Saturday 25 June 2022

Putting Women In Charge Is Not The Way To Make The World Better

It is common to see claims that if only women were in charge things would be much better and nicer, for example that people would be much happier at work, inequality would fall, climate change would be solved. 

There is no good evidence for these claims. They seem to rely on the question begging assumption that the best explanation for why people in charge of things seem so often seem incompetent, mean, self-serving, unresponsive to their constituents' needs, and so on is that they are men. This framing is then used to cherry pick anecdotes about female prime ministers/CEOs that support the possibility, but not the probability that women would do things better. 

As a general rule, we should reject claims supported by inadequate evidence. We should also be careful to distinguish moral claims about fairness in the competition for power from claims about how that power would be exercised. The first moral problem of power is whether it is used rightly and for the good. The moral problem of fair opportunity to gain power is a secondary and far less significant moral problem. To put it another way, we should care less about the gender of the super competitive alphas who get the top jobs in our society, and more about the poor saps who will be ruled by them.

Assuming that power is misused because it is held by men leaves us unprepared for the very probable discovery that things will be just as bad when most things are run by women (which in some countries is only a couple of decades away). This is because it is institutions rather than gender that select, train, and constrain those who wield power, and it is highly questionable whether and how far those institutions would be changed merely by changing the gender of those in charge. Instead of trying to control how power is exercised by changing the gender of those in charge, we should focus directly on restructuring the institutions of power, for example by making political leaders more legally accountable and empowering employees with workplace democracy. The aim should be to ensure that whether the people in charge are men or women, they are no longer able to behave like bullies or tyrants. 

I: A Flawed Argument

These claims about solving all the world's problems by putting women in charge are everywhere (here's one about Covid management; here's another in a recent speech by Obama). Obviously they are not always meant entirely seriously: often they seem more of humorous dig at the terrible job the people in charge - mostly men - are making of things. Nonetheless, the way the world works is that if groundless claims are repeated often enough without being challenged then they will be end up being taken seriously. So I think this debunking is worth bothering with.

The argument I am complaining about goes something like this when you make it explicit

Part I: Negative

  1. At the moment power is frequently misused
  2. At the moment power is mostly held by men
  3. Therefore, power is misused because it is mostly held by men [The problem with this is that is mistakes evidence of correlation for evidence of causation]
Part II: Positive
  1. If power was mostly held by women then it would not be held by men
  2. There is some evidence of some women being in power who did not misuse power as much as some men (or perhaps the average male ruler) [Problem: this is cherry picked anecdata that cannot support general conclusions]
  3. Anthropologists have described some matriarchal societies where things seem great [Problem: these thumbnail sketches are i) massively idealised/exoticised ii) depict communalist societies of subsistence farmers irrelevant to the challenges and scale of modern politics]
  4. Therefore, if power was mostly held by women it would be better used [Lacking adequate and relevant evidence, this conclusion doesn't hold]

I think this is rather obviously a rubbish argument. But let's follow the principle of charity and see if there is a stronger version possible and how it would fare. 

In the spirit in which the argument is often made, we can add an additional premise to the effect that men are bad (self-centred, mean, aggressive, etc) and women are good (kind to others, cooperative, empathic, etc). More specifically, there is a significant statistical difference in moral goodness between the two groups, just as there is in the distribution of men's and women's height:

Part I: Negative

  1. At the moment power is frequently misused
  2. At the moment power is mostly held by men
  3. Men are morally bad (self-centred, aggressive, mean, etc) [Added premise that powers the conclusion's causal claim]
  4. Therefore, power is misused because it is mostly held by men
Part II: Positive
  1. If power was mostly held by women then it would not be held by men
  2. Women are morally better than men [Added premise to replace the previous irrelevant/inadequate empirical evidence]
  3. Therefore, if power was mostly held by women it would be better used

In responding to this, one could contest whether it is a fact that men are morally worse than women, and by how much (for example, men seem much more likely to risk their lives for strangers than women). One could also question whether women's niceness is the product of nature or nurture, since if it were the result of women learning to downplay their own needs to survive in a sexist world then we can't expect it to persist if women were in charge of everything instead of men. But I will leave those points to others to investigate. The claim seems sufficiently plausible to me given well established facts like the gender gap in crime rates.

Source: Carole Hooven

So I will provisionally accept the claim that women are morally better than men and instead challenge its relevance. The problem is that evidence about what men and women are like in general is not evidence about what the men or women in power are like, nor about how they will use that power. This is an example of the logical fallacy of division, where an argument neglects the structural differences between parts and wholes by assuming that evidence of what a group as a whole is like supports conclusions about what a part of that group is like.

First, while most of the people in charge of things are men, this is only a small subset of the population of all men. The overwhelming majority of men are like women: not leaders but followers. (In the same way, most people in prison for committing violent crimes are men, but most men, like most women, are not in prison, and behave very differently from those who are.) Hence we cannot assume that properties that are true of men in general will be equally true of men in positions of power. Organisations select people with particular character traits for those positions, and shape and train those characteristics further. It is quite possible that this process distills and amplifies assholish tendencies such as the dark triad of psychopathy, narcissism, and Machiavellianism so that these are massively over-represented among leaders compared to the background population. 

This suggests that the mechanism driving the misuse of power is not the gender of those in charge but the way organisations promote and socialise people. One can think of this by analogy to distillation, which increases the percentage by volume of one desired component of an original liquid. If distillation is allowed to continue through multiple cycles, then the product will approach 100% ethanol no matter whether one started from potatoes or grapes.

