Thursday, September 12, 2013

The ghost of the patriarchy

The patriarchy has been a hot topic lately--first with this Hanna Roisin post claiming that it's dead, and now with Matt Yglesias's response, saying that, if it's dead, there sure are a lot of men still running things.

Yglesias points out that men control the vast majority of the business world; for instance, 95% of Fortune 1000 companies have male CEOs.  (He leaves this out, but men also dominate politics, composing 83% of Congress and presiding over an amazing winning streak of 44 straight presidents.)  He argues that it doesn't really matter whether discrimination is the cause of this imbalance, because men are the de facto leaders of society either way.  

He might be right about that, but I'm still wary about his approach, citing gender disparities at the very tip top of our social institutions without evidence that these disparities are creating problems for women somewhere further down the line.  The problem is that there are at least two mechanisms which will tend to concentrate the effects of discrimination and other obstacles for women at the top of the professional ladder, such that, even if the patriarchy is truly on its last legs, its lingering remnants will be most visible in the apex of the political and business worlds.  

Mechanism one: the composition of the top tier of society is a lagging indicator, reflecting social attitudes from previous decades as much as attitudes from today.  

The key here is that leaders (business, political, or otherwise) are rarely selected from a pool composed of everyone in society.  Instead, candidates for these positions selected from a class of notables situated just below the top.  The people in that class are selected from a group below them, and so on.  Climbing all the way up the ladder usually takes half a lifetime or more.  

As a result, when the groups near the top are composed primarily of men, that, to some extent, is because the people entering business or politics thirty years ago were primarily men.  Whatever challenges women face today, the obstacles confronting them were far more severe in the past.  And since the highest levels of professional success often take the longest to reach, they reach further into the past than any other.

Mechanism two: small pressures against promotion can compound over multiple tiers of advancement.  Even if any given woman at any given level of professional success is only mildly disadvantaged in comparison to her male counterparts, the actual proportion of women will shrink at each level.  

I threw together a quick example on Excel.  It's artificial but it should illustrate my point.  We start with ten million people--let's say the population of a whole state.  Ten percent of the population then advances to the first tier of achievement; ten percent of that group advances to Tier 2, and so on.  Women's opportunity for advancement is slightly less than if they were being selected at random: they only have a nine percent chance of doing so.

By the time you've selected the top ten most successful members of the population, they're 73% male.  Depressingly, that's still better than real life, although real life probably has more than seven levels and this demonstration makes no attempt to incorporate the historical factors above.  But the point should be clear: you can't really determine the degree of the pressures against women simply by looking at how many women have been promoted to the highest levels; indeed, you're much better off looking at pressures felt at the very bottom.  

These two points can probably be read as both support for Matt's argument and as a mild critique of it.  On one hand, they demonstrate how important it is, if we want society to be truly equitable from top to bottom, to purge even mild bias from our institutions.  Small pressures at the bottom of society can have major impacts at the top, and the effects of discrimination can long outlive discrimination itself.  Even small factors, like mostly-male boards of directors, might have more of an effect than we'd think.

On the other hand, we do need to be careful when interpreting one-dimensional statistics like "The number of CEOs who are women."  Those statistics might remain unpromising long after the ground has shifted beneath them, in favor of more equitable advancement for women.  Politicians and CEOs can't really be used as shorthand for the rest of America, and, ironically, the average working women might find that her workplace is a lot less imbalanced than the average female CEO.  Even if the patriarchy is dead, its ghost might live on for a span, in corporate boardrooms and the Senate.  

Because of this, if we want to make the argument that the gender imbalance at the top of society is not evidence of a patriarchal order, but has patriarchal effects, it needs to be made directly.  As a personal aside, I actually find that case pretty intuitively compelling, but recognize that it's significantly more difficult to demonstrate empirically.  It's hard to say whether a society with a greater number of powerful women would work much differently from our own, because we've never had one.  But for the same reason, it remains very plausible that it might.

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