It was after dinner, and I must have been putting things in order, when my ears, idle at the time, heard women and politics being mentioned on TV. It was a Wednesday evening, precisely on the programme L-Erbgħa fost il-Ġimgħa and the former prime minister of Malta, Dr Joseph Muscat, was being interviewed. The reason why this interview was shared across social media platforms preferred by the Maltese had little to do with our subject today, but Dr Muscat’s statements about why the lack of female representation in parliament is a serious democratic deficit and a problem that we ought to solve, today, rather than in 20 years’ time, is what caught my attention.
A different kind of game
On whether it is fair to have women bypass the normal routes to political positions, and enter the parliament building, so to speak, through the window rather than the door, Dr Muscat’s assertion was that our socio-political system is biased against women, and that the only way to remedy this situation, is to intervene, however unnatural that may be. He also made the distinction between the European Parliament, the Local Councils, and the House of Representatives insisting that it was mostly in the latter that women needed the jumpstart, where it’s a ‘different kind of ballgame’.
Barely a week later, during the introductory lecture to my study module The Biology of Struggle: Evolutionary Insights into Everyday Problems at the Centre for Liberal Arts and Sciences of the University of Malta, a quick reference to cognitive psychologist and evolutionary psychology advocate Stephen Pinker’s claim that many things may have their roots in natural selection, including the small number of women who become mechanical engineers, was enough to trigger a similar debate. One of my students, herself a working mother, and one of the directors of a large family business, said that, even if maybe not in engineering, but, in places where it matters, like politics, it is a shame that there are so few women.
A mind of their own
In a country where complex phenomena are readily reduced to binary forms of the type ‘are you in favour of a lockdown, yes or no?’, with politics being no exception, entering the fray feels as dangerous as the Maltese proverb warns “Min jidħol bej il-basla u qoxritha jibqa’ b’riħitha, he who gets in between the onion and its skin carries its smell”. Suffice it to start by recalling that that when it comes to political attitudes, as the British academic specialising in evolutionary psychology Anne Campbell, tells us in her book ‘A Mind of Her Own: The Evolutionary Psychology of Women’, men and women differ a great deal. For example, men tend more heavily towards social dominance, and prefer group hierarchies over equalities. They also hold more positive views about conservatism, racism, militarism, and violence, and the traditional leadership stereotype –the ability to take responsibility, assume control, and make decisions – is more highly associated with traits of masculinity, such as dominance, decisiveness, and autonomy.
Which brings us to our key question: should we put women in politics when we have biology telling us that men, with their relatively superior powers of decision making and influential control, should be enough to do the job, perhaps even better? When speaking to Sam Harris in an episode of the Making Sense podcast, biologist, evolutionary theorist, and professor in exile Bret Weinstein, argued that it is pointless to cry out ‘bias!’ or ‘injustice!’ because the seats are not occupied by men and women 50:50, and that if there are real differences between the sexes, they evolved for a reason and that reason is because they make evolutionary sense.
All this would seem to lay the basis for letting things be as they are. Nature has a way of pushing her own agenda. But then I remember a delicate conversation I had with a medical professional, on whether it pays, at times, to push it back with our artificial inventions, such as the famous Caesarean section, a procedure I can personally write about. And since we are dealing with birth, it might be a good time to recall that nature herself works around compromises, such as letting natural selection settle for a gestation period of 9 months – just enough for the baby to become mature enough to survive, and short of being too big to pass through the small pelvis, made smaller to permit walking on two legs.
What women bring
Therefore, whether it is feasibility to put women on top within political structures, rather than let them struggle their way up, depends on what women bring – that unique advantage – when they function at the highest levels of governments. As Helen Fisher, biological anthropologist and author of the ‘The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They are Changing the World’ points out, women are more attracted to public policies that foster community health, education, children, and the elderly. They all ring like top-notch priorities for a prosperous society that is built primarily around people and their well-being, not only in times of crisis such as global pandemics, economic recessions and ecological damage. There’s also the benefit that women in power are less likely to resort to military action to settle disputes, agreeing with none other than statesman Winston Churchill that to “jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war”.
But the real answer to our question is found in the very logic of evolution and why, as an adaptation to fierce intrasexual competition, it makes more sense for men than for women to invest in status. Men are more likely to start a political career to build business networks and to climb up the ladder to get to the top, whereas, as Fisher says, women run for office because they want to improve society. It explains why in local governments women are more present and perform better. There they find it easier to create social clusters, and, once in office, can work more freely to advance issues that make a difference to the community.
Leaders who care
It resonates with what motivational speaker Simon Sinek insists is the starting point for leadership, his globally-recognised “start with why”. If political leaders are driven by purpose, and if for women the purpose is the progress and well-being of the community rather than ambition, isn’t that an offer that no country should miss?
If merit is to be conferred on the basis of what you do, how you do it, and why you do it in the first place, then we have all the reason for putting women in parliament where they are sure to secure the interests of citizens and help design a better future. I’m also making a note to self to dismiss my objection to jumpstarting and other debatable means of manoeuvring, as long as, in the broader view of things, it pays to launch women to the peak from where they can take part in the safe and sustainable governance of a country.