Five Ways Men Benefit from Women's Empowerment

04/27/2014 11:12 pm ET | Updated Jun 27, 2014
Erik Isakson via Getty Images

This is taken from a speech that I gave to the League of Women Voters of Marin County at Sausalito, California, on April 17, 2014

What's the most important thing men can do for themselves? The answer seems clear to me: work for the empowerment of women.

For the last 20 years I've described myself as feminist. This sometimes raises eyebrows. Women occasionally look at me skeptically, thinking maybe I've grabbed a phrase that I know little about. Men often take it as an indication that I've abandoned the "team" - some probably think I'm using it as a pick-up line. And, of course, I started describing myself as a feminist just about the time that the popular media gave up on the term and moved on to something else.

Nevertheless, I've reached the point where feminism has become the intellectual framework that I look to first in analyzing political, economic, and social issues. I find that it cuts through a lot of misinformation and distraction and gets to the core of a problem. The reason is simple. The empowerment of women is crucial to solving a lot of seemingly unrelated problems that are as important to men as they are to women.

When I wrote my novel The Circle of Thirteen, which is in large part a story about women's empowerment, I wanted to explore this idea without being preachy about it. I did sneak a few sentences past my editors, however, that try to make the point. The speaker on Page 196 is Aayan Yusuf, one of the thirteen title-characters, who is speaking to the others:

"For years I've had the theory that equality for women is the key to everything else. I'm talking about true equality across the board - not just equality for western women; that's too tenuous. But if you can achieve the kind of equality I'm talking about, then all of the other problems of the world become easier to solve. If you don't, then society just keeps repeating the same mistakes."

That's what has motivated me over the last couple of decades: the idea that empowering women will help all of us - men almost as much as women. And once you come around to that idea, you see the impact of it in all kinds of places. I look at different problems and ask myself this question: How would women's empowerment make a difference in this situation?

Here are at least five ways that women's empowerment could change things.

1. Women are much better at dealing with certain problems
There are some social problems that only women can really solve. The clearest example is overpopulation. For years governments tried all kinds of programs to reduce excessive birth rates that were undermining the economic well-being of their countries. But none of these top-down programs worked. The only thing that has worked has been the empowerment of women. In countries where women have gained in education, economic opportunity, and legal rights, the birth-rate has gone down to a manageable level. Male-run governments could not solve this alone - in fact, men were quite literally propagating the problem. It wasn't until women were empowered enough to control their own bodies that we could see any progress.

There are other issues like this. Many problems appear to be of concern only to women. However, when women become empowered enough to work out a solution to those problems, everyone around them benefits. On questions of family health, child development, family income, and a whole range of issues the ability of women to act on their own with a full-range of social rights at their disposal makes it easier for them to use their ingenuity to solve the problem. In these situations the whole family benefits - as well as the rest of society.

2. There are some situations that could be improved just by the presence of women

Sometimes the mere presence of women can change things for the better. The first time this hit me was several years ago during the Rodney King riots in Los Angeles. That incident involved a band of white male cops using excessive violence against a black man, and it led to massive violence and destruction in the L.A. area. But as I watched the news reports, I wondered if that violent outburst against King would have happened if some of the members of that police squad had been women. I think there's a good chance that it wouldn't.

You can never say for sure what could happen in any particular situation - there are probably some women who would go along with the violence just to prove that they are as tough as the guys. But I'm convinced that in the long run the presence of women would make a difference in many potentially violent situations. Women are usually less likely to resort to impulsive violence, and men are more likely to restrain their instinct to violence when women are active in the group.

Once you start asking yourself the question, "Could this situation have turned out better if women had been there," you start seeing that kind of opportunity everywhere. When we hear there's an angry mob attacking another ethnic group or storming a building or fomenting terrorism, we know without hearing the rest of the news report that it was very likely to be a male-only group. How different might those situations be if the women of the community were involved? In many cases, I would suggest, such demonstrations might be less violent and, perhaps, more effective.

3. Protecting women's rights is the key to protecting everyone's rights

Protecting women's rights around the world is essential, because it is one of the keys to dismantling repressive regimes and institutions. All totalitarian ideologies, all repressive governments, and all fundamentalist religions - no matter what their creed or belief - share one characteristic: they all try to keep women in their place. This has been true of fascists, communists, and hereditary regimes, and it's been true as well of the more fundamentalist versions of Christianity, Islam, Hinduism and other religions. These are almost always male-dominated institutions in which women have little or no voice. Usually, they are run by a bunch of older men (like me), sitting around talking to each other. They become echo-chambers in which the viewpoint and needs of women are never heard.

