Women, Power, and Social Change: Beyond the 2012 Election

On November 6th, women played a decisive role in determining the outcome of the presidential and congressional elections. According to UPI, "Women made up 54 percent of the electorate . . . and widened the pro-Democratic gender gap to 18 points." 55% of all women's votes, but 67% of single women's, went to Obama.

Time Magazine reported that the incoming "113th Congress will mark the first time that white men are a minority in the House Democratic Caucus." Time also reported that "The new Congress . . . will boast the largest number of incoming female House members since 1992, and a record 28 women of color," and that "despite the retirements" of two Republican senators, "women gained ground in the U.S. Senate, expanding their ranks from 17 members to 20, a new record."

But as important as these achievements were, the electoral gains of women barely made a dent in the male-dominated composition of Congress. The proportion of female members  of Congress will only increase from 17% to 18% – still below the world average of 20.3%. The United States' ranking for women in national office – 80th of 190 countries in 2011 – will likely continue its downward trajectory as women continue to make impressive gains world-wide. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm

State legislatures averaged 23.7% women nationwide in 2012. "This is a slight decrease from the 2010 session's ratio of 24.5 percent female legislators," reports the National Conference of State Legislatures on its website. With countries as diverse as Rwanda, Nicaragua, Finland, and Cuba having more than 40% women in their national legislatures, why has the United States' level of women's political leadership remained so low?

There are at least three reasons. The first is the U.S. winner-take-all electoral system. Most other nations have proportional representation, permitting voting for slates of candidates chosen by different parties – the number of candidates seated from each party's slate is then determined by the percentage of the vote received by that party. Studies have shown that proportional representation increases opportunities for the selection and election of female candidates. (Anne Stevens, Women, Power and Politics, 2007, p. 83)

A second reason, often overlapping with the one above, is the existence of electoral gender quotas in more than half of the world's nations. These quotas take one of three forms: a set number of reserved seats, a requirement that candidate lists have a minimum percentage of women, or voluntary quotas adopted by political parties. Most of these quotas were implemented in the last 20 years, the 1995 World Conference of Women having provided much of the spark. These quota systems "have led to a dramatic increase in female leaders across the globe," according to Rohini Pande and Deanna Ford of Harvard University. (2012 World Development Report on Gender Quotas and Female Leadership)

A third reason for the small percentage of women in elected office in the US is the out-of-control system of campaign finance. Studies have shown that there are very real obstacles to women candidates' ability to compete with men in raising money – despite the fact that other studies have shown that women candidates, once having achieved ballot status, have as good a shot at being elected as do men.

The Liberation and Empowerment of Women

The movement for the Liberation and Empowerment of Women (LEW) has been growing exponentially since the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft's "Vindication of the Rights of Women" in 1792. From that point, it was more than a century before women won the right to vote in New Zealand, the first nation to enact women's suffrage. By 1922, women had won suffrage rights in over twenty nations, including the United States.

At the time of the creation of the United Nations, the only countries with more than a token number of women in their legislative bodies were the socialist states. Fifty years later, in 1997, twenty-eight parliaments had at least 20% women, but only five had more than 30% (Sweden's 40.4% was the highest). By 2011, thirty parliaments had exceeded 30% women's participation. Today, 74 out of 190 nations have at least 20% women's participation in their national legislative bodies. Rwanda currently has the largest bloc  of women – 52% combined in their two chambers. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm

The Nordic nations are arguably the most socially advanced societies in the world. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland have some of the world's highest standards of living and the least inequality. They also have far more women in political power than any other regional grouping: Sweden ranks fourth among the world's nations with 44% women  in its parliament; Finland is seventh with 42%; Iceland, Norway, and Denmark are 10th, 11th, and 12th, with just under 40%. By comparison China and the United States rank  64th and 80th (of 190 countries) with only 21% and 17% women in national legislative leadership respectively. http://www.ipu.org/wmn-e/world.htm

The Nordic nations also rank highest in the world in terms of overall gender equality. The latest (2012) "Gender Gap Report" issued by the World Economic Forum ranks Iceland,  Finland, Norway, and Sweden as the top four nations in gender equality. Denmark ranks seventh, slightly behind Ireland and New Zealand. The United States and China rank  22nd and 69th respectively.

Could it be that the exceptional empowerment of women in the Nordic nations is one causal factor of those societies' more progressive nature?  Conversely, could the low percentage of women in US Congress (17%), and slightly better (24%) in state legislatures, be a factor contributing to the relative political and social backwardness of the United States? A growing body of research suggests that the answer is yes.

