Opinion: Women must stop stepping into the political shoes of men

It’s a cute piece of research for two reasons. It sits comfortably with what so many of us think, even if we don’t say it out loud. Yet it challenges every one of us.

University of Pennsylvania researchers have shown that women’s brains are wired from left to right – that’s linking logic with intuition. In men, the neural connections go from front to back. That strengthens their spatial and motor skills. This research suggests that those age old stereotypes are true. Overall men are better at reading maps and being single-minded when tackling a problem. Women are in general better at multitasking. They are more intuitive and they work better in groups.

Of course, it is no surprise that the brains of men and women are complementary. Both sexes are hard wired for the survival of the human race. But what does this mean for politics and policy?

In the workplace, there has been for too long a tendency to deny the differences between men and women in pursuit of equality. This can be roughly translated as: “If a woman can’t do what a man does, she’s no good.” That why RAF women got injured, and compensated for it, for being ordered to behave like men.

In the boardroom, women have had to become surrogate men in desperate attempt to shatter the glass ceiling that has prevented so many of them from reaching the top echelons of management. Even so, the number of women running the FTSE 100 companies is in decline. Female qualities are clearly not appreciated in the abrasive cut and thrust that has dominated the private sector since time immemorial.

In government, men still dominate the public services. This Coalition will be shamed into history for its failure to put women around the Cabinet table.

So where does this leave us? Do we recognise that men and women are fundamentally different in the way they think and act? If we do, do we deploy the sexes differently?

In my mind, the University of Pennsylvania research heralds a revolution. We can bin the era of treating men and women as the same. We can regard each other as equal but really rather different.

Can we encourage more women in the top notches of government and business by allowing them to shape roles? After all, almost every post in government was defined by a man.

If we could ever achieve this, we could have a new style of politics. I hope it could be less aggressive, and more caring and consensual. That will be so better all round.

Yet we can’t achieve this while women stride to step in the political shoes of men. Too many of our female politicians – Thatcher is an exemplar, Teresa May is another – become blokes once they are in power.

Women will only achieve a half the share of power when they stand in their own shoes and speak up for their own way of thinking and working.

* Andy Boddington is a Lib Dem living in Shropshire, and a former editor for Lib Dem Voice

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47 Comments

  • I fully recommend you read Dean Burnett’s piece in the guardian on this sexist claptrap.

  • A C McGregor 5th Dec '13 - 9:05am

    If women are wired for co-operation & teamwork they would probably make better politicians.

    This whole idea is rubbish though because it takes a general overview study and tries to apply it to individuals, and that just doesn’t work…

  • Nick Barlow 5th Dec '13 - 9:24am

    Are the Lib Dem Voice visitor numbers and commenting rate down? Because I assume you’ve published this bit of trolling nonsense in order to stir up a bit of controversy, Daily Mail style, and generate some attention. (And yes, obviously I’ve been suckered in by this ploy…)

  • The piece, even if you take it at face value, shows that there is _one_ difference in connectivity, in general. It tells you nothing about women or men being better at different tasks, and it tells you nothing about what a specific man or woman is good at.

  • James Brough 5th Dec '13 - 10:07am

    Well, I’m sure many women will be appropriately grateful that there is a man willing to give them instructions in what they must do to be independently successful.

    Or alternatively, I find it can work better if you regard people as individuals,rather than as members of one of two homogenous groups whose behaviour can be predicted. You know, approach people with an open mind, rather than fishing desperately for any already discredited piece of research which backs up one’s pre-conceived notions. Not that anyone would do that.

  • I am ashamed and a little bit sick that this has been published on Lib Dem Voice.

  • Also, the research may well have found ‘greater probability of’ or ‘more likely to’ or ‘greater tendency to’… I do not know how you manage to then write this as ‘are’ and ‘have shown.’

