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 Christine Lagarde, Harriet Harman and Tessa Jowell,
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.
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.
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. 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 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. It suggests that it is not the case that bringing more women into politics reduces corruption. Instead, the process of democratisation reduces corruption and helps to bring women into politics.
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 and prosocial behaviour. 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. The Guardian