WOMEN 2000:  WOMEN AND DECISION-MAKING                         OCTOBER 1997

                     THE PERILS OF STEREOTYPES

Almost every class in every culture around the globe has
projected an ideal of the woman who endures and sacrifices for her
children, her family or her people. But worldwide there are also
other visible images of women. In Viet Nam 1,000 years ago, legend
has it, two princesses overthrew Chinese oppression for the first
time in that country's history. In seventeenth-century Jamaica, Nanny
of the Maroons is reputed to have outwitted the British for three
decades. And from contemporary India comes the modern folk heroine
Phoolan Devi, the "Bandit Queen". Despite adverse circumstances, she
fought for the oppressed and later became a Member of Parliament.
When we look at stereotypes of male behaviour, exceptions can also be

What does modern science say? According to a number of experts,
the vast outpouring of research since the 1980s has shown fewer
differences between men and women based on gender than differences
that grow out of disparities in income, household responsibility or
access to power.5/

Despite such examples, the belief that any one group of people
is inherently predisposed -- usually by heredity --- to perform one
or another function in society, such as to rule or to enjoy whatever
a culture considers privileged, has persisted in some quarters and
has been described by scholars as "essentialism". The idea of
essentialism probably reaches back into prehistory. The oldest and
most universal essentialism concerns the "nature" of women as
distinct from the "nature" of men -- with whom "human nature" is
generally associated in western culture. Some scholars have
subscribed to an essentialist philosophy to defend women as having a
particular style or approach.

Problems arise from essentialism. One is to equate identity with
beliefs and behaviour. If a person is defined by any trait that is
considered dominant by those who do the defining, he or she is also
expected to hold certain convictions, exhibit certain behaviour
patterns and take certain actions. Whether these convictions,
behaviours or actions are judged good or bad, beneficial or
destructive, essentialist perspectives tend to deny or gloss over
differences within a given group -- even a group defined by a set of
ideas, such as a religion or a political philosophy. All Christians,
for example, might be presumed to adhere to a particular creed -- or
all socialists or feminists; the creeds or behaviour themselves are
at best represented simplistically, one or another element eclipsing
the complex whole. 

One analyst points out that if we reduce human beings to one or
another facet of their identity, we reduce enormously the possibility
of human change -- whether of groups or individuals -- through
education and experience.6/  Essentialism thereby endangers reform as
well -- certainly to the extent that it aims at reforming values,
attitudes and behaviours. It is just as dangerous to champion women
in terms of immutable biological traits as it is to ignore the needs
that arise from these traits or to subjugate women because of them.

Since women inhabit the globe in much the same proportions as
men, it is not surprising that they are as diverse as men. Over and
against any concept of an inborn and universal female identity, the
Fourth World Conference on Women set gender issues in the context of
the evolution of societies and characterized women's diversity as an
asset to all aspects of human development. A major message of Beijing
was that stereotypes should be avoided -- particularly those that
make assumptions about female and male traits. 

Issues and Styles: Gender Dimensions

Despite their diversity, however, there appear to be specific
kinds of issues women tend to champion, and they appear to bring
distinctive styles to leadership. Arguably, such similarities can be
traced to the different positions women hold in society, the ways in
which different societies constrain women or enable them to fulfil
their human potential and the distinct roles that society expects
them to play in relation to men, rather than any supposedly "innate"
female or male qualities.  Whether as mothers or caregivers concerned
with basic needs or, in times of war and conflict, as protectors and
mediators, women are often directly responsible for the immediate
survival of their families. Although their particular concerns and
styles may vary from one society to another (and within societies),
they tend to bring to governance and other public-sector affairs a
perspective that in some measure reflects their social and cultural
position and the prevailing gendered division of power.

The differences displayed by women and men must therefore be
examined in relation to enduring social structures. Gender
socialization begins in infancy for both girls and boys. The power
relations between women and men are enforced and reinforced
throughout their lives. As two social scientists have remarked, "The
gender dimensions of multiple social structures interact and, in
effect, 'discipline' individual behaviour to conform to

So it is that women in authority have often assumed male
attributes, even male dress. In Egypt 3,500 years ago, the only woman
Pharaoh, Hatshepsut, had to put on a beard of lapis lazuli and a male
kilt for ceremonial occasions. It was the only way she could perform
the central ritual of Egyptian kingship, by which the god-monarch
every morning celebrated the sun's rebirth and re-transmitted life to
the people of the Nile valley. In literature, Shakespeare's Portia,
in The Merchant of Venice, amazes everyone with her legal skill -- by
which she "tempers justice with mercy" and outwits the villain in his
lawsuit for a pound of flesh. But she does so disguised as a man.
Similarly, both Indira Gandhi and Margaret Thatcher were termed
"statesmen" and contemporary women executives wear "power suits". The
reverse, a man imitating a woman, is less frequent, particularly if
the aim is to portray public power and influence.

