Loose cultures and free women

March 15, 2012

With hindsight, we may find that the 2016 U.S. presidential race began last week, when Hillary Rodham Clinton made a politically electrifying point. ‘‘Why extremists always focus on women remains a mystery to me,’’ she said at the Women in the World conference in New York. ‘‘But they all seem to. It doesn’t matter what country they’re in or what religion they claim. They want to control women.’’

At a time when birth control has re-emerged as a political issue in the United States, 94 years after the first legal ruling to permit it, Clinton’s comments were an inspiring rallying cry for worried American women. But what about the mystery she identified? Why, as the secretary of state asserted, do extremists, from the Taliban to conservative Christians, want to control women?

An intriguing new study by two professors at the Rotman School of Management at the University of Toronto suggests a possible answer. (Disclosure: I am on the school’s Dean’s Advisory Board.) Soo Min Toh and Geoffrey Leonardelli didn’t set out to discover why extremists want to control women. Their question was more familiar: Why aren’t there more female leaders?

Toh and Leonardelli argue that women are held back by ‘‘tight’’ cultures and can emerge more easily as leaders in ‘‘loose’’ cultures. ‘‘Tight’’ cultures are ones that have clear, rigid rules about how people should behave and impose tough sanctions on those who color outside the lines. Socially conformist, homogeneous societies like Japan, Malaysia, Norway and Pakistan are tight cultures.

Tight cultures, Toh and Leonardelli believe, hold women back because ‘‘cultural tightness provokes a resistance to changing the traditional and widespread view that leadership is masculine.’’

Loose cultures, by contrast, do not have clear norms and are more tolerant of deviation from the rules. Heterogeneous societies and countries in the midst of social and political transition, like Australia, Israel, the Netherlands and Ukraine, are loose cultures.

These are cultures in which ‘‘societal members tend to be more open to change, and this openness may become manifest in changing expectations and attitudes about the masculinity of leadership.’’

Here is where Clinton’s mystery comes in. Tight cultures are not necessarily sexist ones — witness the inclusion of Norway on the list. But extremist subcultures are certainly tight cultures, and they are built on historical assumptions of male dominance. The perspective of Toh and Leonardelli helps to explain why these rigid ideologies are so fixated on keeping women down.

But what about the places like Norway: tight cultures where women do extremely well? Toh and Leonardelli’s answer to that apparent paradox is that where there has been a top-down decision to support female leaders, tight cultures are very good at executing that directive. That is because these societies are effective at acting on the collective will. If the decision is made to elevate women, tight societies will implement it.

‘‘Although a culturally tight country, Norway ranks high in terms of gender egalitarianism,’’ the study’s authors point out. In Norway, egalitarianism is not a rebellion against prevailing cultural norms. It is, instead, what Norway’s new top-down consensus requires: ‘‘Norway has among the most ambitious equal opportunity legislation in the world that legally requires firms to reach a 40 percent women board representation by 2017.’’

The study’s framework also helps to explain one peculiarity of women in the workplace. Tight societies that choose egalitarianism, like Norway, have been good at pushing women into the corporate establishment. Loose societies that are open to change have been good at empowering women more broadly, encouraging them to join the workforce and to start their own small businesses.

But the one thing women around the world have failed to do is create paradigm-shifting companies. None of the great technology startups — for example, Google, Apple and Facebook — were founded by a woman. Nor were any of the leading hedge funds, the innovators in the world of money, established by a woman. Women are not just underrepresented in this space of transformative entrepreneurs — they are entirely absent.

At first blush, this gap seems to contradict the analysis by Toh and Leonardelli. After all, startups embody a profoundly loose culture. It does not matter whether you are a misfit or an ultraconformist, so long as you have a brilliant idea and are able to implement it.

But the authors point out that leadership is not just about how others view you — it is also about how you view yourself.

Centuries of sexism, they argue, mean that ‘‘even when possessing and demonstrating leadership behavior that is superior to others in the group, women leaders may sometimes prefer to cede the formal leadership role to men in the group because they, too, believe that being male or masculine is more leaderlike.’’

