Dahlia Lithwick, in her recent Newsweek column “The Female Factor,” asks the question whether having three women on the Supreme Court will make any difference. The answer, according to the studies and social scientists she quotes, is an emphatic “yes.”
It’s not that women have a unified perspective on things that is different from men’s. It’s that as they gain critical mass, women begin to speak up more confidently and add a perspective that is missing from the conversation between men. “Women speak openly when they don’t feel their own voice is meant to reflect all women,” she says, and this can be very important in situations where a woman’s perspective would be different. Lithwick uses the example of the 2009 Supreme Court case in which a 13-year-old girl was strip searched by school officials looking for Ibuprofen; the males on the court likened this to the locker room pranks of young boys, but Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg said in an interview at the time, “My colleagues have never been a 13-year-old girl.”
Lithwick concludes, “…as the justices continue to decide cases that affect the ways that women are educated, hired, compensated, and afforded control over their bodies, maybe it’s high time there were three voices at the table with actual experience in the field.”
In how many corporate boardrooms and executive teams do we applaud the rise of a single woman, as if that means we’ve made progress? Too often we’re still lacking the critical mass that would allow those women to speak confidently, that would allow them to add their experience of the world to the business conversation.
I’ve served on a couple of non-profit boards over the past five years and in both cases I was the only female. I found myself often seeing a personnel issue as being influenced by gender stereotypes, and in the process, alienating my male colleagues by referring to it as such. To have more female colleagues around that table would have helped; it would have leant credibility to my perspective and confidence to my delivery.
This has been said before, by people much smarter than me, but often the rise of a single woman to the corporate boardroom simply means she acted like a man in order to get there. Will she act any differently once she’s at the table? Probably not, if she’s faced with providing the only female perspective. No one likes to be seen as being the representative voice of an entire group, never mind a group that is half the human race.
I’ll be watching the Supreme Court in the coming years, looking for evidence that our numbers matter and that the corporate world can look forward to a similar transition some day. In the meantime, I’ll still be arguing alone on my non-profit boards.