Good Riddance

Why macho had to go.


Generalizing about the differences between men and women is about as rewarding as sticking your arm into a blender. The issue is just too rife with controversy, contradictory data, deep-seated emotion, sundry fears, and political agendas of all kinds. But the meltdown of the hypermasculine, risk-seeking model of finance capitalism has lately thrown a new light on this old and deeply contentious question: Given their record, should men really be running the world?

After trolling through the current research, including some of my own, I have to say (at the risk of arm meeting blender), that the answer is probably no. Evolutionary biologists tell us that human beings and chimpanzees are the only species in the animal kingdom in which male members bond together to commit acts of aggression against other members of the same species. Indeed, research shows that natural selection has slowly but steadily rewarded certain types of men with more offspring: men who form tight bonds with other men, who use physical force to get what they want, who lack empathy, who are highly motivated to garner resources with minimum effort, who are willing to take risks, and who subordinate others—whether women, children, or strangers—to their interests. That’s how 0.5 percent of men in the world today (and, presumably, women, too) wound up as descendants of Genghis Khan.

These predominantly male tendencies clearly have immediate and lasting evolutionary benefits for men, but their long-term consequences for society at large are less obviously salutary. Of course, risk-taking, competitiveness, self-confidence, and aggression can be appropriate—even beneficial—when directed toward the protection of other human beings. The problems come when these attributes are unbounded and unchecked, when Genghis Khan types are allowed to run amok. Sooner or later, risk-taking always overshoots and crashes; decision-making becomes reckless; preying on others without restraint undermines the entire social web, imperiling all, including the predator.

Men pay a price for their evolutionary legacy (think of the high casualty rates among despots and professional U.S. football players), but the price for women is higher still. As my colleagues and I wrote in a recent issue of International Security, more than 160 million women went missing from the world’s population in 2005 alone—more than all the deaths from all the cross-border conflicts, civil wars, and genocides of the entire bloody 20th century combined. Some have called this a "gendercide," whose true and appalling toll is obscured by its pedestrian origins: domestic violence, sex-selective abortion, egregious maternal mortality rates, and the cultural sanction of female murder (so-called "honor killings"). But children, as well as women, suffer—for in most cultures, mothers are responsible for the daily survival of their kids.

Men’s behavior at home also has global implications. Our own research suggests that states with a high level of physical security for women score higher on peacefulness and compliance with international norms. In fact, the physical security of women within a state turned out to be a better predictor of that state’s peaceful international conduct than levels of democracy and wealth. Our research also suggests the inverse conclusion—that states within which women are more at risk of violence at the hands of men also tend to be the most internationally aggressive and defiant of rules and norms. In short, reduce violent inequality between men and women, and you reduce domination and aggression in society as a whole.

The answer is not to hand over ultimate power to women. But there is good reason to think that collective decision-making between men and women is the way to go. Women (in the aggregate at least) tend to be less confident than males, more risk-averse, less aggressive, more empathetic, less absorbed in competition, and more interested in consensual decision-making. There is an evolutionary reason for this, too: Women since the dawn of time have had to cope with the predispositions of men. Women tend to be more risk-averse than men because they usually live with men who accept risk and even seek it out. Women tend to be less confident than men because they usually live with men who are overconfident. Because of this balancing effect, better decisions might be made if men and women were making them together.

And wouldn’t you know it: Recent research has shown that when both males and females make decisions together, all participants are more satisfied with the outcome than when it is the product of all-male groups. Furthermore, researchers have found that mixed decision-making groups are less risk acceptant than all-male groups, and that non-zero-sum outcomes are more likely. Additional studies have shown that levels of corruption in government are lower when more women are involved. Real gender equality, entailing a meaningful sharing of power within society, may thus be a prerequisite for optimal and rational policymaking, whether for households, countries, or the international community. The booms may not be as explosive, but then again, the busts may not be either.

It used to be said that behind every great man is a great woman. Maybe the scoundrels, hooligans, Genghis Khans, derivatives traders, and debt-securitizers could use a few great women, too—for the sake of the rest of us, if nothing else.

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