Over the past few years I have been peripherally involved in various discussions with male colleagues about gender equity. The conversations have had a predictable ebb and flow.The consensus, at least among my colleagues, is that gender equity is a good idea. In the abstract, we fully endorse it. The practice is another matter. It is not that we don’t want to share power. We’re enlightened! We know there is a problem, but can it be someone else’s power that is shared?
The reasoning goes something like this. I should not have to share power. I’m talented, I got here on merit, and I deserve everything I achieved. It is an absolute social good when I have power. For me to give up power would not be good, because I wield it benignly and actively promote gender equity. It would be great if another man gave up power because that would support gender equity.
At a fundamental level, power is a zero-sum-game. There are only so many seats around the high tables of power, and if someone gets a seat at the table, someone loses a seat. Sure, we can squeeze an extra seat in here or there — but there are limits. If someone sits on a panel, someone else cannot sit on the panel. If 50% of the world’s population suddenly achieved fair access to power, power that had been largely controlled by the other 50%, competition would increase sharply.
In 2017, the World Health Organization Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, tried to fudge the arithmetic [it has since changed]. He appointed a substantial number of women to senior positions in WHO. He did this by increasing the pool of senior positions, and he appointed women to the new positions. Unfortunately, many of the new positions were without substantive portfolios, and without real power. In effect he dragged some extra stools to the table. Chairs for men. Stools for newly appointed women.
The strategy had all the right visuals without the structural capacity to support gender equity; i.e., the fair distribution of power.
Gender equity is a good idea. It will be achieved through structural changes that share power and resources, not through appeals to people’s better nature nor through empty gestures. The test of whether one person’s power has increased is whether another person’s power has been diminished.