Loose cultures can counteract those self-imposed stereotypes to some degree. But the final frontier for women, even in societies that allow them to lead established institutions, is to be ruthless and to take big risks, essential qualities in world-changing entrepreneurs. Instead, as the authors found of female entrepreneurs in Malaysia, women often have to ‘‘lead as if they were mothers or teachers.’’


We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/

First and foremost, I do not feel sympathy for the plight of Western Women. They have it as good as Western Men. However, women in oppressive cultures need help. Desperately! Let’s focus on their needs and stop wasting time complaining about being a woman in the western world.

Posted by SeaWa | Report as abusive

One wonders if perhaps women more often choose to lead as if they were mothers or teachers. It would explain the sudden rise and then fall of the number of women in, say, engineering and the stubborn dominance of women in ‘nurturing’ professions even when they have the opportunity to do otherwise. Given choices, women take them. That doesn’t mean they take the choices others expect.

Posted by OldSarge | Report as abusive

Have you any idea how much cooperation from society is required to create a “paradigm-shifting company”? How many banks must supply credit, how many vendors must be willing to supply products, how many employees must be willing to go that extra mile?

Don’t underestimate how much sexism exists in “tight” countries like the US. In many ways, women are freer in developing countries, where the barriers have not yet been erected. That is why a Pakistan or Brazil can have a woman head of state, while US society becomes more feudal.

Posted by JVL | Report as abusive

And, then you have the paradox of societies like India that have a fair number of women leaders in politics that do nothing to become game-changers for other women. India’s president, leader of the UPA, Parliament speaker and 3 chief ministers are women and yet the country has one of the worst sex ratios in the world. Pl see: http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/ India/State-of-the-sisterhood/Article1-7 00387.aspx

Posted by namitabhandare | Report as abusive

I live in a Norway-style tight culture, Austria. The culture is an odd mix with women being very prominent in politics at every level and in small businesses, but virtually no women founding or running large businesses. There still seems to be a hangover from the past in which big business is seen to be a masculine preserve, and that attitude is fully embraced by the majority of women as well as men.

Posted by steve778936 | Report as abusive

Egalitarian ideas have always been strong in the Nordic countries as opposed to for example the US. They have also been “bottom-up”, not “top-down”. I don’t think this report explains much.

Posted by nossnevs | Report as abusive

Does anyone get nervous when they see the term “ruthless” used approvingly in this article? There’s a touch of fanaticism in what otherwise seems to be a serious piece of journalism.

Social conformity has less to do with “tight” or “loose” cultures than is suggested. Loose cultures, which can also morph into their own form of ideological conformity, can develop a rigidity of their own, rife with injunctions, prohibitions and demands. The Ukraine, for example, had been enthusiastic supporters of both the Nazis and the Communists. There is nothing in liberal social values that could prohibit the development of a police state, albeit one with a feminist nature.

I’m not so sure that conservative Christians, who Ms. Freeland compares to the Taliban, particularly want to control women as much as they want to restrain some kinds of behavior generally, for men and women. This is true of all religious and in secular society as well.

It happens that women are the only sex that can be biological mothers and seem to gravitate toward that role in all cultures – tight and loose – and especially when they have children. The author apparently feels that this is not a good thing. Another sexual injustice.

Although the writing seems objective there is a strong ideological undercurrent in the core assumptions throughout the piece. It’s true that she’s reporting on someone else’s research, but her own biases show through in her review.

Posted by lairdwilcox | Report as abusive

The reason social conservatives wish to control women is because women are the child bearers. Women control the future through reproduction, and social conservatives want to control the future. This is why they disagree with birth control and why a “good christian” wife shouldn’t deny her husbands “marital rights”. This isn’t new, they’ve been doing it for an awfully long time. It is in fact the norm in many countries around the world. Judeo-Christian Religion is the chief catalyst in this line of thinking, the Bible, Torah and Koran all prescribe oppression and a secondary social status for women. regarding a woman’s place in the world

Posted by LazurusLong | Report as abusive

Perhaps instead of women learning not to “lead as if they were mothers or teachers”, our culture needs to learn to recognize more feminine forms of leadership. Afterall, male leadership styles evolved from warrior and alpha male roles, which is rarely going to be very natural to women.

