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A performance featured during the summer at the Manchester International Festival attempted to tackle the following timeless question: if women ruled the world, would they confront pressing social and political issues – such as climate change, military escalation and mass migration – in qualitatively different ways? The notion that the world would look different under female leadership assumes a “differentialist” approach to gender issues. This article, on the one hand, questions the underlying assumptions of that widespread belief, and, on the other hand, sketches out an alternative approach to progressive change in general and, more specifically, for women.

Why we should be sceptical about differentialism in debates on gender

A first and still very common version of differentialism is the naturalist one: innate differences between the sexes are supposed to explain different behaviours and social positions. Such a perspective is still very fashionable in public and intellectual discourses.[1] In its conservative version, the alleged natural differences between the sexes justify existing inequalities and relations of power. Most of those holding this vision would probably rule out a world led by women as being something unrealistic and unnatural, because of a supposed innate tendency to focus on family and caring activities rather than engaging in competitive, aggressive and confrontational interactions typical of politics. This view thus tends to justify existing inequalities and relations of power.

However, those who imagine a utopia of a world led by women are influenced by another, supposedly progressive, form of differentialism: the alleged natural differences between the sexes can be used to improve not just female condition but also strive towards a more just society. The underlying assumption being that, if women reached more positions of power, they would act in a radically distinct manner from their male counterparts: for instance, by making more empathetic decisions or introducing a more cooperative or pacifist style of politics.

Although imbued with opposite ideological references, these two perspectives rely on similar problematic postulates. First, the current state of knowledge seems unable to either prove or disprove naturalist approaches. Studies on genes, brain structures and hormones have failed to identify a clear link between, on one hand, differences at birth between the sexes and, on the other, particular behaviour.[2] Second, established knowledge about neuroplasticity and epigenetics show that biology is as much the result of behaviour (and environment) as the cause of it.[3] In other words, even if one could identify a clear set of biological differences between the sexes (beyond the already known ones that relate to reproduction), they might very well be the product of environment and socialisation.

Furthermore, past and present politics suggest that female leaders do not necessarily rule in a distinct manner. To be concrete, let us look at two of the issues dealt with in the theatrical performance mentioned above: military intervention and migration issues. On military intervention, a gendered affinity between female/pacifism and male/militarism is often assumed. Yet, the militaristic ethos that imbues most foreign interventions has little to do with the fact that most leaders are men. In practice, the difference between militarism and pacifism is often contextual or ideological, not simply a question of the gender of decision makers. Not all men are militaristic and not all women are pacifist.[4] Some of the most influential pacifist leaders were men, while women have been active in waging wars.[5] On migration issues, the overarching divide will likely be between a more compassionate and liberal approach to citizenship and border control and a more hard-line and conservative one. Again, it is not necessarily warranted to assume that all women decide to give special attention to the plight of migrant women and families. If they do so, it will probably be because of their ideological beliefs in general rather than because of an automatic female response of empathy.

One last approach, widespread in gender studies and feminist activism, conveys a more subtle form of differentialism: if women act differently from men, it is not due to natural features but because they undergo distinct socialisations.[6] In this perspective, social differences between the sexes are created by society rather than innate. Gender is a social construction and so-called gender stereotypes are produced and reproduced by institutions such as the family, schools, the labour market or the media. Women are less present in positions of power because they are taught, from an early age on, to shun particularly ‘male’ careers and give priority to others, more focused on care and communication, for instance. The solution is therefore for many gender experts to advocate a deconstruction of mainstream gender stereotypes. If suddenly women could rule the world, they would therefore be likely to upend institutions constructed by and for men: for instance, put in place a different education system that would get rid of all clichés on womanhood.

This approach is clearly more voluntaristic than the first two, since it does not suppose that natural and innate factors determine individuals’ life choices. Yet, it often tends to fall into a different kind of trap, namely idealism. Ideations such as gender stereotypes are perceived as the causal factor underlying inequalities between the sexes: these norms are not only supposed to convey particular and socially constructed visions of womanhood and manhood that can prove disadvantageous to women’s freedom,[7] but they are also seen as the very cause of these disadvantages.[8] This alleged causal link between ideations and reality reveals a reductionist and idealistic interpretation of social change: the unquestioned assumption is that ideational factors – norms, beliefs, representations, etc. – create social reality.[9] 

Toward a more realistic understanding of gender issues and social change

A more realistic perspective would look at the impact of material and structural constraints on social reality and the battle of interests accounting for both current reality and social change.[10] In this perspective, norms are seen to value or undervalue particular behaviours and individual actions, without causing them directly. They play a legitimising, rather than explanatory role. Thus, gender stereotypes taught to girls and women – such as the norms on sacrificial motherhood, on female beauty, sexual objectification, female empathy and softness, etc. – cannot directly explain their decisions and behaviours but merely justify or legitimise them.

