Monday, February 11, 2008

Kristof on Women Rulers

Nicholas Kristof often writes columns in the New York Times about how he is single-handedly saving the women of the world (which is very considerate of him and also based on him being unable to Google "feminist organizations and the work they do"). Thus, it shows what honest and neutral goddess I am to say that he actually has a point in his most recent column about why women tend not to fare well when a governing system is first democratized:

While no woman has been president of the United States — yet — the world does have several thousand years' worth of experience with female leaders. And I have to acknowledge it: Their historical record puts men's to shame.

A notable share of the great leaders in history have been women: Queen Hatshepsut and Cleopatra of Egypt, Empress Wu Zetian of China, Isabella of Castile, Queen Elizabeth I of England, Catherine the Great of Russia, and Maria Theresa of Austria. Granted, I'm neglecting the likes of Bloody Mary, but it's still true that those women who climbed to power in monarchies had an astonishingly high success rate.

Research by political psychologists points to possible explanations. Scholars find that women, compared with men, tend to excel in consensus-building and certain other skills useful in leadership. If so, why have female political leaders been so much less impressive in the democratic era? Margaret Thatcher was a transformative figure, but women have been mediocre prime ministers or presidents in countries like Sri Lanka, India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, the Philippines and Indonesia. Often, they haven't even addressed the urgent needs of women in those countries.

I have a pet theory about what's going on.

In monarchies, women who rose to the top dealt mostly with a narrow elite, so they could prove themselves and get on with governing. But in democracies in the television age, female leaders also have to navigate public prejudices — and these make democratic politics far more challenging for a woman than for a man.

In one common experiment, the "Goldberg paradigm," people are asked to evaluate a particular article or speech, supposedly by a man. Others are asked to evaluate the identical presentation, but from a woman. Typically, in countries all over the world, the very same words are rated higher coming from a man.

Alas, I am very familiar with the many studies which show that just putting a woman's name on some scientific piece of writing, say, will immediately lower the evaluations it gets, from either men or women evaluators. But Kristof's deeper point is also an important one: Democracy is not an automatic way of getting rid of prejudice or bigotry. Indeed, it can strengthen both of those if the population getting the vote is bigoted and prejudiced. Dare I mention Iraq in this context?

But Kristof's story about the experiences of Indian villages which required women to have a role to play also demonstrates something important about this prejudice: It can disappear when the lack of information it was based on also disappears:

Female leaders face these impossible judgments all over the world. An M.I.T. economist, Esther Duflo, looked at India, which has required female leaders in one-third of village councils since the mid-1990s. Professor Duflo and her colleagues found that by objective standards, the women ran the villages better than men. For example, women constructed and maintained wells better, and took fewer bribes.

Yet ordinary villagers themselves judged the women as having done a worse job, and so most women were not re-elected. That seemed to result from simple prejudice. Professor Duflo asked villagers to listen to a speech, identical except that it was given by a man in some cases and by a woman in others. Villagers gave the speech much lower marks when it was given by a woman.

Such prejudices can be overridden after voters actually see female leaders in action. While the first ones received dismal evaluations, the second round of female leaders in the villages were rated the same as men. "Exposure reduces prejudice," Professor Duflo suggested.

Interesting, is it not? This is why the traditional sexual division of labor can maintain prejudice. In an earlier post about the Indian rights in Mexico I quoted a man who argued that the women there don't deserve to have the vote because they don't work hard enough.

Hard enough? When any outside observer might argue that the women in those villages work at least as hard as the men, probably harder? But for the man who made that comment the women's work has become invisible, not viewed as "work", and not viewed as valuable. Sharing that work might change the minds of men like this one. Sexual segregation in societies stops this kind of learning and allows prejudices to go on living.

To return to the feminist implications of introducing democracy: The experiences in Russia and Poland suggest that just introducing democracy doesn't necessarily improve women's lives. Rather the reverse in some cases. Women's earning levels collapsed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, discrimination in hiring became commonplace (only young and pretty women wanted) and female unemployment rates soared compared to male unemployment rates. Fewer women got elected to public offices.

At the same time, public support for the traditionally female areas of responsibility in the society, the ones that had to do with the care of children and of the elderly, also collapsed, and calls for women to return to the kitchens increased. Poland has made abortions difficult to obtain. And none of the ex-Soviet-bloc countries has had a real feminist awakening yet.

It will come, though. Initially democracy often looks like mob rule, or "democracy for me but not for thee", especially when the necessary democratic institutions and habits of the mind are missing. As the system matures and as people learn to work democracy previously mistreated groups demand their share in the cake. I think that the time of women in those countries will come. Well, I hope so.