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 5th Dec '13 - 10:32am

    I think what Andy is trying to say is that women shouldn’t try to be like men, highlighting two of the very worst women in UK politics to back up his argument. I think he means that politics needs to change to reflect women’s needs as well as men’s, which it does, but not because of this research, but because of the barriers and discrimination that have been traditionally been faced by women by people assuming that. Politics needs to change to be much more inclusive of the vast majority of people who feel that it doesn’t include them or serve their interests.

    I think that assumptions have been drawn from a limited piece of research that really don’t stand up to scrutiny. You can’t just say that women are better communicators and men are better map readers because it isn’t true. Perpetuating these stereotypes can do nothing but harm to women. You’re seriously not going to say to a woman with a first class degree in engineering that she should go and work in advertising cos her brain says she’s better at communicating.

    The Dean Burnett piece Jennie mentions is well worth a read. http://www.theguardian.com/science/brain-flapping/2013/dec/04/male-female-brains-real-differences

    Here’s its conclusion.

    “Or, and this may seem controversial to many but it’s worth considering, it could be that the human brain develops in accordance to what it experiences, and things it experiences and is made to do more often are reflected in the sorts of connections that develop. This would suggest that there aren’t actually any marked differences between male and female brains. However, this would mean that there is no scientific basis for all of our stereotypes and prejudices about what certain sexes should/shouldn’t do and they all stem from irrational or unpleasant cultural influences that haven’t gone away yet, forcing us to admit to ourselves that our preconceived notions about certain sexes or genders are just self-fulfilling clichés with no logical basis, potentially threatening our beliefs, our positions and even our identity.”

  • Caron Lindsay Caron Lindsay 5th Dec '13 - 10:38am

    Henry, Liberal Democrat Voice publishes all sorts of opinions from Liberal Democrat members. The editorial team don’t agree with all of them. This article reflects attitudes that I have heard from quite a few men within the party over the years. I’d rather see these ideas discussed and debated rather than swept under the carpet.

  • David Colquhoun 5th Dec ’13 – 9:24am
    I fear that what this piece shows is how little politicians know about science

    Is that the same David Colquhoun who smokes pipe tobacco.
    I fear that just shows how little he knows about the science of smoking and ill-health.

  • Considering that this oh-so-brilliant study was sampled from 949 people – out of a global human population of 7.1 BILLION human beings – using it as an excuse to butt women out of politics is sickening, backward and ignorant.

    Seriously, they didn’t even sample 0.01% of the human race and we’re being told it’s a fact.

  • I accept that Caron. Still… it left me feeling deeply uncomfortable. I accept this sort of attitude really needs taking on in the open. (I like the final paragraph of that piece Caron. Thank you.)

  • This kind of article, right or wrong, misses the point. Equal respect and opportunities for men and women should not be made contingent on brain observations. Equality is a political demand and a moral imperative not an empirical observation.

    One day there may well be a sound study showing some difference between male and female brains, and only the confused will see this as a reason to abandon equality.

    Forget men and women. We all have different brains. Within group variation trumps any between group difference a zillion fold. And so we each make a different use of the rights and opportunities we have.

    The idea of saying to any group that your brains are different in some way, so you have less need of some right or opportunity is a pointless prejudgement of what members of that group might actually do.

  • Spot on Joe.

  • “Within group variation trumps any between group difference a zillion fold. ”

    Yes, this. Plus also neuroplasticity means that brains develop according to outside stimuli, like, for example, a massively gender-screwed society…

  • This post is laughably scientifically illiterate. The original research was poor and poorly communicated but this is just miserable.

    The research detected a difference in patterns of connectivity in average brain structure between men and women. This fits with the fact that men’s brains are larger than womens (on average), a fact we’ve known for over a century. However, attempts to find a correlation between brain volume and brain function failed and it’s generally accepted that brain volume does not determine intelligence.

    This piece jumps from that to asserting without evidence that differences in structure means there must be differences in function. It has been repeatedly proved (including by other parts of the same study) that measurable differences in function (executive control, memory, reasoning, spatial processing, sensorimotor skills, and social cognition) are either negligible or very small. Given the overwhelming insistence that men and women behave differently, it is remarkable that the detected differences are so small.

