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Do women have to champion other women’s causes

By Melo Magolego

The interwebs are abuzz with Yahoo chief executive Marissa Mayer asking all staff that work from home to start reporting to the office. Those affected include middle-class mothers for whom the flexibility of working from home had afforded the opportunity to lead more balanced lives — to be both mothers and career women. This change in policy is part of Marissa’s efforts to revive the floundering tech giant.

This decision is interesting for two reasons.

Firstly does appointing a leader from a historically marginalised social group ensure that that individual will champion (or at worst always defer preference to) the cause of such a group? Mayer was pregnant when she took the helm, and this alone would have supported conjecture that her decisions would be empathetic to mothers (and would-be mothers).

Secondly is it the duty of each member of a marginalised group to become an advocate of that group’s cause(s)? For example, should blacks become evangelists for black issues — likewise gays, the disabled etc? Marissa avoids the feminist epithet and says she would rather people think her “just a geek”. This is in sharp contrast to Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg.

One would expect a sense of benign neutrality at worst and proactive advocacy at best from members of a marginalised group when appointed to a leadership position. But this expectation is clearly misplaced. Is there a fundamental reason for this?

Organisations by design tend to have shareholders and stakeholders who the leaders of the organisation have to account to. In such a stakeholder-shareholder set-up at the very least there are going to be two sets of possibly competing interests. In addition, stakeholders themselves are not monolithic and internally are likely to have competing interests. Hence, in general, competing interests abound.

This competition requires a prioritisation scheme for ranking concerns. This is because of the limited resources with which to pursue the organisation’s activities and/or the limited outputs which it produces. Given this prioritisation, it is not inconceivable that the exclusive or even primary service of the cause of a single group may become less important or less urgent than other concerns. In fact, it seems this is precisely what guided Mayer and not a contempt or negligence of women’s concerns but rather the broader issue of the company’s survival.

The question remaining is whether it is the duty of members to become advocates of their group’s cause(s). To me, the desirability of members becoming advocates is immaterial. What is of concern is universality: can every member of a marginalised group, when appointed into leadership, be duty bound to advance the group’s cause?

I don’t think it’s practical. This is because of the fleeting nature of group identity, the pluralist nature of our society and the end of the age of blatant discrimination. Let me expand on these three reasons.

Firstly the promiscuity people exhibit in terms of identity has led pundits to conclude group identity irrelevant. I think group identity is not dead but rather fleeting. Whether it is Aristotle’s human political nature, Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s sexual urge satisfaction, Thomas Hobbes’ violence avoidance or John Locke’s social compact, civilised man has sought social grouping. What has changed, though, is the subscription model (multi-tethering and time variant) and not the need to group socially. Enjoining members to duty, given this lack of loyalty, is akin to building a house at the intersection of tectonic plates.

Secondly in a pluralist society it is impractical to have one leader encapsulate all of the variations a people exhibit. These variations derive from the existentialist realisation that there is no script to act out this life, but rather that to each a degree of free will, a typewriter and a piece of paper are given for the purpose of crafting a memorable character. Alternatively, these variations derive from our Constitution, which is founded upon individual rights. These variations inject internal inconsistency as to what constitutes a group’s identity — this is identity as it is to be manifested by group members. This lack of consistency has traditionally been eradicated by an external homogenising force. An example would be white supremacy as the homogenising factor which created social and economic conditions for the solidarity that was black power and what has been the consistent black identity. Another example is totalitarian social control. The current lack of internal consistency undermines a focused agenda of those who would be enjoined to duty.

Lastly, traditionally, discrimination has been blatant and unabashed. But at the behest of the liberal project, individual rights have become a global norm. This emergent self-evidence of equality has made it illegal and socially unacceptable to discriminate wholesale. Those who seek to frustrate transformation have become subtle in their efforts. They avoid treating all members within a marginalised grouping equally badly; this, so as to avoid creating the external homogenising force. They rather divide and conquer by treating certain members better than others. This approach then undermines any effort at organisation by marginalised members, since it is then self-evident that a particular group property is not the reason for discrimination.

Is it nihilistic to argue against duty to the group? No, it is not. Association should be based on interests. Association based on immutable characteristics and dogma is dangerous because it is resistant to political organisation and negotiation. Association on interest holds the hope of making society and the organisations therein more egalitarian.

Melo is also a Fulbright scholar and read his master’s in electrical engineering at Caltech. Follow on Twitter @melomagolego.