12 February 2008

Different and unequal

Nicholas Kristof took a break from the third world to write a column on the public perception of women leaders.

This creates a huge challenge for ambitious women in politics or business: If they’re self-effacing, people find them unimpressive, but if they talk up their accomplishments, they come across as pushy braggarts. The broader conundrum is that for women, but not for men, there is a tradeoff in qualities associated with top leadership. A woman can be perceived as competent or as likable, but not both.... 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. 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.

In response there were the expected anti-Clinton posts, the sexism-is-dead posts, and the not-feminism-again posts, but the one that pissed me off enough that I had to write was this one (by Nathan N):

To think that gender or race is even remotely relevant and anything other than a complete “red herring” is an intellectual confusion. To illustrate my point, it may be interesting to wonder whether horses or oxes as a group run faster. But when you have one actual horse and one actual ox and want to know which one runs faster, all the statistics and knowledge about how fast or slow the members of the two classes of animals generally run become completely useless. All we need to do would be to let them race and see which one runs faster.
Actually, Nathan, I believe you are intellectually confused. And to boot, you totally missed the point. In your horse and ox example, Kristof's point would most closely be translated to the observation that even if the horse and ox raced with the same time, the ox would be thought of as the faster animal. In fact, your argument is negated by the example in Kristof's article - in an objective measure of governing fitness women did better but were kicked out more often.

Not to mention the fact that in a timed race there is an objective standard whereas a public election is not only subjective, but filtered by the media. The effects of this subjectivity are seen for both genders; some of the most qualified candidates lost early in the primary season due to a lack of media exposure and having more substantive credibility than stylish panache.

And to all the people who responded to his column, Kristof wasn't making a case for Hilary. He was making a statement about how in some situations democracies can empower the very prejudices the system is trying to protect against. If you're going to respond to an article, at least read it first.

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