    It then makes a second extraordinary leap, which is to claim that these small average differences in brain structure and small average differences in cognitive function mean that individual women are unsuitable to hold high profile jobs until they are modified to make them more suitable for our delicate lady-brains.

    Given that brains are neuroplastic and are influenced by our experiences, as well as genetics and hormones, it is far more likely that the difference in the way we treat boy children and girl children from birth causes the small differences in cognitive function and the differences in connectivity are as irrelevant as the difference in volume.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 1:12pm

    Thanks for the article.

    First of all the degree of difference between men and women still seems unclear.

    Secondly, I think the research reduces the case for gender discrimination (against men and women), because it seems we still don’t know what we are dealing with here.

    Thirdly, I think the status quo of having it legal to discriminate against men, but not women, is wrong. I think we should probably get rid of both the equality and sex discrimination bills.

    To be clear, I think gender discrimination should be largely avoided, but I don’t think it is right to say gender discrimination is absolutely wrong in all circumstances.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 1:27pm

    One of the main things that struck me about the research was that it strengthens the case for diversity, so I’m really not saying “let’s start picking which careers are for men and which are for women”.

    I have long thought the equality and sex discrimination bills might be causing more problems than solutions, so research such as this makes me think we should probably stick to absolute freedom instead. It just kind of rankles me that men don’t have equal rights to women.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 1:33pm

    OK OK, so I made a mistake, the equality bill is about allowing discrimination against the under represented group, so men and women do have equal rights. It is just annoying that we seem to have things such as “leadership programs” where I am looked over for promotion because of my gender and skin colour.

    I know this is a complicated area, but I don’t like this idea of fighting gender discrimination with gender discrimination.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 1:34pm

    Against the over represented group I mean. If we can even be groups into such simplistic categories.

  • James Brough 5th Dec '13 - 2:13pm

    Eddie, I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that you’re a Caucasian male. Apologies if I’m wrong. This is kind of the equivalent of starting a game of Monopoly with extra money and already holding Mayfair. Examples like the leadership group you mention stand out because they are such an exception to the status quo.

  • “This article reflects attitudes that I have heard from quite a few men within the party over the years. ”

    Those attitudes are wrong, and have no place in the party.

  • Andy Boddington 5th Dec '13 - 2:30pm

    @Emily and others have it just right about this research. There must be grave doubt whether any differences between the sexes are hard wired or experiential. Of course it doesn’t apply at the individual level.

    Others decry any suggestion that gender has role in politics. I wish that that was so.

    We cannot deny that women are still pretty much shunted into a siding in politics. The practical reality is that women seem only to succeed in politics by stepping into roles defined by men. I don’t think they are good roles. For example, our gladiatorial PMQs is a disgrace to our democracy. We have an aggressive political system where fighting is rated more highly than consensus.

    The Lib Dems inability to put women around the Cabinet table is disgraceful. That may just be about procedural failures – but why haven’t we solved them after all these years?

    I think men have made a pretty bad job of politics. The public distrust them. More and more people don’t vote. If women are different from men in the way they think and act, can’t they bring something new to this political game?
    If the cabinet was 75% women, would we be enduring such a crisis in compassion as we are at the moment?

    But if women are not different from men in the way they think and act in the political sphere, as many of you suggest and I rather tend to agree, where do we go from here? Someone has to save politics, and I would prefer it not to be Russell Brand.

    That’s my point. Most women in politics walk in the shoes of men. There is a better politics out there somewhere but I don’t see men achieving it. Frankly I don’t see anyone achieving it.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 2:32pm

    James, when I am bordering on extremely poor the idea that I am starting off on a monopoly board on Mayfair is ridiculous.

    With white males ranging from Peter Bone to Owen Jones, I would say that I could actually be better represented by a black woman. This is why I think we should almost entirely just look at personality factors.

  • I think Caron and Joe have summed this up perfectually. Yes, politics should be more accommendating for women (as it should for many other groups), but not because of this somewhat questionable research. Actually, the problem goes even deeper than just politics, most of society needs to be more accommendating for equality of opportunity to be achieved.

