Friday, April 25, 2008

So, what makes women so special?

This week on the website of the Globe and Mail newspaper, you can watch Scotiabank CEO Rick Waugh talk about why he thinks it’s a good idea to hire more women. Actually, what he says is not very spectacular, mostly that women are as good as men and often easier to get (as employees, that is…). Well, not exactly a daring observation. And that his company will work hard to raise the 33% share of women in executive positions. Nice intentions.

It goes to show though that equal opportunities for men and women are still an issue. Just think of all the talk about a woman now running for president in the US. It looks like we have come a long way, but there is still much to do.

It is interesting to see how this topic has become more and more an issue for corporations. In our forthcoming book ‘Corporations and Citizenship’ we have a whole chapter on the corporate role in reflecting, enabling or restricting identities of citizens. Gender is just one of many examples here. If we think about equal opportunities for women careers, issues like maternity leave, freedom from discrimination or harassment – it is mostly the corporate sphere where these issues are either respected or suppressed. In that sense then having a CEO talking about the issues is actually reflecting the simple fact that, yes, companies are nowadays centre stage in tackling these inherently political issues.

The debate also goes on in the academic community of business ethics scholars. Our book is one of the few that explicitly features the approach of feminist ethics. While we don’t do much more then summarizing the state of the art, this little section in Chapter 3 has ignited some debate recently. The question is really whether women are inherently different from men: is it correct to stereotype men as ‘rights/status oriented’ whereas women, in this school of ethics, are stereotyped as ‘care/relationship oriented’. With many of our younger (especially female) students our experience in the classroom has been that sometimes this sounds to them like grandmother talking about the war. Long gone are the heated debates on feminism in the 1960s where these theories gained currency.

As we said, we have come a long way here, but it seems there still remains a lot to be done. Both in understanding and appreciating gender diversity (without stereotyping), but also in addressing discrimination and prejudice. And it is in business, where most of these issues are the most hotly contested.

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