Posted by Sanity-Monger | Report as abusive

It seems perfectly clear that it is American women who want to expand their domination of American men.

Who cares about the sexual composition of the top 10% of the income distribution? They might as well be aliens for all of their connection with the country as a whole.

But they are never effected by women’s “initiatives”, only the poorer 90%. And no place in human history has been so female dominated and oriented as the contemporary USA. That is truth. We have gambled our existence on a quasi-religious movement with no significant successes to their record at any point in human history. The die is already cast. It is not working well. Must be those nasty, conspiring men at fault. Right?

Posted by txgadfly | Report as abusive

There seem to be two quite unrelated fallacies here.

Firstly, the one in the book. How many matriarchal/matrilineal/polyandrous societies have the authors considered? Goodness knows I’m no anthropologist, but all of the ones that I do know of – in Tibet, in Sichuan, in the Amazon, in the ancient Middle East – are all undoubtedly what the authors would describe as “tight”. I’d be interested to hear of any “loose” matriarchal societies they can name. (And Ukraine “loose”?? – have they read Tolstoy’s real and fictionalised accounts of attempts to reform agriculture?)

Secondly, Ms Clinton’s. Just because all those who want to control women might reasonably be described as extremists (or ill), that doesn’t imply that all extremists want to control women. There are many extremists who have quite different gender issues, and many more (Anonymous, to name but one topical example) who probably aren’t concerned with gender at all.

Posted by IanKemmish | Report as abusive

I beg to disagree with your conclusions, Chrystia: see my post on Transition Times:
http://bethechange2012.wordpress.com/201 2/03/16/leadership-revisited-from-ruthle ss-and-reckless-to-thoughtful-and-wise/

Posted by jbrowdy | Report as abusive

….you did a great job on Tom Ashbrook’s show. You weren’t “ruthless” and I didn’t think…. “big risk”…..but, you were every bit as informative as Jack, and I’d love to see you back. Hope your husband does well in Afghanistan.

Posted by srgntnewkirk | Report as abusive

In the tech world, Caterina Fake and Mena Trott were founders of Flickr and Movable Type, respectively. Although both women co-founded those companies by partnering with a man they were romantically involved with (I believe both are currently married to their founder partners). I really can’t think of any others, though I’m sure they’re out there… maybe the old stereotype about male/female brains and technical vs empathic thinking has some validity? Open question. Consider that Gro Harlem Brundtland, the woman who served as Norwegian Prime Minister for a decade (cumulatively), pursued a different type of agenda than her male counterparts.

Posted by Nullcorp | Report as abusive

Doesn’t it go deeper than that though? I mean, the physical attributes of most men by themselves project power and strength. Larger size, more muscle and a deep resonating voice. Even among men, you’ll usually see that it’s the tall, deep-voiced ones who have the higher positions. I’m not advocating either way, I just think that nature has a say.

Posted by fwupow | Report as abusive

Has anyone looked at the former Soviet Republics? My field research on Tajikistan indicates that about half of democratization NGO leaders are women, a higher percentage than in South Africa and Argentina. In an authoritarian context women have organized NGO coalitions to crack down on sex trafficking, for example, and the government has gone along.

Two reasons for this- the Soviets provided Tajikistan with secularism and education, along with authoritarianism. For more see www.importingdemocracy.org

Posted by juliefisher | Report as abusive

So many have lost the ability to reason properly. The reaction to the HHS mandate is not about trying to control women, but about freedom of religion. No one is trying to stop birth control or to “take it away” from those who want it. Those who do not believe in birth control or abortion, for religious reasons, simply do not believe they should have to pay for it for those who do accept it/want it. That is a simple explaination and that is what the issue is – bottom line. Keep your politics and your agenda out of the issue.

Posted by rckymtnmike | Report as abusive

The problem isn’t female entrepreneurs exhibiting nurturing behavior–it’s the definition of success. Financial success reflects a desire for dominance at least as much as it reflects entrepreneurship. Hedge funds create nothing but more concentrated wealth. Let’s not celebrate those aspirations. To the extent a society tolerates dominance by gender or class it will only stifle progress and cultivate extremists.