In explaining people’s individual and collective behaviours, it is essential to look at the material structures in which they are embedded. In this regard, men and women experience very distinct material conditions: women suffer from specific structural disadvantages that are justified but not causally explained by dominant gender norms. Therefore, I advocate an approach to gender norms that highlights their role in legitimising the injustices suffered by women, instead of attributing autonomous explanatory power to them.

The idealistic tendency, underlying the dominant view on gender stereotypes, goes hand in hand with the promotion of alternatives purely focused on representational change as  a way to modify individual behaviours. This can lead to perfectionist dangers potentially at odds with individual freedom. For instance: if the postulate is that women are disadvantaged in society because of the general view of the ‘feminine’, the alternative should consist in unveiling these norms to girls and women and teaching them different ones. This is close to what the French government attempted a few years ago with the introduction of a new approach to gender in school curricula. Taken to an extreme, such perspective could end up being as dogmatic as the one it purports to criticise: by trying to get rid of current gender norms and replacing them with opposite ones or with the ideal of a ‘gender-free society’. This is incompatible with a strong liberal stance aiming at enabling every individual to develop their own vision of the good life, including on gender matters.

However, to reach that goal, the focus should be on building a mobilising progressive ideology able to generate mobilisation and political change. To build a more just society, structural obstacles have to be overcome, as a majority of individuals suffer from various forms of disadvantages that make them likely to be dominated. Only political agency can counteract injustices, and the latter needs mobilisation from those who have an interest in such a change. Yet, it is only a convincing and coherent ideology that can facilitate such mobilisation. And a realistic – rather than idealistic – view of social change perceives the ideological battle behind historical change as being closely intertwined with the battle of interests.

A project likely to gather support from a majority of individuals would denounce the numerous forms of subjugation and injustices they undergo and outline an alternative society of free beings.[11] A realistic utopia built around the principle of effective freedom would be particularly appealing to women. Indeed, they suffer specific vulnerabilities that make them more likely to become victims of violence and abuse, discrimination and precariousness. A truly progressive ideology would have to oppose such disadvantages and propose alternative policies and a long-term liberating path. Certainly, such a project would have to be based on women’s concrete experience, but it could very well be promoted by men as well. In the end, a more just world mainly requires more progressive ideas and mobilisation, not just women ruling the world.



[1]           See for example: Louann Brizendine, The Female Brain, Harmony, New York, 2007 or Simon B. Cohen, The Essential Difference: Men, Women and the extreme male Brain, Penguin, London, 2012.
[2]           Cordelia Fine, Delusions of Gender: How our minds, Society and Neurosexism create Difference, Norton and Company, London, 2011.
[3]           Sophie Heine, “The EU approach to gender: Limitations and Alternatives”, Egmont European Policy Brief, March 2015
[4]           In fact, the existing evidence seems to indicate that the level of aggressiveness is similar in men and women (even if its perception can vary substantially): see the chapter on this topic in Sophie Heine. ‘Genre ou liberté. Vers une feminité repensée‘, Academia, Louvain-La-Neuve, 2015.
[5]           See the recently published by Paul Crystal, Women at War in the Classical World, Pen and Sword, London, 2017.
[6]           See for instance: Linda  Lindsey, Gender Roles, a sociological Perspective, Routledge, New York, 2014.
[7]           Heine, Genre ou liberté, op. cit..
[8]           Drieu Godefridi, La loi du genre, Les Insoumis,  Paris, 2015.
[9]           For a more elaborated discussion on the role of ideas in history, see: Sophie Heine, “Social change in progressive political thought: analysis and propositions”, Journal of Political Ideologies, vol 7 (3), 2012.
[10]          Ibid
[11]          It should be composed of at least three dimensions: a critical approach to existing injustices, a short and medium term alternative (reforms) and a long-term utopia encompassing but also going beyond both of the first two dimensions. Sophie Heine. ‘Pour un individualisme de gauche’, Lattes, Paris, 2013.



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