The significance of this is that, if there is such a distillation mechanism that identifies and promotes people with toxic character traits, then it would have pretty much the same outcomes if it were unleashed on a population of women as on a population of men. That the average woman is nicer than the average man would be irrelevant, so long as there are enough (potentially) horrible women in the population.

Second, characteristics that are true of individuals in general, may not determine the way they exercise power. Positions of power are institutionalised roles that people play rather than merely a place where we get to be ourselves at other people's expense. On the one hand, plenty of managers behave as lovely kind gentle people in interpersonal contexts with family and friends, while behaving like tyrants and bullies over their subordinates at work. On the other hand, in better structured institutions people may operate at a far higher moral standard than they achieve in their normal life (without support, clear rules, and accountability). Again, whether or not women are nicer than men does not determine whether their use of power will be morally better. It is the way power is institutionalised that determines this.

For example, it is often argued that a world ruled by women would have fewer wars because women are less violent than men (by for example Steven Pinker). The error here is assuming that organised inter-group violence (i.e. wars) is continuous with inter-personal violence and explained in the same way. 

I accept that men have a higher likelihood of being violent people, i.e. with a propensity to resort to extreme physical violence (stabbing not slapping). I also accept that more men are attracted to violent jobs like policing and soldiering (although that still doesn't mean that many or most men are violent). This higher proportion of violent characters easily explains why most interpersonal violence (which tends to be 'hot-blooded') is done by men. However, it does not explain the organised mass violence of wars (which tends to be the result of 'cold-blooded' deliberation). Wars are fought by violent people (soldiers) but they aren't directed by them. I see no reason why women leaders would be less capable or willing than men to resort to war on the basis of cold-blooded strategic deliberation. (And in support of this I can cite, besides the usual anecdata - which can support a negative conclusion better than a positive - like the examples of Indira Gandhi, Margaret Thatcher, and Golda Meir, also some more systematic analysis).

II. Nevertheless More Women In Power is a Sign of Progress
I reject the argument that the problem with power is that it is mostly held by men, and that therefore power would be better used if it were mostly held by women. This is because I don't find the causal claims about gender to be credible. (Logic 101 caveat: The claims might still be correct, but not for the reasons/evidence I have seen advanced.)

Nevertheless, I think that the advancement of women to positions of power that we see these days is a good thing in its own right and an indicator of broader moral progress. 

First, the facts. Equal rights for women combined with men's significant relative underperformance in education have led to women dominating ever more of the professional management career tracks in rich liberal countries. For the moment it is true that senior levels with real power are still dominated by men, but that seems an age cohort thing, not a gender thing. In the next decades we will see those upper management jobs as company directors, lawfirm partners, cabinet ministers, school principals, mayors, etc increasingly filled by women instead of men, simply because there are so many better qualified women moving up through the system. 

This is a good thing in itself. Women have the equal right to pursue interesting and challenging careers and to be considered equally as men for positions of responsibility on the basis of their talents and achievements. 

More interestingly for my case is that women's success may be a valuable indicator of improvements to the structure of power even if they are not a significant independent cause of those improvements. The idea here is that a society in which more women are able to compete successfully for power is probably one where power has been made more civilised. This civilisation of power has two components: 

First, the competition for and exercise of power is increasingly constituted by as well as constrained by rules, and thus more like a game than a vicious no holds barred struggle for life or death stakes. In such artificial game worlds (i.e. civilisation), power roles are more constrained by institutional rules (they are depersonalised), and at the same time a relaxation of extreme Hobbesian competition allows more space for moral components in those rules (such as consideration of the rights of employees and citizens). 

Second, the rules of the game become explicitly the co-creation of all the players, and must increasingly be justifiable to those subjected to them (basically John Rawls' social contract analysis). For example, a society in which half the population (women) are excluded from consideration for positions of power is one governed arbitrary and hierarchically imposed rules . As such rules fall - because they cannot withstand demands for justification by those they exclude or mistreat - we get the evolution of better, more egalitarian rules for power. And one of the consequences of this will be more women taking advantage of those better rules to compete for positions of power. 

So it is not implausible that having more women in charge of things correlates with improvements in the way power is exercised, because they are both being caused by something else. We should be cautious however, not to rely too much on this correlation. There remains a fundamental difference between equality of opportunity for power and the moral quality of that power. The underlying point is the difference between an equal society and a merely fair one. An equal society is one in which no one is dominated and exploited by others. A fair society is one in which everyone has an equal chance of being a dominator/exploiter. One can't get to an equal society through fairness alone.

It is clear that we have a power problem. Its routine misuse and abuse makes people around the world worse off than they need be in terms of their basic dignity, welfare, and even survival. The solution to this problem that I oppose is to put women in charge because everyone knows women aren't assholes. This unhelpfully imagines women as a kind of magical species of people who are naturally nice and good and uncorruptible. But the fundamental error is in the moralistic interpretation of the power problem itself: bad problems must be caused by bad people. 

By contrast, my take on the problem of power is institutional: organisations select, socialise, and constrain leaders, and at the moment the way they do this often creates leaders who use power badly. It makes far more sense to me to try to solve the problem of misrule directly, by changing how power works and is accountable, rather than indirectly, by changing the gender of the people who wield it. Our aim should be to have fewer tyrants and bullies, not just fewer male tyrants.