Festival philosophy or catfight?

What do you get when you cross a politician, a banker and a Darwinian philosopher?

catfightIt feels like I witnessed a bit of a catfight yesterday. I’m feeling slightly uncomfortable, slightly embarrassed even, but very alive. Some things are worth fighting over, and the question of the role of women in this world is certainly one of those.

I was at one of the festival philosophy sessions running this week at the truly wonderful How The Light Gets In festival, at Hay-on-Wye. For anyone who hasn’t discovered this gem, it runs in the shadow of the much bigger and now sadly rather commercialized Hay Literature Festival, but for me it is far more vibrant, personal and challenging with a fantastic array of speakers and events, and top quality mud.

When women rule

On the platform yesterday, discussing ‘When women rule’ were Labour MP Diane Abbott, Darwinian philosopher Helena Cronin, and Niamh Corbett, who is Vice-President of Morgan Stanley and on the steering committee of the 30% club (a group which aims to get at least 30% female representation on FTSE 100 boards).

Sadly virtually no time was spent discussing what the world would look like if women were in charge. The focus was primarily on how to get more women in to positions of influence in the business world and there was strong disagreement on this. Diane Abbott likes quotas. She thinks they worked in the Labour party. She is also very clear, that the victim should not be blamed. In the context of this discussion, by victim she meant woman. Niamh doesn’t agree with quotas but thinks support for women from the lowest rungs of the business ladder up will work. Helena thinks we need to be more rigorously scientific in our approach, ditch “cod psychology” and plan the future in the light of what science knows about the evolved differences between the average male and the average female.

What gripped me was the dynamics between the panelists. Two of the three are women who have done well in male dominated worlds (politics and banking). And dare I say it, it showed. Diane and Niamh demonstrated far more of the typically male characteristics which are essential to leaderships success – the ability to brazen things out, ignore others’ emotions and not engage with criticism.

Intellectual rigour

In terms of intellectual rigour, Helena was streets ahead of the other two. At one point she was desperately trying to explain that a correlation on a graph is no indication of causation. (There is an undisputed correlation between the presence of women on boards and shareholder return, but there is no evidence that the women are the cause of the improved shareholder return.) Neither of the other two panelists engaged with this key point, so the discussion didn’t move forward. We did not discuss what women could bring to boards that might add value to shareholders. Despite Helena’s best efforts, we didn’t grapple with the differences between males and females or question whether 50:50 representation is even desirable.

Real discussion turned quickly into posturing, and we didn’t move forward. So much for the collective, co-operative, non-competitive female way of doing things.

Helena looked and sounded more emotional than the other two, as though the integrity of the discussion really mattered to her.

Unbelievably, Diane spent large chunks of the time when the other panelists were talking on her mobile phone, curiously indifferent to the impression she was making. It’s possible, even probable, that she was checking facts and figures on the internet, but she radiated indifference and boredom.

Niamh looked uncomfortable when the science on which the 30% club is based was efficiently undermined by Helena. But her response was interesting – she neither acknowledged nor rebuffed Helena’s claims, just pretended they weren’t there. Her manner scarcely changed throughout.

Women at the top

There was some talk about women joining men at the top, and whether to do so they need to behave more like men. If these three women are representative, then the answer is an unequivocal yes. Was it just strange coincidence that Diane and Niamh were wearing trousers, and Helena was wearing a dress and a pink cardigan?

The debate was chaired by Matthew Parris who was kind and avuncular in his approach. However, at the close he belittled the discussion when he joked, You are ALL right, dears!

(In fairness to Mr Parris, he explained he was quoting his grandmother’s wise words to her grandchildren, but in the context of adult male to adult females after their discussion on equality, it was unfortunate.)

I left the tent rejoicing that women like Helena Cronin exist – intelligent, rigorous seekers of the truth, and unashamedly female. I also left rejoicing that science may just hold the key to helping us move forward on this vexed question of gender equality.