Monday, November 21, 2011

Female leaders and pepper spray: a case study

This week, the UC Davis campus has been embroiled in conflict. On Friday, November 19, police officers used pepper spray to forcibly remove protestors from an on-campus Occupy live-in. After this video of a police officer pepper spraying students went viral, the national news media picked up the story. Between Friday and today (Monday), the town has been abuzz with talk about, and reactions to, the incident.

When initially reading about Friday’s events, two names jumped out at me: Linda Katehi and Annette Spicuzza. The former is the by-now-well-known Chancellor of UC Davis. The latter is the UC Davis Police Chief.

In short: here we have a situation in which both of the power players were women. As Cheryl de la Rey points out in her article “Women, Gender, and Leadership” (published in the magazine Agenda on April 27, 2011), “There is an ongoing debate which focuses on the question of whether women have different leadership styles from men.” A prominent school of Feminist theorists proposes that “women [do] have different leadership styles.” Female leadership styles, the story goes, are more participatory, democratic, sensitive, nurturing and caring than male approaches. “Other characteristics associated with women’s leadership,” the article states, “include good conflict management.”

So: what went wrong?

The easy – though, I think incorrect – answer would be to reject the notion that female leaders are any different than male leaders. One could argue instead that those who aspire to positions of power are aggressive by nature to a degree that overrides gender difference. This response, however, strikes me as too facile.

More illuminating is an alternative theory -- that while women might aspire to non-traditional, "feminine" leadership styles, within an institutional context they "are socialised and selected into their organisational role and that this overrides their gender role. This results in little difference between male and female leaders.” A socialization pattern (for leaders) that encourages aggression and discourages compassion is consistent with Feminist theory that recognizes hegemonic masculinity’s persistent influence in our society.

As Catherine MacKinnon writes in Feminism Unmodified: Discourses on Life and Law, even today "[m]en’s . . .  socially designed biographies define workplace expectations and successful career patterns, . . . their experiences and obsessions define merit, their objectification of life defines art*, . . . their wars and rulerships [and chancellorships, and experiences as police captains define] history, [and] their image defines God."

(Interestingly, the Women and Gender Studies Faculty’s open letter to Chancellor Katehi didn’t mention any of this. This would have been an incredibly opportune time for faculty members to bring the salient issues in their discipline to light – but I digress.)

Skeptics of Feminism may look at my argument, well, skeptically. Die-hard Feminists might argue that these female power players are taking the fall for the predictably aggressive actions of aspirants to hegemonic masculinity (namely the much-maligned Lieutenant Pike and his team). I simply offer a structural interpretation – one possible reason why women in leadership might feel institutional pressure to respond to a peaceful protest with disproportionate force, rather than to “talk it out” -- even if their guts advised otherwise. Classmates, what do you think? Do we blame this blatant failure of judgment on the specific individuals involved, or is the problem – at its core – structural?     

* Non-sequitur: For an interesting, revolutionary Feminist response to the historical norm of male objectification of life as art, see this exhibit at SOMArts.


KayZee said...

Rose Sawyer, I'm not sure how to answer your question. I'm not sure what influenced both the Chancellor's and the Police Chief's actions. I'd agree that the response was overly aggressive but I'm not yet ready to call that a "male" response to the problem.

On a sidenote, however, I found an interesting article about female leadership in corporations. The article details a recent working paper published by Harvard researchers that points to a positive correlation between Board of Directors with female members and those companies' philanthropic participation. ( The data shows that companies with more women on the Board of Directors and in other leadership positions, report greater participation in philanthropic efforts. One such data point reports: "In 2007, companies with three or more women board directors gave 28 times more money to philanthropic initiatives than companies without any women directors." I've yet to come to a conclusion about the "leadership styles" of female higher-ups, but if the Harvard paper is any indication of how female led organizations are run, then perhaps it's in UC Davis's best interest to ensure that 3 or more women are on the Board.

Caitlin said...

This observations totally went over my head until you noticed it, Rose Sawyer, but I do think it is an important one. What I also have to ask is whether the response of the University as a whole, asking Chancellor Katehi to resign, would have been different if she had been male.

Sidenote also, I think, is an observation I made while watching the reconstruction of the Occupy UC Davis camp last Monday evening, as many members of the community built their dome (which, actually, failed to be completed). Everyone building the dome was male. A female friend of mine, who has built domes similar at Burning Man for close to ten years, offered her help, and they largely ignored her. It was all men...blindly pursuing a course of action that she knew was wrong, and who were refusing to listen. Is the occupy movement echoing previous movements' treatment of women within their power structures (or lack thereof)?

This was a great post. Thanks!