One of the most enduring and, to me, infuriating tropes thrown up by the financial crisis of 2008 is that the crash might not have happened if Lehman Brothers had been “Lehman sisters”. The quip, which has been thrown around by the likes of IMF chief Christine Lagarde, reflects a kind of lazy, sugar-and-spice gender essentialism that sets my teeth on edge. More importantly, it reduces analysis of economic and corporate skulduggery to individual characteristics rather than the pressures that are built into the structures of capitalist systems to produce maximum returns in the shortest possible time. So the joke is not only a tedious slice of benevolent sexism, it also misdirects the finger of blame.
There is little scientific doubt that the typical man is more prone to risk-taking and competitive impulses than the typical woman, and testosterone alone can account for at least some of that difference. However, the people who are selected to spin the roulette wheels of international finance are anything but typical. People who reach influential positions in corporations do so because they have the ruthless personality, mindset and talent (if that word is appropriate) to meet the demands of their employers. It might be slightly easier to find men like that, but this does not mean women appointed to such roles would behave any differently.
Economic observers typically attribute the seeds of the 2008 crisis to a combination of reckless risk-taking and outright corruption - most notably in the collapse of Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. Just as risk-taking has been laid at the door of masculinity, so too has corruption. Women, so the theory goes, are simply more honest than men. Back in 1999, the World Bank conducted a major study into political governance which suggested women are more trustworthy and public-spirited than men, and found that the greater the representation of women in parliaments around the world, the lower the level of corruption.
In some parts of the world this has been applied as a systematic policy. Women-only traffic police units have been introduced in Mexico City to cut bribery. A similar experiment in Lima, Peru has reported mixed results over the past 15 years. The gender effect has been quoted regularly in international anti-corruption policies of bodies like the UN. But is it true?
A fascinating academic paper published this week suggests that, unsurprisingly, it’s a bit more complicated. Political scientists Justin Esarey and Gina Chirillo dug deeper into the data and found strong evidence that a gender gap in corruption-related attitudes and behaviours is indeed present in democracies, but the gap is weaker or non-existent in autocracies.
They argue that women have stronger incentives to adapt to political norms because of the risks created by gender discrimination - under patriarchal systems, women are subject to greater social pressure to adhere to prevailing social expectations. Women, they say, will be resistant to corruption in places where it is already culturally and institutionally stigmatised, but behave identically to men where such practices are simply a normal part of doing business, or even expected. This is in keeping with a lot of psychological research, which has found that women are more cautious or reluctant to behave dishonestly when they know they are being observed or if there is a risk of punishment, but just as prone to mischief if they think they can get away with it.
The new research suggests that it is not the case that bringing more women into politics reduces corruption. Instead, the process of democratisation reduces corruption and simultaneously helps to bring women into politics. (I hope it goes without saying that bringing more women into politics remains an urgent and necessary goal for many, many other reasons.) By extension, it is a reasonable assumption that bringing more women into the boardrooms and trading floors of multinational finance would, on its own, be entirely ineffective at preventing future scandals.
There is one final reason why we should be wary of the Lehman Sisters logic. Underpinning it is the belief that men are inherent risk-takers or aggressive traders, and women are more naturally prone to long-term thinking or empathic and pro-social behaviour. This is the exact same logic used by sexist employers to place men in high-risk, high-returns positions and women in PR and personnel. This is not only scientifically bogus, it is politically damaging. Those of us who believe that people’s lives should not be mapped out by their gender would do well to avoid the exact same mistake.
By arrangement with the Guardian
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