Sex and Science

Many studies have shown that women in government tend to place a higher priority on social needs than men. For instance, the political scientists Susan J. Carroll and Richard L. Fox have written that:

"Studies of members of the U.S. House of Representatives, for example, have found that women are more likely than men to support policies favoring gender equity, day care programs, flex time in the work place, legal and accessible abortion, minimum wage increases, and the extension of the food stamp program. . . Similarly, a number of studies have found that women serving in legislatures at the state level are also more likely than men to give priority to, introduce, and work on legislation related to women's rights, health care, education, and the welfare of families and children. When women are not present in sufficient numbers among public officials, their distinctive perspectives are under-represented." (Gender and Elections, 2006, emphasis added)

And Gail Collins, New York Times columnist, offered this:

"One of the most interesting factoids gleaned from a generation's worth of survey research on women in politics is that while men often embark on a political career to make business contacts, women generally get into the game because they want to help. . .That impulse to help is in keeping with what pollsters find about women voters – they're more likely to support social spending and activist government." (Why the Women Are Fading Away, October 25, 1998)

Anthropologist Helen Fisher also weighed the evidence, concluding that women "are more inclined to favor all kinds of social programs and social services and to regard issues of education, health care, child care, poverty, and joblessness as essential elements of the national agenda." (The First Sex, 1999)

There are various theories to explain these differences between men and women, not only in political matters but in a wide range of attitudes and behaviors. There are some who deny any differences and others who attribute the differences strictly to socialization and other cultural influences. Relatively recent advances in the psychological and biological sciences have provided strong evidence that these differences go deeper.

The psychologist and neuroscientist Ian H. Robertson was recently interviewed on NPR station WNYC by Leonard Lopate. They discussed what Robertson and other scientists believe is a universal human need for power – power defined as influence and impact, not simply domination. For example, teachers may fulfill their need for power by having an  impact on their students; others exercise a need for power by becoming police officers or accumulating wealth. He described studies demonstrating differences between the power needs of women and men.
In his new book, The Winner Effect, Robertson wrote that "women on average do not have any lower need for power than men, and women respond to competition and power in very similar ways to men. But there are differences:  it seems that men are more power aware – they pay more attention to signs of power than women do, and they remember more facts  about more powerful than less powerful people, while women do not show this selective memory. Finally, men sniff out the power relationships in a room quicker than women do."  (The Winner Effect p. 226)

Robertson then discusses the existence of two quite distinct types of power need – "personal power" and "social power" (referred to as "p-power" and "s-power"). Men's power need leans more towards p-power, defined as a desire for dominance manifested by a tendency "to be satisfied assertively, with a strong drive to beat the opponent and win the contest."  On the other hand, women's power need leans towards s-power – defined as "power need focused on goals for an institution, a group or a society . . . to achieve a change for some wider benefit than just the high of winning:  in particular, the high social power person tends to feel some moral or legal standard governing his or her behavior and along with that is a sense of obligation and a concern for others." (ibid p. 229)

Robertson attributes the hormone testosterone, which men produce far more of than women, to the on average greater desire for personal dominance among men. "Testosterone," he writes, "changes the brain because it alters its chemistry. In particular it boosts levels of the neurotransmitter dopamine." Dopamine, as many of us know, is the brain chemical responsible for rewarding us for pleasurable behaviors, including those like drugs, sex, and gambling, which can become addictive. Personal power, Robertson emphasizes, can also become addictive. (ibid p. 115)

Robertson cites the 2002 collapse of Enron as one example of the potentially destructive nature of p-power. "The higher you are in a steep hierarchy," he writes, "the more power you have over those below you, whether psychological, financial, or physical. Power pumps testosterone into the blood, which in turn – via the winner effect – further inflates your power by helping you win in the future." (ibid p. 103)

Basing his conclusions on a great deal of research, Robertson believes that most people have varying degrees of need for both types of power. In this majority of individuals, including men, "s-power not only tames p-power – it also dissolves p-power's physiological linkage to testosterone and the competitive aggression that goes with it. S-power acts as a sort of coolant on the potent but sometimes destructive effects of unmitigated p-power, and  women's minds have more of this coolant. What's more, s-power's dissolving effects on testosterone very probably diminish the most virulent of the dopamine surges that can lead to addiction to power." But Robertson is very clear that the chances of being a bearer of "unmitigated p-power" – without any s-power "coolant" present – is far greater for males. And, he adds, "this may be one reason why all the notorious and massacring dictators of the world have been men." (ibid pp. 234-5)

Other researchers have found similar results. Echoing Gail Collins' observation above, a recent study surveyed 10,000 individuals, in 52 countries, who had started a new business. The researchers discovered that women were about twenty percent more likely than men to start a business to promote social or environmental change, as opposed to personal gain.

In the aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, there has been much written about the relationship between male domination and financial speculation. Like Ian Robertson's argument that the sex difference in power-seeking is related to the hormone testosterone, other research has pointed to a similar hormonal role in relation to risk taking behaviors.

