Women are better on top

Abstract: Why women can run government departments but can’t drive taxis…

When I heard the announcement of the new provincial premiers I thought immediately of Athens. You see 44% of athletes taking part in this year’s Summer Olympics will be women. This is not surprising seeing there are so many of them around – women, that is, not athletes. Similarly, 44% of South African provincial premiers are women.

Again, statistically speaking this shouldn’t be all that startling given the large number of women there are in this country. And yet the media’s commentators seemed genuinely shocked that so many women had “made it”. It was as if a national soccer coach had just trawled through the crowd and picked people at random to play for his side on the day of a World Cup final.

Perhaps this has something to do with another statistic: it’s been estimated that of all the mini-bus taxi drivers in South Africa, only 0.000805% are women. I never could figure out statistics but this seems to be what could be described as ‘an anomaly’.

I know this term because it haunts me. As a final year clinical psychology student I was part of a team that studied a family of baboons. I had to examine the specific behaviour of an adult female baboon – Erica; chart her actions whilst alone and when interacting with the others. My colleagues were each studying different baboons with the mission of compiling a composite graphical representation of typical baboon behaviour in a group. Apparently, this groundbreaking research was going to help us assess the behaviour patterns of supporters of a certain rugby team.

Anyway, relatively early on in my enthusiastic observation, Erica disappeared behind a clump of trees and re-emerged with a personality change. She had become a bit irascible and demanding. I dutifully noted her new behaviour and like any budding psychologist pondered upon its cause.

The answer came as our lecturer called ‘time’ and we stopped our recording. Erica looked directly at me and opened her legs. Erica had become Eric. I had been observing the wrong baboon since she/he had reappeared from behind the trees. When all the data from the class was later plotted on a graph of baboon behaviour, my input produced a puzzling ‘blip’ on the chart – ‘an anomaly’ – and I was introduced to a new shade of blue.

The answer to South Africa’s statistical anomaly is more to do with perception than reality. Although women make up half our population, they seem to be relegated to the bottom half. For some strange reason it’s okay for women to have the responsibility of nurturing the future of our glorious democracy but just don’t put them behind the wheel of a taxi.

Perhaps this is something to do with procreation. Traditionally man’s input (no pun intended) is a matter of minutes whereas a woman’s is more long-term. This dates back to a time when a man had to finish the job quickly before exiting the cave to bring down a woolly mammoth for lunch.

We have long since shed our hairy backs – well most of us anyway – and swapped our clubs for cellphones, but in many societies, women still bear the brunt of man’s notion that the woolly mammoth is still out there and that it’s no place for a woman. They are best left pushing out kids and digging up cabbages; after all, it’s just labour.

Women, in my opinion, are better on top. Many men will disagree saying that it’s tough out there. They’ve obviously never tried to push a bowling ball through a gap the thickness of a human hand. Men will argue that women can’t hold the respect of others. They obviously haven’t seen an expression of calm fury on the face of a woman scorned. Men will argue that women don’t know anything about negotiation. They’re obviously in denial. Ever heard of ‘withholding sex’?

In my line of work, women are king. All but a handful of the most influential radio stations are now under the control of women. In this era of corporate governance, women make better bosses. They are both emphatic and empathetic – just the right balance of force and caring. They know how to encourage staff to do things to the best of their capability but can also slice through mischief with a single icy stare.

They have one downside – the dreaded recurring monster within them that can unleash a torrent of irrational behaviour. The secret is to keep an eye on it – movie producer Sam Goldwyn famously kept a chart of the cycles of all his female stars.

But are South African men really all that awful? After all South African women overwhelmingly choose to marry men. A recent edition of the Harvard Business Review quotes a series of studies in the US that shows a disturbing pattern of the subjugation of women throughout their education and their careers, from teacher favouritism towards boys in pre-school to an imbalance in gender respect for leadership in the workplace. The result is a seemingly justified internalisation by women of their secondary roles in society.

Whereas we may point a finger at the Americans and say something along the line of ‘even the land of the free subjugates women’, we must also remember that although we may have a Woman’s Day in South Africa, we are also just as quick to celebrate them as personal assistants.

All in all, though, I don’t think that we’re all that bad. We have recognised the roles women played in the struggle for democracy and we have an active policy to promote them through the ranks of leadership. But although we may celebrate them as bosses at work, we seem more comfortable with them as subservient at home. We may trust them with earnings per share but won’t share the responsibility of cooking a meal.

So why is this? Why can women steer our provinces as premiers but are not allowed to drive taxis? Perhaps they’re just bad drivers.

Published in the Sunday Times on Sunday 02 May 2004