Attributes women brint to public life: One expert group view

-    A particular concern for justice and the ethical dimension of
     politics, derived in part from their experience of injustice
-    A talent for setting priorities and accomplishing complex tasks
     learned in the course of balancing competing demands for their
     time and attention in the family, at work and in the community
-    An awareness of the value of consensus and agreement, because of
     their central role in social relationships
-    A concern for future generations8/ 

In the early 1940s, a British diplomat summed up his view of
women and political life that is still widely believed. There were
three feminine qualities -- "zeal, sympathy and intuition" -- that he
considered dangerous in international affairs unless kept under the
firmest control. The ideal diplomat, in his view, needed "male"
qualities such as "impartiality and imperturbability", and, he
surmised, needed to be "a trifle inhuman".9/ Recently, an exit poll
conducted by the University of Namibia in that country's regional and
local elections found that about one fourth of the respondents said
they would find it difficult to vote for a woman candidate because
"women are not suitable".10/

By contrast, in many countries today, some transnational
corporations trying to survive in a highly competitive world appear
to be "finding common ground with the values that women have been
raised and socialized to hold".11/ These so-called "female
principles" according to Anita Roddick, who founded a transnational
firm, include: 

     "principles of caring, making intuitive decisions, not getting
     hung up on hierarchy or all those dreadfully boring business-
     school management ideas; having a sense of work as being part
     of your life, not separate from it; putting your labour where
     your love is; being responsible to the world in how you use
     your profits; recognizing the bottom line should stay there --
     at the bottom."12/

Notably, trends towards democratization and greater participation
in both business and government point towards valuing traits that
women acquire through socialization.

     "Organizations of different kinds are now going through a
     'feminization' of their structures, some more rapidly than
     others, creating more space for the discussion and valuing of
     personal issues and problems, as well as reconsidering a more
     intuitive style of decision-making. Some of them are relying
     on more inclusive and horizontal schemes of power and
     responsibility. Team-work and organization-wide communication
     processes are becoming common in business organizations and
     governments . . . ."13/

As early as 1932, psychologist Jean Piaget observed that girls
showed a greater tendency than boys to make exceptions to the rules
and were better able to adapt to innovation.14/  Exploring this view
further during the 1970s, sociologist Nancy Chodorow observed:

     Girls emerge with a stronger basis for experiencing another's
     needs or feelings as one's own (or of thinking that one is
     experiencing another's needs and feelings) . . . . From very
     early, then, because they were parented by a person of the
     same gender . . . girls come to experience themselves as less
     differentiated than boys, as more continuous with and related
     to the external object-world as well.15/

In 1982, psychologist Carol Gilligan added her observation,
echoed by many others, that men are most comfortable in hierarchical
structures of organization, while women prefer weblike structures --
and that this largely unconscious difference in perception explains
many of the tensions between the sexes. She noted that:

     "as the top of the hierarchy becomes the edge of the web and
     as the centre of a network of connection becomes the middle of
     a hierarchical progression, each image marks as dangerous the
     place which the other defines as safe. Men's wish to be alone
     at the top and the consequent fear that others will get too
     close contrasts . . . with women's wish to be at the centre of
     connection and their consequent fear of being too far out on
     the edge."16/

As one woman remarked of a London Borough Council, "It
continually shocks me how male working culture is not about delivery.
They're about status, position, about being, not doing. Women want to
see results, are prepared to be flexible and make changes in

A prominent Indonesian woman business executive recently stated,
"I'm more supportive than my male colleagues . . . . Clients relax
and talk more. And fifty per cent of my effectiveness is based on
volunteered information."18/  

Some differences in women's and men's leadership styles

Men's Leadership Styles
     -    Maintained a complex network of relationships with 
          people outside their organizations
     -    Identified themselves with their jobs
     -    Had difficultly sharing information

Women's Leadership Styles
     -    Maintained a complex network of relationships with 
          people inside and outside their organizations
     -    Saw their own identities as complex and multifaceted
     -    Scheduled time for sharing information19/

Ireland's former President Mary Robinson, now United Nations High
Commissioner for Human Rights, puts things somewhat differently: 

     "Women speak from their experience and work outwards, and do
     so with increasing confidence as they find that what they are
     saying is at least as valid as what they're hearing from other
     sources. I do feel that women tend on the whole to draw more
     from their experience and to want to play a role in a power
     structure to influence change -- it's part of a whole
     different reference point. Women in most contexts are coming
     from a kind of minority, if not marginalized, position into
     one where they're trying to move nearer the centre, and that
     brings with it all the empathy, the listening, and the sense
     of questioning . . . .20/

Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, a recent candidate for the presidency of
Liberia, has stated her belief that:

