Around this year’s International Women’s Day, when we are meant to celebrate women’s achievements and increase their visibility, I went in search of a definition of female strength. For many reasons, starting with the fact that what has been going on in the world over the past few weeks brings deep sadness, as well as finding myself in an extremely stressful situation, it was not easy to interpret the idea of celebrating success at a time of great difficulty.
When size matters
I drew inspiration from some of the activities I participated in, that had been planned to coincide with International Women’s Day, but given that my aim was to ‘analyse’ the nature of women’s strength, I wanted to start by mentioning what is obvious and apparent to many – that there is a significant difference in physical size and strength between men and women. Some interesting facts: men are, on average, larger and stronger than women, and they have 75% more arm muscle mass and exceed women by 90% in total upper-body strength.
The strength of courage
I then moved on to Amanda Hsu’s photographic exhibition ‘40 over 40: Celebrating the Strength, Wisdom, and Beauty of Women 40+’. Having participated in the project, and even written about the whole experience before, I can say that it does take some resolve to challenge old fears and to stand in front of the camera, to be seen. Amanda does an excellent job of playing with beauty, and those who visited the exhibition could truly appreciate her talent. But for the purpose of why I write today, what captured my attention and stayed in my mind long after the event, were the interviews with the photographed women, talking about how they had, along the course of life, tolerated hardships, overcame obstacles, and reached goals. Charming accounts by women who found the courage and the confidence to make their way around problems.
The truth is, we are different
Amanda’s interpretation of female strength is fresh, joyful, and attractive. It is also free of comparisons with men, and this is one of the reasons why the project is a winner without having had to compete. In real life, it is not always like that. As I discussed in my workshop ‘The Biological Roots and Truths of Sex, Gender, and Equality’ at the Willingness 360° conference which this year focused on gender, although men and women are equal, under the law, as should be, they are not the same, and it pays to acknowledge that sex differences are a reality, and to appreciate these differences as a source of strength and an opportunity to nurture collaboration.
Of natural talents
Here, perhaps, we can be reminded of what American biological anthropologist Helen Fisher calls the natural talents of women, meaning those strengths and abilities that have been gifted by nature over the course of evolutionary time. Although not everyone would agree, Fisher postulates that women, with their web thinking, are able to take a broader perspective on things and to tolerate ambiguity better than men do, and while this manner of thought does not always result in advantage, it might also be one of the reasons why women can navigate the complexities of having many different responsibilities in various domains at the same time (the juggling between worlds).
A different personality
Another area where men and women differ is in their personality. The very famous and quite outspoken Canadian clinical psychologist and author Jordan B. Peterson talks profusely about this, especially when he reminds us that up to 90% of his audience are males. In one of his videos on YouTube, he addresses these differences in personality, and says that, after puberty, we can notice an increase in the trait of neuroticism for females, which explains why women suffer more from depression and anxiety. Women are also, on average, more agreeable than men, which means they are more compassionate, more polite, and less competitive. Unfortunately, being agreeable also means that you are more vulnerable to being exploited and the reason why this is true for women is that their psychology is adapted to caring for children – with their maternal brain, women are in fact, wired to be exploited by infants.
When being nice is being strong
The question, I would imagine is whether we turn this around, and look at agreeableness as a strength rather than a vulnerability. I believe it is Peterson again who, in another video (which I cannot find) asserts, in his customary style, that the fact that women are more agreeable than men also means that they are more successful in negotiating positive outcomes in life, because when faced with adversity, rather than object, protest, and aggress (these are not things he actually said), they find it easier to cope and comply, which ultimately gives them an advantage because they can adapt to the circumstances instead of remaining stuck in disappointment and disagreement.
Let’s be open to empowerment…of a different style
There is not one narrow definition of strength and for many situations, it is good to put on punching gloves and build muscle, but allow me for this one occasion to be happy about the realisation that it is possible to turn agreeableness into a lever of power, a handle that can switch the course of things and push you forward in your ambitions. This idea also opens up other windows of opportunity in the space of female empowerment, because if we can transform being nice into being strong, just imagine what we can do with all the other gifts that women possess.