It's often hard to figure what is cause and what is effect in these situations: Do fundamentalist regimes repress women's rights because they are authoritarian, or do they become authoritarian in order to keep women in their place? Either way it's more than just a problem for the women involved. It's also a big problem for the rest of us who have to live with the harm that such repressive institutions and governments can unleash on the world.

If reform is going to come to these types of institutions, it probably needs to start with a focus on women's empowerment. Unless women's rights are addressed head-on, it's too easy for authoritarian and traditionalist institutions just to give lip-service to reform and then slip back into their old ways. There will always be cultural-relativists who will argue that we should back off from supporting women's empowerment in such instances, because the second-class treatment of women "is the way they do things in their society." The only way to counter that argument is to point out that any system built on the suppression of half of its members is simply not entitled to much deference.

The suppression of women is what keeps many fundamentalist regimes going, and it's the empowerment of women that will ultimately make the difference in changing them. So whenever I hear of a group of women fighting somewhere to get their rights - whether it's teenagers trying to go to school in Pakistan, Saudi women fighting for the right to drive a car in Saudi Arabia, or Nuns on the Bus in America trying to have their voices heard - I have to think they are ultimately fighting a fight for me and everyone else.

4. Women's empowerment is good for the economy and the environment

Women's empowerment benefits us all, because it's important for the economy. Countries that have opened up education to women and brought them into the work force do much better economically than countries that keep women suppressed, and many of those women work in environmentally-friendly occupations. It's no surprise that countries that suppress women and deprive them of an education are more economically backwards than others, because leaving one-half of your population uneducated means that you created have a drastically inferior work force.

And the higher women go in the echelons of the economy, the better it is for everyone. Christine LaGarde , the Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund, remarked, somewhat facetiously, that the financial collapse of a few years back might not have happened if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters. She observed:

"I do believe women have different ways of taking risks, of addressing issues ... of ruminating a bit more before they jump to conclusions. And I think that as a result, particularly on the trading floor, in the financial markets in general, the approach would be different."

There's plenty of evidence to show that diversity in management of major businesses leads to benefits for everyone. A major study recently compared the financial performance of businesses with large numbers of women on their boards to those with few women. The companies with women well-represented on their boards out-performed the others in every respect.

5. Women can provide critical insight at important moments

There are many important, pivotal events in human history where the addition of an empowered group of women might have made a difference - and possibly avoided tragedy.

The best example is World War I - the biggest disaster in human history by almost any measurement. We're about two months away from the 100th year anniversary of the event that supposedly started that war. I say "supposedly," because historians don't really look upon the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand as the cause of that war. In the years prior to that, other world leaders had been assassinated - including the King of Italy and the President of the United States - and those events didn't lead to war. But this time it was different. An entire month passed between the shooting of the Archduke in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914, and the beginning of hostilities around the first of August. During that month a bunch of guys sitting around in the capitals of the major countries in Europe somehow let things slide to the point where millions of young men in their countries were sent out to fight and die.

One of the best recent books about this is The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914 by Christopher Clark. His thesis, as you can imagine from the title, is that the war served on real political purpose but occurred mainly because the leaders at the time were unable to step back from what they were doing and gain any wider perspective on their actions. They just kept moving - sleepwalking, as it were - in one ominous direction.

Talking about the actions of the European leaders (p. 359) during the fateful month of leading up to the war, Clark asks the question: "Was This a Crisis of Masculinity?"

This was a play with only male characters -- how important was that? Masculinity is and was a broad category that encompassed many forms of behavior; the manliness of these particular men was inflected by identities of class, ethnicity and profession. Yet it is striking how often the key protagonists appealed to pointedly masculine modes of comportment and how closely these were interwoven with their understanding of policy. 'I sincerely trust that we shall keep our backs very stiff in this matter,' Arthur Nicholson [U.K. Minister] wrote to his friend Charles Hardinge, recommending that London reject any appeals for rapprochement from Berlin. ... When Bertie [U.K. Ambasssador to France] spoke of the danger that the Germans would 'push us into the water and steal our clothes,' he metamorphized the international system as a rural playground thronging with male adolescents. Sazonov [Russian Foreign Minister] praised the 'uprightness' of Poincare's {President of France] character and 'the unshakable firmness of his will;' Paul Cambon [French Ambasssador to U.K.] saw in him the 'stiffness' of the professional jurist, while the allure of the reserved and self-reliant 'outdoorsman' was central of Grey's [U.K. Foreign Secretary] identity as a public man. To have shrunk from supporting Austria-Hungary during the crisis of 1914, Bethman [German Chancellor] commented in his memoirs, would have been an act of 'self-castration'."

Where were the women, we have to ask, who might have awakened these rigid, macho characters and kept them from sleepwalking into tragedy?