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Indra Adnan

Indra Adnan

Posted: November 27, 2008 05:39 PM

Men and Women Take on the Economy Together


It's Thanksgiving and my gratitude prize immediately goes to President-Elect Obama for his economic team. Not because it was the first team he had pulled together, nor for the accumulated talent therein. I'm grateful for the sheer symbolic power of his choice of team members: alongside the two obvious men were two surprising women. Tim, Larry, Christina and Melody: half men, half women in a balanced partnership to face a global crisis and reshape the economic culture of the early 21st Century.

I guess that many people will object to the way I am framing this event: women might feel offended that I find it remarkable that there are as many women as men in the front line. Men may draw attention to the imbalance in their distributed powers and challenge the notion that it is a team at all. Both could take a look at Cambridge University findings about the distinctly masculine nature of the meltdown: there's much to explore there.

Meantime, don't underestimate the power of the image - Obama hasn't. Let's ask ourselves what he might be trying to achieve by bringing the four of them together on the stage.

What has been more powerful in this past month, than the image of the Obama family, laughing and clearly loving, on the stage in Chicago? We know so little about any of them - but the sheer spectacle of their unity has caused more optimism in the media than I've experienced for a long time. Why is that? Is it because it reaches beyond our rational brains to our emotional responses, eliciting a positive feeling about the future that politicians rarely generate?

Or is it that Obama is the very model of soft power: soft as in engaged, personal, co-creative, networked, family-orientated - all as the source of power? And are these qualities that we yearn for in politics, but so rarely find - even from the women who get involved?

In a recent interview I did with Marie Wilson, founder and Director of The White House Project, she drew attention to the difficulty for women as messengers for family values:

"If women focus too much on their children they will be considered divided in their commitment and unfit for office. When women talk about diplomacy it's seen as avoidance of action - women have a harder time wielding soft power than men.


"Joyce Fletcher described her work with a group of engineers - mostly men - in her book Disappearing Acts: Gender, Power, and Relational Practice at Work. Whenever they had disputes in the workforce, it was always the women who mediated using what Fletcher understood to be their feminine power -what I would call soft power. But this was not seen as power by the men: it was seen as mothering or nurturing, a marginal skill that could be taken for granted.

"That's why Hilary had such a tough time in the elections: if she didn't show hard power, the same power as the men, she looked powerless.

"But Obama used soft power - he became the woman in the race - and he won it that way. He was never afraid to talk family, show love, ask for emotion from the electorate. And he is still here, showing the women how to do it".


The messages Obama is sending out are profound: he gives men permission to be attentive fathers as well as providers. He gives women prominence as mothers, as much as as economists or lawyers. As a team the Obamas honour their children as well as civic life. Not holding back on these images and these projections of love and care, gives Obama what Joseph Nye would call the power of attraction - soft power. Meaning: we are drawn to it through our own desire for it.

I predict that this will open the door to far more political participation from women in the future as well as a new kind of participation from men. Can't you already see men vying to be the best father, rushing home early from a session of policy making, just to 'be with' (not sort out) the kids? Men taking responsibility for their daughters and their sons, happy to model a masculinity which is both caring and protective.

And I can see women bringing their female skills and values right into the heart of government, instead of leaving them at home. Strong in their soft power, proud as mothers and carers - ready to create new partnerships with men to deliver the changes promised.

And for that, today, I am truly thankful.