     "Women's vision for their societies often differs from men's
     because they understand clearly the impact of distorted
     priorities on their families and communities. The vision of
     women is one of inclusion not exclusion, peace not conflict,
     integrity not corruption, and consensus not imposition."21/

Moreover, women's styles may be affected by the distinctive
issues that they tend to support and fight for -- always allowing for
individual points of view. For example, a 1997 survey of female state
legislators in the United States, conducted by the Centre for the
American Woman in Politics (CAWP) revealed significant differences of
opinion between these women and their male counterparts not only on
"women's issues", such as the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment
to the Constitution and proposed limits on abortion. More of them
opposed capital punishment (49 per cent to 33 per cent) and the
construction of new nuclear power plants (84 per cent to 71 per
cent). They expressed greater scepticism about the ability of the
private sector to solve economic, social and environmental problems
(53 per cent to 41 per cent), and often voted across party lines.
They also felt more strongly than men (57 per cent to 32 per cent)
that legislative business should be conducted in public view rather
than behind closed doors.22/

Gender differences in voting patterns have also emerged at the
national level, and have been charted in the European Union. Women
tend to oppose nuclear weapons, capital punishment and racial
discrimination and are more pacifist than men; they tend to favour
social welfare programmes and, in the world of paid work, shorter
hours and reduced incomes for workers as a way of increasing overall

Gender preferences in issues addressed have been observed in the
media. Although women have so far had little influence worldwide in
altering mainstream media policy, growing numbers of women
journalists in various countries have brought quality of life and
social issues into front-page prominence. They have also expanded the
range of "newsworthy" subjects to include women's health, family and
child care, sexual harassment and discrimination, rape and battering,
and homeless mothers. Further, as Margaret Gallagher writes in the
UNESCO survey An Unfinished Story, women can change the way in which
established issues are covered:

     "One obvious example is the coverage of the war in Bosnia, in
     which women reporters focused worldwide attention on the
     systematic rape of women as a weapon of war. Again, the issue
     of 'critical mass' is important. Women have been reporting war
     for decades, but the war in the former Yugoslavia drew women
     journalists in unprecedented numbers."23/ 


5/   Cynthia Epstein, Deceptive Distinctions: Sex, Gender and the Social
Order, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1988.

6/   Dan Smith, "The Problem of Essentialism", a working paper prepared
for the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Political Decision-
Making and Conflict Resolution: The Impact of Gender Difference, 7 --
11 October 1996. (EGM/PDCR/1996/WP.2).

7/   V. Spike Peterson and Anne Sisson Runyan, Global Gender Issues,
Boulder, Colorado, Westview Press, 1993.

8/   Report of the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on Women in Public
Life, Vienna, 21-24 May 1991 (EGM/RWPL/1991/Rep.1).

9/   Spectator (London), 23 January 1942.

10/  Consideration of Reports submitted by States Parties under Article
18 of the Convention on the Elimination of All forms of
Discrimination against Women: Initial Report of States Parties:
Namibia (CEDAW/C/NAM/1), 10 February 1997, p. 70. 

11/  Sally Helgesen, The Female Advantage, Women's Ways of Leadership,
New York,  Doubleday, 1990, p. 39.

12/  Anita Roddick, as quoted in Helgesen, ibid.

13/  "Can Women Change the World?", in Ana Maria Brasiliero, ed.,
Women's Leadership in a Changing World: Reflecting on Experience in
Latin America and the Caribbean, New York, UNIFEM, 1996.

14/  Jean Piaget, The Moral Judgement of the Child, New York, The Free
Press, 1965. 

15/  As quoted in Carol Gilligan, In a Different Voice: Psychological
Theory and Women's Development, Cambridge, Harvard University Press,
1982, p. 33.

16/  Ibid., p. 62

17/  Virginia Willis, "Public Life: Women Make a Difference", paper
prepared for the United Nations Expert Group Meeting on The Role of
Women in Public Life, Vienna, 21-24 May 1991

18/  Nancy J. Adler and Dafna N. Izraeli, Competitive Frontiers: Women
Managers in a Global Economy, Oxford, Basil Blackwell Ltd., 1994, p.32.

19/  Marina Fanning, "Bridging the Gender Gap in Today's Organizations:
Understanding the Cultural Differences of Gender", Management Systems
International, Washington, D.C., 1995.

20/  Ibid., p. 111

21/  Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf, statement in Empowering Women for the 21st
Century. The Challenges of Politics, Business, Development and
Leadership, A. Aderinwale, ed., London, ALF Publications, 1997, p.25.

22/  Centre for the American Woman in Politics, "Survey of Women State
Legislators", Washington, D.C., 1997.

23/  Margaret Gallagher, An Unfinished Story, Paris, UNESCO, 1995, p.59.  



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Date last updated: 06 December 1999 by DESA/DAW
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