The ‘X’ Factor

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Girl power, photo: Valeria V.G/flickr

“During a crisis a woman can transform very quickly from being a politician to being a human being, and this can be bad”, Minko Gerdjikov, the deputy mayor of Sofia said in response to recent moves by the prime minister of Bulgaria to promote women to high-level positions in government and local administration, according to a New York Times article.

In a country known for its patriarchy and corruption, women, says the Prime Minister Boiko Borisov, are exactly what the country needs as “women are more diligent than men… are less corruptible than men… because they are more risk averse”. In an effort to clean his country’s act Borisov, an unlikely poster boy for the progressive forces in the country, has decided that it is exactly this ‘human’ characteristic that is required to overcome not only Bulgaria’s image problem, but also presumably its real problem of losing, rather embarrassingly, EU funds because of endemic and rampant graft.

To imply that being a ‘human being’ is somehow bad  is a strange assertion not only because it implies that men are somehow less human and better off so, but because it implies that politics and ‘human values’ are incompatible. Politics in a lot of transitional countries are undoubtedly tough, but to categorically negate human values as components of successful and good politics is self-serving from the point of view of those who have a vested interest in the continuation of ‘business as usual’.  Given the tendency for group-think and irrationality in crisis situations in particular, most often in male-dominated groups, should we not celebrate a more nuanced and independent form of deliberation that can come with the ‘human touch’, in women as well as men?

Even if women are more in touch with their humane side (buried deep in hardened male politicians), wired to perhaps see the world from a more communal point of view, does this bear out in the real world? Are women leaders any different when faced with the dilemmas of ruling the world’s countries, cities and communities? In other words, does the ‘X’ factor change anything?

Although Transparency International’s Global Corruption Barometer found that women are less likely to bribe (and perhaps view corruption as ‘normal’), no conclusive evidence exists to support Barisov’s blind trust in the incorruptibility of women. Women, however, tend to be less networked in political circles and are therefore less exposed to the murky world of bribery. Although being an ‘outsider’ has its disadvantages (making it more difficult to rise up the ranks, for example), it can also help women rule more independently and outside the patronage networks that feed the culture of corruption in many countries.  A study by the World Bank, quoted in the NYT article concluded that women were more trustworthy and public-spirited than men and that greater representation of women in a sample 150 countries led to less corruption.

But the individual track record of women leaders, particularly in South and Southeast Asia, is not stellar. Among past and current leaders in countries as varied as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Indonesia and the Philippines women have tended to rise to the top and rule in much the same way as men, often through family connections and by adopting explicitly tough positions. Indeed Guida M Jackson, an expert on the topic, notes that women as leaders can be “as egomaniacal… as anybody else”. In tough environments where unabashedly patriarchal militaries often threaten the civilian political order this hardly seems surprising. Political survival pushes motivations and actions away from ‘soft’, social causes to hard politics. Women, in effect, have to be (or choose to be) more like men to survive in their game, particularly if they are alone.

But can women bring communal values and social programs to the forefront of politics? What, if anything, can be done to further this? Achieving a critical mass of female influence seems to be a vital component of broader change. Women need to promote other women when they’ve reached the top; isolation breeds assimilation into the world of male-dominated politics. Some affirmative policies, in the Bulgarian vein, are probably helpful as well. They bring women back to center of politics and allow them to challenge the patriarchal order, first symbolically and later in substance. The change may be painfully slow, but it is happening. And it should happen if we wish to move towards a more just and equal world.

Girl power, as Eve Ensler would argue, can save the world.

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