    Joe is also right that it just misses the point.

    I would also further say that this is wrong because whilst there is something to be said for criticising the idea that women should be more ‘manly’ in order to succeed. I think this article risks going the other way by implying that women must be more ‘womanly’.

    However, what are these ‘womanly’ and ‘manly’ traits we speak of? Many people mistakenly believe I must be ‘gay’ because I use hair-straigtheners as that is a ‘girlie’ thing to do – or so am I told.

    This articule risk stating that we should start enforcing these stereotypes by making it that politics – and by extension, society – is more accommendating for women, but only if they are ‘womanly’.

    What we should be aiming for is what it does matter whether you are a man or a women; manly or womanly… etc, what matters is that you are good enough.

  • James Brough 5th Dec '13 - 2:46pm

    Eddie, to be honest, the sound of a white man complaining that he is discriminated against on grounds of race and gender is equally ridiculous and suggests an inability to see beyond one’s own concerns.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 3:05pm

    Let me tell you James, I am extremely concerned about other people’s concerns and have spent the past two years trying to work out what is the right thing to do, so such character assassinations are unfair. I know that you will feel the same.

  • jenny barnes 5th Dec '13 - 3:51pm

    Eddie, may I suggest you do some research on privilege? One of the things about privilege is that the privileged see their situation as normal, their privilege is invisible to them. This sort of sexist research (by men, notice) is an example. How many pieces of sexist research by women pointing to the unsuitability of men for high office, heavily and misleadingly reported, can you point to? Cordelia Fine debunks this kind of “research” very well.

  • Richard Dean 5th Dec '13 - 4:01pm

    I agree with Tony Greaves. Remember the comparisons between the brain sizes of different races that were meant to prove one was better than another? Given that many neural connections are made after birth anyway, they are the results of learning in a social context, and so may be culturally rather than biologically determined. Equality is not about this anyway.

  • Eddie Sammon 5th Dec '13 - 4:23pm

    Jenny. thanks for your comment. I am aware of my privileges, but almost my disadvantages. The disagreements between most of us here are only slight and extrapolated out of fear and misunderstanding.

    I apologise for snapping at James Brough, I should have been more polite.

  • James Brough 5th Dec '13 - 4:30pm

    Eddie – I feel perhaps I should apologise for my own tone. I do still stand by my belief though that to be born white and male – as indeed was I – is still a decided advantage and far more so than it should be. It is far from being the only factor in deciding how one fares in life, but it is a major one.

  • David Colquhoun 5th Dec ’13 – 6:14pm
    @JohnTilley Please try to stick to the point

    You said – “I fear that what this piece shows is how little politicians know about science “.
    “The paper in question was demolished in 24 hours on Twitter ”

    One does not have to be a Professor at UCL to spot pomposity – and that was was my point. I agreed with what you were saying, I just didn’t like your tone.
    You have a website with an animated cartoon of yourself puffing away on a pipe; that leaves you wide open to questions about just how superior your scientific knowledge might be.

  • Tony Dawson 5th Dec '13 - 9:22pm

    Two competing statements:

    1. Sex-chromosomes dictate gender which dictates (broadly) the relative and absolute output of sex hormones. Sex hormones are incredibly powerful chemicals which create all sorts of massive variations in basic anatomy which can have a significant effect on average performance at all sorts of tasks. So whether this research is ‘good’ or ‘bad’ it would be very surprising if there were NOT major variations between men and women on average in brain work any different to muscle work. Note, I say ‘surprising’, not ‘impossible’.

    2. The human being is grossly over-capable. Given adequate training and application, the weakest of us by ‘predisposition’ at most tasks can train ourselves to behave like someone much better-endowed. SO both men and women can do the things the other gender are better predisposed to do. Having said that, we are mostly pretty lazy creatures thus we tend to maintain the average gender-based variations which lead to stereotyping.

