Wednesday, November 28, 2007

A trifecta

As most of my friends and colleagues know, one of my favorite columns of my favorite online publication is The Dismal Science column on Slate. And I muse often--and out loud--about how women do (or do not) behave differently at work than men, or whether they have greater chances at happiness today than before, because I've come to a feminist consciousness late in life and I feel like I need to make up for lost time. And I love the science of economics, despite not having chosen it in college or in graduate school--again, making up for lost time.

So this latest article from Slate started talking about how when legislative mandates forced more women into leadership positions in village councils, the delivery of public goods increased (and the quality of such goods stayed as high as when men were in leadership positions) but residents of villages headed by women were actually less satisfied with the public goods, I thought I'd hit the trifecta.

My trivial little delight at finding an article that was as relevant as any Google ad served up to me in my Gmail account using entirely analog searching techniques aside, this finding really makes me pause. Because the implications are startling. Either we have really not understood the nature of public goods (and they aren't really good for people), or we have hardwired biases against being able to perceive objective reality (which means those biases are extremely difficult to overcome, or ...

It's something I actually often wonder about international development. There's a small group of people in the world (and I hang out with them all the time, so my own perspective is warped) who have the privilege of knowing about, and participating in, the adventure that development can be. How we can communicate the drama and the incredible high that comes from hard-won success to people who don't know about it--and perhaps even have a bias against learning more about it?

But I'm a liberal at heart--I do believe human nature can change. After all, if I can gain feminist consciousness and an appreciation of the dismal science late in life, why not?


Elizabeth said...

I had a nice email response going to you, but in the amount of time it took me to get it together you had already blogged about it, so I think I'll make my comments public. The slate article resonated on three levels:

1. Is it possible that the level of dissastisfaction is not in itself an indicator that more people are dissastisified but that, as an outcome of more women in government, freedom of expression also increased, which meant that a greater portion of people (i.e. women) in those villages were expressing their feelings for the first time?

2. Change management and the cycles/spirals of denial/resistance/exploration/acceptance. When process/systems/leadership/anything really changes, people cycle through these feelings and in three of those for cycles, they will feel and express dissastisfaction. Unfortunately, without a framework to put that dissastisfaction within, we see it simply as dissastisfaction, and often unwarrented dissastisfaction at that.

3. Bias. There is no getting around the fact that there are subtle biases within everyone -- the MIT study around race and ethnicity is a scary experiment into how even the most tolerant people have accepted stereotypes into their psyche. This is so very apparent with female leadership. I have to wonder though what would happen if women themselves were less divided in their sense of self, and more united in creating something positive -- could we faster overcome these stereotypes?

mashenka@dc said...

Hey Eli--knew I could get a comment out of you on this one! I think both 1 and 2 are possible, but crudely put, will get cured with time (unless in the meantime backlashes happen and women do not have the opportunity to "ride out" the wave).

The point you make in 3 is intriguing, though, especially the part about whether women themselves subconsciously express that same bias and division--vis-a-vis themselves, let alone vis-a-vis other women.

So in the spirit of Seth Roberts's self-experimentation principle, I suggest we start trying it out ourselves ...