Women on top

A woman’s touch is exactly what is needed in today’s politics

Shoba Narayan

Sep 6, 2011

As Moza Al Otaiba begins her Federal National Council campaign, one of many women moving into the UAE’s public sphere, I have some good news for her. Recent research suggests that putting women on a team, committee or council improves its overall performance.

In other words, it is not enough to get a group of smart people together to solve problems. In politics or in the workplace, enthusiasm, motivation and cohesion leave something lacking – that crucial woman’s influence.

A recent study by US academics, Anita Woolley of Carnegie Mellon University and Thomas Malone of MIT, found there was “little correlation between a group’s collective intelligence and the IQs of its individual members. But if a group includes more women, its collective intelligence rises”.

The study has since been replicated twice with the same results, with even the professors saying they were surprised by the findings.

As the FNC campaign gets under way, many candidates are focusing on the hot-button issue of women’s rights. Indeed, most governments and organisations these days are sensitive to gender diversity. Yet the topic is viewed as a feel-good option rather than a necessity.

Women, the thinking goes, add colour and diversity to the work culture. Many companies hire women as a kind of branding exercise that confers some sort of righteous halo of political correctness.

What is becoming clear is that women shouldn’t be hired and put in positions of responsibility just to promote women; high-performing teams, in business or politics, depend on women for productivity.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, Prof Woolley attributed the results to a greater level of “social sensitivity” among women, but cautioned that not all of them share the trait.

Indeed. And from personal experience, I can say that some women take sensitivity to a ridiculous extreme.

An example of this different decision-making is available from my own building, which houses 70 families. Frequently, the women come together to have tea and foster a sense of community among ourselves. We plan events, parties and holidays, sitting around a table in the community centre to discuss how to celebrate Christmas, Eid and Diwali.

For the most part, we talk about food and how to organise the potluck meals that are part of most celebrations. Who makes what dish? What worked from an old menu? Can two women share a dish? These discussions frequently last more than two hours, which drives my decisive husband nuts.

Typically there will be at least two follow-up meetings. One woman will have discovered that her cook cannot make kebabs and wants to sign up for pilaf instead, or two women that are making one dish discover who they cannot work together. And so it goes. It can be exhausting and make me long for gender diversity within our group.

Women collaborate and negotiate – about everything. In every women’s group that I have belonged to, from a book club to a workplace committee, decisions are painfully slow, somewhat akin to the ponderous elephant with which India’s democracy is compared.

Women often do operate differently from men and are expected to, or they may face discrimination. Men generally are more ambitious, assertive and confident with respect to their careers – and they have permission to be that way. Women who display the same assertiveness and confidence are viewed negatively.

As more and more women enter the public sphere, in politics, business or other areas, these gender stereotypes will change.

And they need to. More women holding elected office is a wonderful thing for a country. I just wish that in this movement towards gender equality, men would be as assertive in traditionally women’s spheres. We will have seen real progress when my “women’s group” has some men in it as well.

Shoba Narayan is a Bangalore-based journalist and the author of Monsoon Diary: a memoir with recipes