Posted by JackRS | Report as abusive

This is an issue that can be best described as a dog chasing its tail. Women have rights and they are free to experience it. Of course, I don’t deny it, I completely agree with Madam Secretary- “they want to control women.” So also they want to control wealth, power, policies, etc. We have to make the shift, as women , and lead the way in this shift. This is not new; women have not only been making noise about this but are present in almost everything. The change is to break the cycle and when the issue is control make the discourse shift: do not give it room to nest.Let us be proactive.

Posted by NSal | Report as abusive

It is interesting that the article starts out with some logic, but then there are so many exceptions that you start to question if the initial hyppthesis is correct even in the first place?

Posted by American213 | Report as abusive

It always amazes me how strongly progressives believe in Darwinism yet they are so eager to use quotas to obtain their objectives…..

Posted by Gen | Report as abusive

@namitabhandare, i have read that in India the culture has historically maintained a stereotype that women are more wise, and men more compassionate.

America is surprisingly slow in accepting women as equals to men. Even today, women leaders are critiqued about their dress, jewelry, and hairstyle, as much as anything. And, just like in more ‘harsh’ cultures, many women help to maintain cultural stereotypes by reinforcing and, even demanding, different dress and behaviors for women. Think about how Americans (especially women) might react if dresses and skirts were banned for all school girls. But what better way to encourage physical activity and fitness? How about high heels? Some of these restrictive cultural stereotypes of femininity need to be re-considered in the light of being lighter shades of the same burqa.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

Gen, don’t confuse social Darwinism with the biological theory of evolution. Though one is named for the other because it bears a loose similarity, I would not say that most of the folks you label as “progressives” consider social Darwinism a good thing.

Posted by CAC001 | Report as abusive

Thanks for advancing the talking points for the US presidential election, “Republican war on women”. As a father and grandfather, I want my family to achieve and prosper to the best of there abilities. I believe these are the motivations for most western men. To fabricate a comparison with a past or non western mind set is a false argument. Imagining a sinister cabal of selfish white men may feel empowering in Woman Studies, but it does not represent the reality on the ground.

Posted by DiogenesIII | Report as abusive

Men and women are not equal. It’s a misguided notion. In fact men and women are completely different biologically. So if they are completely different biologically, how can they be equal?

Should men and women be treated equally in the work place? Of course. Or perhaps. But to say men and women are equal is false in every way, to include logically, and to continue with that idea is an expensive social mistake. In many ways, women are better than men. Rather, in a lot of ways. But men and women are not equal. It’s time to get past that notion.

I have a different perspective on the matter which you can read at my blog located here, http://williamthien.wordpress.com/2010/0 8/09/is-there-a-natural-order-amongst-th e-sexes/


William Thien

Posted by InterestedOne | Report as abusive

As a population Men and Women are equal in every way, and better than the other in none. Mr. Thien and others use extreme examples to exemplify differences and then recant them as extreme, leaving no example at all. The example given is of men being better at NFL football. NFL football selects for very specific skills and extreme athleticism and strength. First, girls never have the lifetime opportunity to train for the sport of football, and secondly the level of athleticism of NFL football players is unattainable for virtually every man on the planet. We (as a society) have a long history of maintaining the stagnation of culture and stereotype. They are slowly fading in the free world but why not bury them and leap forward. There is a lot of potential being wasted.

All people exist on a continuum of mental and physical abilities. While for raw physical strength, plotting Normal distributions for men and women would certainly exhibit the tail of the men’s distribution overshooting the tail for women. However, those curves would not be independent (side by side). Now imagine the distributions of physical strength per unit weight, and the over shoot tail for men might be even smaller. Now imagine a population where girls are treated the same as boys. Physical sports are strongly encouraged, the dresses, skirts, and shoes, that no human should run in, are exchanged and they can move freely and actively without fear of ‘unlady-like’ accidents. Well, i suppose that tail would be smaller yet.

