I never thought I’d say this, but I’m having real doubts about equality for women.

Before you recoil in horror (or possibly leap to agree), read on.

Yesterday I had a tremendously useful session with Marc Fest of Elevator Speech Training, who wrought miraculous improvements on my Sisters pitch in the space of a fast-paced hour. One of my action points was to research more data to back up my main points, including how much better corporations, countries, and families perform when women have a more active say.

All started well.

For corporations: “When Fortune-500 companies were ranked by the number of women directors on their boards, those in the highest quartile in 2009 reported a 42% greater return on sales and a 53% higher return on equity than the rest.” Women deal more effectively (less aggressively) with risk, they temper the over-confidence of male CEOs (HBR), tend to focus on long-term priorities (Warwick Business School), and offer less conformist perspectives. And the very obvious fact that, given that at least some of their customers will be female, having women in the boardroom helps companies relate in a more gender-balanced way.

For countries: “Women in government… advance population health… substantively advance women’s rights in areas such as pay equity, violence against women, health care and family policy… are also more effective at building coalitions and reaching consensus.” (WEF) “When women are in sufficient numbers in parliaments they also promote children’s rights and they tend to speak up more for the interests of communities, local communities, because of their close involvement in community life.” (UN conference in Chile)

For families: “When women work, they invest 90 percent of their income back into their families, compared with 35 percent for men.” (Clinton Global Initiative. No data was offered on what the guys spend their money on. :-/)

So far, so good.

But hold on a moment. What is this?

An excerpt from McKinsey’s October 2017 report: “Women Matter: Ten years of insights on gender diversity”. (Well, gosh, so nice to be told we matter.)

The phrases that particularly caught my attention (aka “made my jaw drop”) were on p12:

Title: An answer to the labor force and talent shortageTagline: Gender diversity is a key battlefield for economic growth in aging countries and for companies to win the talent war

Women are actually one of the largest pools of untapped labor… The entry of more women into the labor force would be of significant benefit to countries with aging populations that face pressure on their labor pools and therefore, potentially, on their GDP growth.

At this point, I’m having to assume that McKinsey’s intended audience is NOT women, but rather stereotypical white, middle-aged (or older) males who still need convincing that women should have a seat at the boardroom table. So they are pitching equality as being, not for the benefit of women, but for the benefit of the CEO’s pension and healthcare needs.

These few lines strongly give the impression that large companies/capitalism need women far more than women need large companies/capitalism. Why would women voluntarily go into masculine structures that primarily reward masculine behaviours? We already know about the disproportionate toll it takes on our physical and mental health (and if you follow those links, you’ll see it’s not too great for the guys, either).

If we women are so smart, why wouldn’t we set up our own companies along gender-balanced lines, and be our own bosses, instead of devoting our time, talent and energy to further enriching the (98% male) 1%?

And don’t even start me on the “battlefield” and “war” imagery. So dominator, so non-partnership (to channel Riane Eisler).

I needed to share my general state of gobsmackery with a kindred spirit, so I sent the link to a friend in California, obviously knowing I’d be singing to the choir.

Her response: “I glanced through and the photos called my attention. All the women are young, fit and attractive.  The men are mostly average looking. The main image sends the implicit message that women are just now coming onto the scene (witness the main photo with attractive older white male in power suit shaking hands with young woman wearing nondescript utilitarian masculine mode clothing. No question who has the power here. The other main image is a young eye shot from a come hither angle (above). The mom is harried (but gorgeous) and her kid is none too happy. The dad is average, relaxed, with happy child. Everyone wears conforming black shoes…but only one female out of four and her shoes are painfully high sexy stilettos.  The imagery has an implicit power dynamic that’s palpable. I’d love to see a cover photo of EQUALS shaking hands.”


Amen, sister.

This report has really highlighted for me the bluntness of the aspiration of “equality”, and the need for greater refinement.

Should women receive equal pay for equal work as men? Yes, absolutely!

Should more of the traditional “women’s work” – caring for children, sick, elderly – be rewarded? Totally!

Do we want women to have equal access to healthcare, and for women’s medical issues to be given equal priority with men’s? Goes without saying.

But this report implies that women are seen as being huge pool of untapped labour – wanting to bring more women into organisations that are still structured in ways that are not beneficial for them, to prop up GDP growth (a very dubious measure of wellbeing) and an ageing population.

So we need to be careful – are women being brought into the workplace from a genuine appreciation of what they bring, or more to support the existing “yang” paradigm?

There are many different dimensions to equality. Some of them are desirable – and some are not. Too often in this report it feels like “equality” is assumed to mean that women’s economic participation should look the same as men’s, i.e. we conform to the masculine standard.

What we actually need is more of the feminine – no matter whether that is embodied by a man or a woman. 

P.S. And while I’m on the subject, check out yesterday’s article by Umair Haque: (Why) the Future is Feminine.

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