x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Stereotypical view of women's influence helps nobody

In a recent essay, a business school professor suggested having women around makes men more empathetic. But does the claim add up?

Last week, Professor Adam Grant of the Wharton School of Business wrote an essay in The New York Times, titled Why Men Need Women.

The essay posits that having women around makes men more empathetic, compassionate and philanthropic. As a woman and a feminist, I read the piece with both great interest and dismay.

Professor Grant is the author of the book, Give and Take.  He is also the youngest-tenured and the most highly-rated professor in the Wharton School of Business's MBA programme. His credentials, in other words, are impeccable.

Using a range of carefully-chosen studies, Professor Grant contends that male CEOs become more generous after the birth of their daughters (not sons). He argues that business titans such as Bill Gates became philanthropists because of the influence of mothers, wives, sisters and daughters. Having sons, he says, does not make a man more generous.

As a feminist and a woman, I should have felt happy to read about women being portrayed in such a positive way.

But I didn't.  I felt that the premise of Professor Grant's essay was both wrong and patronising.

The CEOs he cites are all men who benefited from the influence of their wives and daughters.  What about women CEOs such as Indra Nooyi and Sheryl Sandberg and the influences that their husbands and sons had on them? Or are there too few women CEOs to merit a control group in such a study?

Women may help a man donate more money, but these women, I would argue, belong to the upper echelons of society.  Among the middle class and the poorer sections, it is often the opposite.

Women are often the stingier of the two sexes, the more conservative when it comes to spending, the keepers of the purse and the ones who resist making donations.

They want to make sure the household has enough. Put it down to nesting instinct. Put it down to old-fashioned maternal caution.

Men, on the other hand, are often more inclined to largesse, perhaps because they have been earning for longer periods of time - both individually and as a species.

Poor women save instead of spending. Not only that, they prevent their husbands - and quite rightly so - from spending.

It is ridiculous to suggest that because Melinda and Mama Gates influenced Bill Gates into giving away his wealth, therefore all women will influence their husbands to be more philanthropic.

According to the studies that Professor Grant cites, sisters make a man share more. I would argue that this is the case with having siblings in general.

Brothers help women lighten up and not take the world so seriously.  They help make women less sensitive to hurt and prepare them for the toughness of the business world.

Studies too can be manipulated to suit a thesis. Professor Grant cites studies in which women donate more "evenly" while men go to "extremes".

In fact, psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg and Carol Gilligan suggest the opposite: that men are more inclined to the "justice" perspective while women are more inclined to the "care" perspective.

Women do soften a man; but not all women do that. Some women make a man bitter; some beat down his confidence; and some egg him on to do things that he does not want to do.

In literature and in our own lives, we have seen mothers, grandmothers, aunts and sisters play roles - both positive and negative - in a relationship. Not all women exude the milk of human kindness and make their men touchy-feely.

And in the end this is the trouble I have with Professor Grant's essay. It portrays women positively - indeed, as saints - but it is a one-sided portrayal and a stereotypical one.

To suggest that women - sisters, mothers, wives and daughters - make men more compassionate and philanthropic does both sexes a disservice.

 

Shoba Narayan is the author of Return to India: a memoir