How Market Patriarchy is degrading Men and Women

With most top positions in business and politics occupied by men, and our world groaning under the weight of climate change, war, mass migration and wealth inequality, Channel 4’s Cathy Newman seemed on safe ground in asserting that the Patriarchy lives; that if only more women were in those positions, the world would be a better place. As she suggested in her now-infamous interview of Canadian public intellectual Jordan Peterson, “Is it not desirable to have some of those female traits [of agreeableness, compassion and care, social conscience, etc.] at the top of business?” If there were, she argued, “maybe there wouldn’t have been a banking crisis.”

Peterson responded that it’s not men who are responsible because “it’s the market that sets the damn game”, to which Newman quickly retorted “and the market is dominated by men”. So is it really men who are responsible for all the world’s ills?

Peterson’s point is that the market represents a larger, systemic force which sets the narrow behavioural parameters to which businesspeople — whether male or female — must conform. These tend to select for assertiveness, disagreeableness and competitiveness in individuals and for short-term profit maximization in companies. In that sense, Peterson is right. It’s not men who control the market, but the market that powerfully shapes both women and men, forcing them to honour only one half of who we really are; that is, our macho-masculine, competitive, risk-taking half. And since men tend to be more assertive and women tend to be more agreeable, it’s little wonder that top positions tend to be occupied by men.

But why is the market like this at all? Because competitive is what markets are — a market, after all, is a competition! Companies that are competitive and maximize profits will do well and their stock prices will go up. Those that don’t stay competitive will ultimately fail. The more competitive you are, the more likely you are to win.

Feminists argue that the market is dominated by men. But imagine you were a woman at the top. Would your more feminine and compassionate social conscience make any difference in an environment that automatically selects for competitiveness? Probably not. As David Korten explains, “With financial markets demanding maximum short-term gains and corporate raiders standing by to trash any company that isn’t externalizing every possible cost, efforts to fix the problem by raising the social consciousness of managers misdefine the problem. There are plenty of socially conscious managers. The problem is a predatory system that makes it difficult for them to survive”[i] The problem isn’t a lack of women at the top, but a market system that degrades both men and women. If there’s a ‘patriarchy’ at all, it’s the market, not the men.

So where do the feminine traits of agreeableness, compassion and caring come in? Where does a healthy social conscience get a look-in? If the market by its very nature cannot admit these traits, where should we rightly seek them?

To answer this, we need to understand the relationship between governance and markets. Imagine a game of football. The game itself represents the competitive market. But the referees, rules and their fair enforcement represent cooperative governance. We might say that the market represents the qualities of assertive masculine competition while governance represents the qualities of feminine restraint and compassion. Governance, then, is where our collective social conscience ought to come in. Because governance is what keeps the game healthy, fair and productive. Markets and governance both need each other.

The problem today is that they are not in balance. The market is truly global, but governance remains predominantly national. This imbalance allows capital and corporations to move freely across national borders forcing governments to do whatever is necessary to keep their economies internationally competitive. Instead of being above the game and refereeing it fairly, governments have become part of it. In this way, governments, regardless of the party in power, are now forced to systemically favour the interests of corporations and investors for fear of them moving elsewhere. And this means the interests of society and the environment inevitably suffer.

Politicians, too, have become part of the game. Since any government seeking to do the right thing by society or the environment would only be punished by capital, investment and jobs moving elsewhere to escape the higher taxes or tighter regulations, it’s easy to see why politicians don’t act on global issues such as climate change, top people’s pay or any other issue that might threaten national competitiveness. It’s little wonder that “feminine” policies that foster greater equity, social inclusion and environmental sustainability are largely excluded or watered down.

The psychic pain this causes is too often overlooked. Whether we’re men or women, the competitive market system forces us to do what we know may be wrong or harmful. It forces us to act against our deepest values and convictions. And this pain accumulates internally within each of us as a growing sense of guilt and repression, and externally in the form of worsening global problems.

But here’s the point: we need to balance our “masculine” global economy with “feminine” global governance. Until we do, the “Market Patriarchy” can only continue to degrade both men and women — and the planet. So isn’t it time we stopped blaming men and got on with the job?

[i] When Corporations Rule the World, David Korten, Kumarian Press & Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 1995.