There is strong evidence that women, on average, are more risk averse than men – and that men, on average, tend to be more prone to rash judgment calls based on over-confidence (a psychological trait closely linked to risk-taking). Other recent studies have shown that banks with more gender diverse corporate boards fared better during and after the financial crisis.

John Coates is a former financial trader who went back to school and became a neuroscientist out of concern for the damaging effects of the lust for money and power. In an article in the New York Times he described a trader's experience:

"These past hours, the trader's testosterone levels have been climbing. This steroid hormone, produced by men (and, in lesser quantities, by women) primes the trader for the challenge ahead, just as it does athletes preparing to compete and male animals to fight. Rising levels increase confidence and, crucially, appetite for risk. . .The stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol surge out of the adrenal glands, and the cortisol travels to the brain, where it stimulates the release of dopamine, a chemical operating along neural circuits known as the pleasure pathways. At high levels, cortisol provides a nasty, stressful experience. But in small amounts, in combination with dopamine – one of the most addictive drugs known to the human brain – it delivers a narcotic hit, a rush that convinces traders that there is no other job in the world [as rewarding]. . ."

He proposed one action that might ameliorate the problem: ". . . encourage a more even balance within banks among men and women, young and old. Women and older men have a fraction of the testosterone of young men, so if more of them managed money, we could perhaps stabilize the markets."

Similarly, in discussing the results of a 2009 study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a researcher said:

"This is the first study showing that gender differences in financial risk aversion have a biological basis, and that differences in testosterone levels between individuals can affect important aspects of economic behavior and career decisions."

Behavior, Biology, Culture, and Society

It is important to acknowledge the deep misgivings that many on the political left and in the academic social science disciplines have about the relationship between biology, sex differences, and complex human behaviors such as power seeking and risk taking. These misgivings are due in part to the understandable fear of the abuse of evolutionary theory to support malevolent goals. We are all too familiar with the horrendous consequences of pseudo-scientific ideologies in support of eugenics, Nazism, and racism.

However, there is also the problem of ideology and political agendas. Many on the organized left or in the disciplines of sociology and anthropology perceive any hint of biological causation for social behaviors as an assault on basic principles, such as the deeply held belief that only socioeconomic or cultural factors are responsible for complex behaviors.

But science has advanced tremendously in the past several decades. This is as true of the biological sciences as it is of physics and computer science. Developments in thecognitive and brain sciences have been especially rich. New imaging techniques now permit scientists to see exactly what parts of the brain are involved in learning, memory, addiction, desire, and other behaviors. To ignore, deny, or discount these developments, leaving them to those with ulterior motives to exploit, will ultimately prove to be counterproductive.

Sandra Witelson of McMaster University has been studying the human brain for decades. A 2005 article in the Los Angeles Times discussed some of her work on sex differences:

"Witelson is convinced that gender shapes the anatomy of male and female brains in separate but equal ways beginning at birth. On average, she said, the brains of women and men are neither better nor worse, but they are measurably different. Men's brains, for instance, are typically bigger – but on the whole, no smarter.

"What is astonishing to me," Witelson said, "is that it is so obvious that there are sex differences in the brain and these are likely to be translated into some cognitive differences, because the brain helps us think and feel and move and act. "Yet there is a large segment of the population that wants to pretend this is not true."

Commenting more recently on this ongoing debate, the neuropsychiatrist Louann Brizendine wrote:

"There are still those who believe that for women to become equal, unisex must be the norm.  The biological reality, however, is that there is no unisex brain. The fear of discrimination based on difference runs deep, and for many years assumptions about sex differences went scientifically unexamined for fear that women wouldn't be able to claim  equality with men. But pretending that women and men are the same, while doing a disservice to both men and women, ultimately hurts women. . . It also ignores the different  ways that they process thoughts and therefore perceive what is important." (The Female Brain, p. 160)
Donald W. Pfaff of Rockefeller University in New York City has been studying the human brain for decades. I heard him speak last year at the New York Academy of Sciences. He  exudes the air of an extremely meticulous and circumspect scientist. These qualities are reflected in his most recent book, Man and Woman: An Inside Story, in which he repeatedly  expresses a need to exercise caution when drawing conclusions regarding the brain and behavior. But the following is one of his conclusions:

"All of [the cautions about drawing conclusions] having been said, some evidence does point to believable psychological differences between men and women . . . The most convincing  evidence, in my view, has to do with social relationships. Males are interested in hierarchies and in power. . .

"Indeed, there are anatomical differences between men's and women's brains, and some of them, theoretically, could contribute to the psychological differences I just discussed." (pp. 189-190)

And from an article published in Science Daily in 2008:

"What was once speculation is now being confirmed by scientists: the brains of women and men are different in more ways than one. Discoveries by scientists over the past 10 years have elucidated biological sex differences in brain structure, chemistry and function. 'These variations occur throughout the brain, in regions involved in language, memory, emotion, vision, hearing and navigation,' explains Larry Cahill, Ph.D. . . at the University of California, Irvine."