  • Andrew Suffield 5th Dec '13 - 9:26pm

    Graargh. Ignoring all the other problems with the paper and this topic, there’s one fundamental blunder of basic statistics here:

    Overall men are better at …

    This is wrong. Research of this form does not mean that at all (ignoring this particular paper’s accuracy for the moment). It means that the average man is better at something: that is, the proportion of men who are good at it is higher than the proportion of women who are good at it, or some similar measure. That sort of gender bias happens quite a lot and can often be linked to biases in education or social behaviour. It does not mean that “men” as a group are better and in particular it does not mean that any one man is significantly likely to be better.

  • 949 is a big enough sample size if it is also representative and the results are clear enough (for example if we studied 949 randomly chosen people from around the world and found that the men were more likely to be taller than the women we would have plenty of data to support this). The issue with the article though is the assumption that things relating to brain structure in the general population can be extrapolated to female MPs, who are 0.0005 percent of the female population and male MPs, who are 0.0015 percent of the male population and absolutely not typical of the general population in any way.

    I think the idea about stepping into men’s shoes is interesting. For example there are countries where it is more typical for female police offices to dress in a more traditionally feminine way when at work (e.g. wearing more make up), whereas in the UK one gets the impression they feel they would not be taken seriously if they did something that made them look less like the men.

  • Nick Tregoning 6th Dec '13 - 9:06am

    Oh please. This research ignores the plasticity of the human brain, indulges in sweeping generalisation, & forgets the significance of the context in which a behaviour is set. Who peer reviewed it? The Daily Mail?

  • Peter Tyzack 6th Dec '13 - 11:26am

    – funny, that we start all conversations with the premise that somehow we are not doing enough to get a balance of men and women in politics, therefore we have to try harder to attract more women in.. Fundamentally that is starting in the wrong place. British Parliament and the way it was conceived (by white upper-class public schoolboys) is what is wrong.
    This is timely, in that the powers that be have to decide about a massive restoration project on the Houses of Parliament (ie whether the buildings design and layout are suitable for the next 100 years of UK Parliament – or do we do something else) Time to have a wider debate about whether our quaint adversarial system of ‘honourable gentlemen’ needs to be swept aside in favour of a consensual chamber where all are treated as equals, working together for the good of the country. Clean sheet of paper time….

  • jedibeeftrix 6th Dec '13 - 1:14pm

    @ TG – “Imagine the uproar if this article(and the “research”) had been written about race not gender.”

    Presuming the subject of research had likewise focused on the difference, and made no attempt to ascribe value, who on earth should be expected to care?

    Rubbish research is rubbish research, but lets not dismiss it because it touches ‘troublesome’ subjects.

  • Peter Tyzack 6th Dec ’13 – 11:26am
    British Parliament and the way it was conceived (by white upper-class public schoolboys) is what is wrong.

    Absolutely right , Peter. It is made worse by the fact that the buildings which house Parliament (the so-called Palace of Westminster) are a ridiculous rabbit warren of unsuitable accommodation, with over-the-top fantasy architecture of the mid-nineteenth century. It owes more to the lurid imagination of Prince Albert – a minor German aristocrat who knew as much about democracy as the Bronte Sisters knew about jumbo jets.

    For the civil servants who have to work there it is not even up to Dickensian standards. Next time you watch a debate on TV from the House of Lords, look to the left of the enormous gold throne (the size of an average house front and used once a year for the state opening) and you will see ‘the box’ where civil servants have to sit, sometimes for 5 or more hours; it is the size of a coffin, and if you are more than five foot, six inches tall it is almost impossible to move your legs. In any other workplace it would have been the source of a health and safety court case years ago. Odd how all those former trade unionists on the Labour Benches do not seem to notice these things once they start wearing ermine.

    The Lords themselves and the flunkies in comic opera uniforms get terribly upset if you walk on the wrong colour carpet or if men do not wear jacket, collar and tie or if you do not jump to attention when the Speaker’s Procession goes by. They do not worry too much about democracy, indeed some of them are actively opposed to the very idea. They also have a heating system which probably requires the output of a small nuclear power station to ensure that some parts are as hot as the tropics whilst others are as cold as the graves that many of their Lordships should have been consigned to years ago.