Even now, I believe that one could choose an average man and there would be legions of women that could defeat him in every sport imaginable. Yes, he would be better at impregnating a woman, which is the true equivalent to giving birth, and the true extent of “Natural Order”.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

Pardon me, ConstFundie, or whomever you are, but I don’t debate publicly with people that do not have the intestinal fortitude to use their real name.

I would add that ConstFundie seems to know a little about everything as she has posted several hundred times primarily on Reuters alone about everything from the subject at hand as well as Iran, various wars, the economy, you name it. She sounds authoritative. If only she or he (we don’t know, do we?) knew what they were talking about, particularly since this particular subject almost requires that we know from which perspective someone is coming.


William Thien
Thousands read it. Thousands agree.

Posted by InterestedOne | Report as abusive

Ms. Thien, my fault, i forgot that William is not always a male name in these strange times. I guess we are at equal disadvantage as to not knowing our respective gender. Yes, there is so much to know about you in order to understand it all. What race you might be, your age, religion, BMI, ancestry. It all could have a whole lot to do with nothing about why male penguins sit egg clutches, male sea horses gestate young, or male angler fish are parasites to their females. Natural order is natural order.

It’s OK, there was never a debate. ALL people are equal.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

It’s OK ConstFundie, I’ve been here before, childish taunts from one without. You poor thing. I’m guessing now, even though you are hiding your true identity, probably to protect the fact that you seem to know something about everything and can comment on any subject at hand on Reuters (I even thought perhaps you work for Reuters and are trying to create flames to develop interest or something since you seem to comment on just about anything and everything on Reuters – do a Gooogle Search of yourself, it is a bit of a joke), I’m guessing that you are a female. But alas, we still don’t know your real name or identity, ConstFundie. I’d only be guessing. Perhaps you are a superhero trying to hide “its,” hers, his, identity. Perhaps you are transgender. That’s great for you. We still don’t know your name. One thing is for sure, you act like a coward, hiding behind a pseudonym.

By the way, shall I hold the door for you and push in your chair whilst you take my job? Should I lift that heavy box for you because you don’t look like you could do it and I’m in decent shape? I don’t know. Are you a woman? Don’t know. You don’t have the intestinal fortitude to use your real name. Just the school yard taunts.

Finally, you are stuck. You think I believe men are better than women. That’s not my argument at all and I preface that in the beginning of the essay and in fact I conclude otherwise at one point, http://williamthien.wordpress.com/2010/0 8/09/is-there-a-natural-order-amongst-th e-sexes/

But you seem stuck on that fact. I may not know your name, but I do know one thing about you. You are a hater. A hater of men as evidenced by your constant focus on the phallus and trying to take it away from men. Maybe it is something from your past and you are transferring it on to all other men. You keep returning to that argument and that’s not my argument at all and you know it. Perhaps you need to see a psychotherapist and work through that. You’d have to tell them your name, though. They don’t like to work with hand puppets or pseudoymous peoples/its.

What would Sigmund Freud say about you ConstFundie? Or better yet, since you seem to know everything, let’s hear what you have to say about Sigmund Freud.

I mean, if you do a search on Reuters alone, it seems you seem to know everything.

You poor thing, ConstFundie. By the way, if you look at the name Const and Fundie as a first and last name, the initials are the same as that of the name of the lady whose opinion page this is. I hope that’s not a coincidence, too, since ConstFundie seems to comment on just about everything on Reuters, almost like she was doing favors.

Names. I cannot believe Reuters has reduced itself to letting bloggers call people names and then hide behind a pseudonym. I had the impression that this was a reputable web site.

Once again, I’m proven wrong. Just not by ConstFundie.

But getting back to my original statement, ConstFundie, men and women are not equal, whether you are a man or a woman or I am one or the other.

And that’s just a fact that you are going to have to live with, however much you hate it. Hater.

William Thien
Thousands read it. Thousands agree.

Posted by InterestedOne | Report as abusive

W. Thien,

Wow, thank you for the wonderful compliments. Truth, justice, and the American way! The American way including freedom and equality, of course. Anytime you work up the intellectual fortitude to add any substance to the topic, beam the phallus light skyward, and I’ll swoop in.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive

To clarify, think ‘bat signal’.

Posted by ConstFundie | Report as abusive