Differences in the behaviors of men and women are present in all societies and cultures. Scientists who study human behavior generally agree that most complex behaviors result from a combination of genes and environment, nature and nurture. As three scientists have written:

"Unless you are a Creationist, you have to accept that humans have been subject to the same processes of evolutionary change as all other living things on earth. A full understanding of human nature therefore requires an understanding of biological as well as sociological processes. Indeed, it is actually impossible to separate the two. We are products of an interaction between biology and culture, or to put it in its more familiar guise, nature  and nurture, genes and environment. To separate the two is a false dichotomy." (Louise Barrett, Robin Dunbar, John Lycett, Human Evolutionary Psychology, 2002 p. 2)

The Thatcher Effect

When discussing male/female power differences, skeptics often ask "but what about women leaders like Margaret Thatcher?" As Ian Robertson's research points out, women are not immune from the desire for p-power. Rather, women are far less likely than men to be "all" p-power and zero s-power. Thatcher may be one of the exceptions that proves the rule. As Robertson emphasizes, most individuals have mixed needs for both p-power and s-power – it's just that on average women are much more likely to be driven by the need for social power. And this is what makes the movement to increase the proportion of women in collective decision-making bodies – whether Congress or the Supreme Court – so important.

Gender balance has become an important rallying point for organizations, such as the White House Project, that are actively promoting female empowerment. Research suggests that a "critical mass" threshold of 30% is the approximate point at which women begin to have a noticeable impact on agenda setting and policy outcomes in collective leadership bodies. (Sandra Grey, Women and Parliamentary Politics, Australian National University, 2001}

This "critical mass" concept was what prompted the delegates to the 1995 World Conference on Women to set 30% minimum female representation in parliaments as their goal. It's perhaps the major reason that President Obama's historic appointments of Sonia Sotamayor and Elena Kagan to the Supreme Court were such significant political moves.

We can see how the concept of "critical mass" has played out in other nations. The near forty-percent level of women's representation in the Nordic nations' parliaments puts those decision-making bodies in an entirely different league than the sub-twenty-percent level in the U.S. The story of Iceland's 2008 collapse due to the male-dominated banking sector's foray into highly risky real estate investments is illustrative. After the financial melt-down threatened to take down the entire country, women – who then occupied 33% of Iceland's parliament – banded together, forced out the former male-dominated government, and installed a new one under the leadership of Prime Minister Johanna Siguroardottir. The new female-dominated government then took decisive action to clean up the mess made by the bankers and their government allies. Ian Robertson's point that female dominant s-power tends to "dissolve" male dominant p-power buttresses the case for "super-critical mass" gender balanced decision-making bodies as one important component of the struggle for more fair and just societies.

The Future of History?

Even if many remain unconvinced about causal relationships between behavioral gender differences and biology, there should be no disagreement about the need to eliminate the  social, economic, and political gender inequalities that persist. If the organized left were to become more proactive in promoting an agenda to accelerate theempowerment of women, especially but not exclusively in the political arena, we might discover that chipping away at (and perhaps one day ending) male domination will positively correlate with the enactment of more progressive governmental, legal, social, and economic policies and programs. We can continue to debate the issue of innate gender differences, but we should not need to debate the importance or utility of winning full gender equality, thus advancing the LEW Revolution and the movements for rights, fairness, and justice.

There are other reasons for the organized left to prioritize women's empowerment as a key part of the agenda for change. The under-representation of women in leadership – whether in government, unions, academic teams, or progressive and left organizations – undermines the efficacy of social movements. Under-representation of any group leads to failure to fully utilize talent, the stifling of viewpoints, and inhibits the ability to create movement solidarity. As women represent at least one-half of society, it is critical that leadership bodies, organizing bodies, any decision-making body, reflect that reality as much as possible. It should be self-evident that achieving such a goal will greatly enhance the left's  ability to mobilize and organize the vast majority of society negatively impacted by our patriarchal institutions.

The agricultural and industrial social systems that have dominated the world for the past five thousand years have been exclusively patriarchies. We don't know what will happen when, and if, women achieve full equality. But the strong correlation between feminization and social progress in societies throughout the world gives credence to the notion that ending patriarchy will likely have a profound impact on the future of history. The findings of scientists like Ian Robertson and Sandra Witelson strongly suggest that the further empowerment of women will push societies in the direction of cooperativeness, altruism, and compassion; away from inequality, greed, and despotism.

Marc Beallor has a long history of social justice activism, including thirty years in organized labor. He has a Master of Science degree from the NYU Wagner School of Public Service. 


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