This week, a male cabinet minister in Ontario sacrificed himself on the altar of gender equity. It was not a pretty sight. "Sometimes the best way for a man to advance the equality of women may be to step back and make room at the table," declared Ted McMeekin as he announced his resignation as minister for municipal affairs and housing.
Nobody was fooled. I suspect that Mr. McMeekin (one of our lower-profile politicians) was about to be shuffled out and decided to put a noble spin on it. Kathleen Wynne, the Premier, has declared she will make room for more women in her cabinet. She also wants women to make up at least 40 per cent of all appointments to provincial boards and agencies by 2019. She expects the boards of public companies to follow suit.
Quotas for women (or "targets," which is a euphemism for quotas) are all the rage these days. Some people say they're long overdue. I say they are an insult. Women are quite capable of high achievement on their own.
Just cast your eye across the country. Ms. Wynne is nobody's quota baby. Nor is Christy Clark, or Rachel Notley, or Rona Ambrose (who'd be a terrific candidate for Conservative leader if only she wanted the job). The next president of the United States, God willing, will be a woman. Every one of them has an abundance of guts, stamina and smarts. They got ahead the old-fashioned way: by working their butts off.
I'd love to see more women in power. It's only fair that they should get the same shot as men. Women's different perspectives and experiences can also be a strength. No man can speak to the realities of sexual assault as Christy Clark did this week.
But claims about the benefits of equity and diversity – Justin Trudeau's favourite word – go far beyond fairness. In business circles, it is now conventional to declare that companies with more women on their boards are more socially responsible and tally better financial results.
Women's wisdom, women's values and women's virtues not only improve corporate performance, they can save the world! "Increasing the number of women in powerful positions has the potential to transform our workplaces and society," declares a report from Catalyst, the company that advised the Wynne government on expanding its gender-equity initiatives. "Achieving gender balance on boards and throughout the executive ranks is widely recognized as a global economic imperative."
Catalyst, perhaps the leading brand in the flourishing diversity industry, argues that talented women are overlooked and oppressed, and need special help in order to succeed – with quotas, if need be. It says its own studies show that "companies that achieve diversity in their management and on their corporate boards attain better financial results, on average, than other companies."
Alice Eagly, a prominent social psychologist at Northwestern University, presents a very different picture. "Despite advocates' insistence that women on boards enhance corporate performance and that diversity of task groups enhances their performance, research findings are mixed … ," she wrote recently in the Journal of Social Issues. In fact, she says, there is "clear evidence" that "broad, simple claims about diversity's positive relations to corporate financial outcomes and group effectiveness are not supported by scientific research."
Dr. Eagly, an expert on gender issues in the workplace, is a liberal-minded but objective scholar. She thinks that social scientists too often see what they want to see, not what is. And that helps no one.
Other studies support her findings. Does gender diversity reduce conformity? No. Does it promote expression of minority views? No. Does it improve corporate governance? Er, maybe not. It turns out that companies with greater gender diversity on their boards also give their CEOs much bigger pay cheques. This news dismayed New York Times business reporter Gretchen Morgenson, who wrote, "For some reason, I had expected women directors to stand tougher on pay issues."
The idea that women are morally superior to men dates back at least to Victorian times, when people believed that women were too good and gentle for the rigours of public life. Now it's believed that their special virtues are essential in public life to undo the evils done by men. Go figure.
Personally, I doubt that women are more virtuous than men (or vice versa). Nor do I believe the systemic barriers to advancement are as insurmountable as some people think. We can tell our daughters they need special treatment to succeed. Or we can tell them they need smarts, stamina and guts. Which message would you rather send?