Decades ago, when the feminist movement was first gaining steam, it was often observed that the emergence of women in the business world would have a “softening” and “humanizing” impact. I’m no sociologist, and I have no idea if that was a shrewd prediction or not. Judging by today’s headlines, I’d say we could still use a bit more “humanizing” in the corridors of corporate power.
Yet it does occur to me that the view of women implicit in such discussions is a mite glib. Can’t women be as “hard” and “inhuman” as men? Did Catherine the Great really “humanize” Old Russia?
There’s a dual vision at work here – of women as harbingers of a kinder, gentler world, versus women as the absolute, gender-neutral co-equals of men. The dichotomy extends to female philanthropists as well, as a recent Inside Philanthropy list of the 15 most powerful women in philanthropy (perhaps inadvertently) suggests.
The commentary on each of the 15 by Inside Philanthropy’s founder and editor David Callahan underscores the often opposing attributes these women bring to bear in their giving. First, there are those attributes that can be thought of as distinctively if not exclusively characteristic of women:
Women are natural networkers and catalysts, “bringing people together to mobilize huge resources for different causes,” as Callahan puts it. Under the rubric “Cathy Catalyst,” he gathers Eve Ensler, Barbara Dobkin, and Angelina Jolie.
Women are more often content to work outside the limelight. The downside is that, with notable exceptions like Melinda Gates, they don’t get the credit their male counterparts presumably relish.
Women have specific concerns; issues particularly relevant to women. Callahan cites Melinda Gates’ increased focus on reproductive health. Likewise, Jennifer Buffett; her NoVo Foundation tackles issues like sex trafficking and violence against girls and women.
And, there are those attributes that suggest total parity with men.
Women have the same intellectual acuity as men. Callahan cites Marilyn Simons, founder of the Simons Foundation, a PhD in economics who has the “intellectual gravitas to be a top philanthropy leader in a sophisticated funding space.”
Women and their husbands work as a team. It’s the obverse of the Dells (and no value judgment is implied). Callahan’s example is Laura and John Arnold, “one of the more notable young philanthropy power couples of recent times” (emphasis added).
If nothing else, these intriguingly different attributes remind us of the compelling diversity even within the Silicon Valley and hedge fund communities from which many of these women have arisen. Neither that diversity nor the increased number of women playing such major roles ought to surprise. It is directly traceable to the feminist movement itself, which opened so many doors that women now give more because they make more.
Thank you, Betty Friedan.