say. But if the large majority of women who are offered top managerial positions fall into this category, then Tajfel’s crucial 2nd stage of minority group emancipation, is yet to be realised.
During the last three decades, feminist theorists have begun to insist that gender is a cultural construct. According to this line of thought, women and men behave in accordance with the gender related customs of the group within which they find themselves. Feminists have therefore emphasised that we cannot pigeon-hole either women or men into ‘one-size-fits-all’ categories.
This recent emphasis, has made a crucial contribution to the feminist debate. But I also believe that the inclination to criticise those who compare women to men, has inadvertently created a stumbling block for the wider cause. It has now become very difficult to talk about male culture, or male values, because so many feminists take offence at any talk of traits being associated with either women or men.
Let us imagine I were to suggest that there is a tendency for men act competitively during conversation, whereas women more often than not, adopt a more cooperative tone. The political climate is currently such, that I would be fearful of tendering such a suggestion. Many feminists would object that I am making sweeping statements about women and men.
I maintain that such a position actually strips us of our ability to highlight the continued prioritising of incumbent male values in our society. It is crucial that we shine a spotlight on this kind of bias, wherever it is expressed. But if we are called to task for drawing attention to this dynamic, then any attempt to undo this patriarchal potential, is doomed to failure.
As a man, I see this situation as not only a travesty for the feminist cause, but also for society as a whole, which desperately requires characteristics that have traditionally been more typical of women, to be incorporated into its underlying fabric. The feminist cause has not reached its full potential, until society begins to redefine values and practices expressed by female cohorts, in a more positive light.
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Photo: DFID - UK Department for International Development
Photo: Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office