A Man In A Woman’s World

woman world

I gave the speech below at a conference for Women Global Leaders in Germany back in 2013. It’s a five minute read.

“I must say I feel daunted speaking to an audience consisting solely of women. A question that springs to mind is whether as a man I can see the world from the eyes of women. I would think I may have advantage as I am from a minority group. Growing up in the UK with dark skin did make me stand out. Often it would elicit racial abuse. So I have often felt negatively affected by being different. In some ways, that has spurred me on. It has given me the mentality of “I’ll show you society” and” I’ll be as good as anyone else”. However, in the process of trying to measure up to the standard set by society, it has at some level forced me to repress something of myself and feel the opinions of the “other” is more important than myself.

This feeling is not unique to me. It has been with us throughout time. Shakespeare’s Othello springs to mind. In the play, you have a successful black general in a white society. He marries Desdemona, and eventually is called to prepare for battle in Cyprus. Unbeknownst to Othello, his ensign Iago, perhaps for not being promoted by Othello, is scheming to undermine Othello. Through playing on Othello’s own insecurities about himself, Iago orchestrates events such that Othello ends up believing his beloved Desdemona is having an affair with his lieutenant Cassio. Out of jealousy, Othello ends up killing Desdemona, only to learn the truth. He kills himself in horror. The play shows through extremes that insecurities can lead to tragedy.

So with this understanding I feel I would understand the perspective of women. To test this, I recently undertook an implicit association test. These throw you rapid fire questions to see what subconscious biases one has. The test I took was whether I had a bias towards thinking that career and family were more associated with male and female. To my displeasure, I found that I have bias to associate career more with male and family more with female. It turns out almost everyone has that bias, including women.

Some may argue that may to do with the natural state of things. A throwback to the time where women raised children in the cave, while men went out hunting. This stereo-type is actually grossly inaccurate. Social anthropologists and archaeologists have found that hunter-gatherer societies, such as the !Kung in Botswana, Hadza in Tanzania and Inuit in the Arctic Circle, tend to be extremely egalitarian [1]. Moreover, women have tended to bring most the food, rather than the men. The notion of the “ideal” 1950’s nuclear family of women at home and the man at work is certainly not the norm for humanity across time. A fascinating example of this is the Caribou Eskimo in Canada. In that community you find every permutation of marital set-up: one man and one woman, one man and two women, two men and one woman, and even two couples with each other!

Popular culture, no doubt, plays an important role in establishing these biases that we have. Taking movies as an example –  the Bechdel test is a simple test to ascertain what gender bias movies have. Its sets a low bar, but checks to see whether there is one scene in the movie that passes three tests. The first whether there are two named female characters. The second, whether they talk to each other. The third whether they talk about something other than a man. Applying this to all movies, we find that only 50% of movies pass this test. Remember, we are only talking about one scene. Moreover the ones that passed still did not necessarily present women in a balanced manner.

To further emphasise this, we can looks at the top grossing movies from the last five years*. Last year, it was the Avengers. A movie about a bunch of “superheroes” taking on a male villain. The two female characters, Pepper Potts (Gwyneth Paltrow) and Black Widows (Scarlet Johansson), played marginal roles in terms of plot progression, and never talk to each other. The year before, the top grossing movie was Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows 2, which was about well…Harry Potter. Before that, it was Toy Story 3, which was about Woody and Buzz. Female characters included Barbie, who was a minor character. Before that it was Avatar about a man rescuing Pocahontas-type women. And finally before that it was Dark Knight in 2008. None of these movies had a female character driving the plot forward. You may say that this reflects the market, but you have to remember the top grossing movies of all time when adjusted for inflation is Gone With The Wind. The Scarlett O’Hara character was the lead and drives the story forward.

Clearly culture affects our biases, but we can go deeper. In the Christian tradition, in the Gospel of John, verse 1, it states that “in the beginning, there was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God”. In the Islamic tradition, the Quran states that God taught man the “names”, or some say the ability to name. Knowledge even the angels did not possess. Both traditions seem to imply that there is power in words, and the ability to name and label. In essence, it creates a reality of its own; it sets the context to which others will react.

So what if we look at the civilisational level? Arnold Toybee, the late British historian,  studied the rise and fall of great empires [2]. He couldn’t find many common drivers for them. That’s why no-one could easily have predicted that the British would have the largest land empire of all time, the Mongols the second largest, and the Umayyads the fifth largest. But he did find that every civilization has a creative minority. When a new challenge is presented to that civilization, the creatives come up with a solution. If their voices are heard then the empire continues to do well, but there comes a point when their voices are stifled. At that point the empire starts to decline. Toynbee famously said that empires die of “suicide, not murder”.

So how does one become the creative voice? Well, one needs to be willing to go against the grain and through words create a new context and reality. I had earlier mentioned how Othello failed to transcend his insecurities and it ended in tragedy. The 2008 classic “Kung Fu Panda” provides the antidote. In it, an overweight panda called Po is accidently selected to become the Dragon Warrior. Everyone doubts his ability to become that, even himself. At his lowest point, he turns to Master Oogway, the teacher. Master Oogway gives him some simple advice: “The past is history, the future is a mystery, but today is a gift, that’s why it is called, the present”. What he meant was that don’t be plagued with guilt and shame about the past as it is history, don’t fear the future, because it is a mystery, simply see each moment as a blank canvas where you create a new reality by the words you use.”

* The speech was given in the 2013, so I referred to movies in the 2008-2012 period. Interestingly, since then there has been a surge in high grossing female-led movies (Frozen in 2013, Maleficent in 2014 and Fifty Shades of Grey in 2015)

[1] “The Creation of Inequality”, Flannery and Marcus

[2] “A Study of History”, Toynbee