by Katharine Halls I’m always wary of so-called experts enlightening us with new discoveries about gender differences, especially when it looks remarkably like the received wisdom we’ve been hearing for years. Women are caring, men are aggressive; that kind of thing. I’m somewhat sceptical of Helen Fisher’s claims about gender in the business world, presented during her talk at the World Economic Forum in Davos last week. Managers, says Fisher, have to realise that men and women act differently. Deborah Cameron, the Rupert Murdoch Professor of Language and Communication and a specialist in language and gender studies, spoke recently at a WomCam (OUSU Womens’ Campaign) event about her new book on communication between the sexes. She noted that the vast majority of the so-called knowledge we have about the way the sexes think and communicate is pure myth. Remember that statistic about women speaking on average 20,000 words a day, and men uttering a mere 7,000? It came from a Christian pamphlet about marriage. Meanwhile, a 2005 investigation by the psychologist Janet S. Hyde concluded that the variation in verbal ability and behaviour between men and women was negligible. The BBC assure us, though, that ‘What Ms Fisher says is not psychobabble.’ Research shows that film scripts written by women are more complex than those written by men. Right. I wonder, too, why Fisher is so keen to declare she’s not a feminist given that the inequality in the business world, with women holding just 3% of executive directorships, is quite so startling. She’s keen to advance the status of women, apparently, but heaven forfend she consider examining the power structures that keep women oppressed in business. Women aren’t less successful because managers haven’t noticed how good we are at ‘web thinking.’ They’re less successful because the system is sexist. Women are still taken less seriously in the professional sphere than men; we’re still expected to be mothers and wives as well as career women; we’re still routinely objectified in the mainstream media.Facile gender determinism of Fisher’s variety doesn’t help anyone: it reinforces the same old stereotypes and does more to hold women back than it does to help them. Not that it’s very useful for men either – Cameron cites in her book an interview with a call centre manager who admitted his team sometimes ‘select women because they are women rather than because of something they’ve particularly shown in the interview,’ his assumption being that women are better at communicating with customers. She points out that women often stay in low-paid entry-level jobs because bosses feel they can’t afford to take their skills away from the front line. So, thanks for your advice, Ms Fisher, but if you’re serious about improving women’s status in the business world let’s forget women’s ‘preference for flat hierarchies’ and instead talk about equal pay.
Katharine Halls is WomCam co-chair.