  • Simon Banks 7th Dec '13 - 11:55am

    Andrew Ducker has an important point. If there are differences OVERALL, this should not have any impact on equality policies except, as Andy suggests, to explore whether different capabilities (which may or may not correlate statistically with gender) are adequately reflected. That isn’t just a gender issue. This is a problem with I.Q., which was once seen so uncritically as a measure of one vital quality, intelligence, yet clearly is culturally biased towards certain kinds of intelligence.

    It shouldn’t be surprising if there were some genetically-determined differences, OVERALL, in how men and women tend to approach mental problems. I’d guess they’d be fairly minor and of course, to take Andy’s case, there are men who are very intuitive and/or good at multi-tasking and women who are very concentrated and strictly logical. There are also people who can switch from one mode to the other readily, which may possibly suggest this is mainly to do with familiar paths and habits of the mind rather than something hard-wired.

    There are observable behavioural differences, OVERALL, between males and females at least within particular cultures. For some months when I was walking to work past a boys’ secondary school and a girls’ secondary school, I noticed marked differences in how the two groups (when not mixed) moved in groups. The boys typically were strung out like an army patrol or a band of hunter-gatherers, a set distance between one boy and the next. The girls formed tight clusters, touching one another. and, yes, talking more. But was that nature or nurture? I suspect a bit of both, but mostly nurture.

  • daft ha'p' orth 7th Dec '13 - 10:28pm

    What with this and OMG baby theft!!1! this hasn’t been a great week for critical thought on LDV overall.

    I can’t help but notice that we have a disproportionate number of privately educated, posh, rich white men in parliament and senior management. It is trivially demonstrable that subtle variation in brain structure does not suffice to explain the observed distributions here. This is not about the fine details: it is better explained by selection processes taking into account “looks like us, sounds like us, went to the same school as us”.

    “In my mind, the University of Pennsylvania research heralds a revolution.”
    Fortunately, it is not grounds for a revolution. It is only the latest piece of work in a long, long tradition of scientists/’thinkers’ publishing insignificant findings on controversial issues. These are frequently heralded as revolutionary in their time. There’s a reactive mindset people get into in which they ‘courageously’ publish stuff along the lines of ‘Of course it’s politically incorrect to say this but hooray, I have science on my side at last!’ Then somebody points out that either a) the researchers are full of it or b) the journalist’s account is full of it or c) it’s accurate work but, unsurprisingly, insufficient foundation for a revolution. Nothing new here, just confirmation bias in action.

    It is always worth counting to a large number before deciding that the outcomes of any single study in neuroscience are a good excuse to remodel the nation, especially when you are proposing the relegation of somewhat over half the human race into a ‘differently able’ category. Carl Sagan said that ‘extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence’. Your claim is extraordinary: your evidence is not.

  • Robert Wootton 9th Dec '13 - 12:39pm

    Our whole political and economic system is rigged to favour men over women since it evolved from the time of the Magna Carta. That is understandable when one sees that society was underpinned by the words of Old testament and the Roman Catholic church. It, British society, is based on a patriarchal system and this was institutionalised in the British Establishment when the Welfare State was created.
    The most sexist piece of legislation was the introduction of child benefit that was paid directly to mothers only. This indicates to me that the mindset of the legislators at the time was that “a woman’s place is in the home” and that men were the breadwinners who controlled the budget and keep their wives as chattels.

    Regarding the science debate, I would assume that the brain is able to create connections amongst the neurons in any direction according to the stimuli it receives.
    I have heard the brain described as a muscle; now there are two types of muscle; “fast twitch” and “slow twitch”. A person with a predominance of fast twitch muscle would be a sprinter; a predominance of slow twitch, a middle to long distance runner. However, by using different training regimes, it has been shown that the types of muscle can be changed from one to the other. Perhaps the same is true for the brain.

  • I love it when men talk about what women should do.

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