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'PM's gender no indicator of policy direction'

Academics say new leader's policies will be guided by socialisation, personality

BY PETRE WILLIAMS-RAYNOR Career & Education editor williamsp@jamaicaobserver.com

Monday, January 09, 2012    

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LOCAL academics have rubbished the assumption that simply because Jamaica's new prime minister — Portia Simpson Miller — is a woman, the island can expect a trend towards more nurturing social and economic policies for the poor and underprivileged.

"The view that women make more caring leaders just because they are women is a myth, and is part of the old nurture versus culture dichotomy that has sought to use gender differences to essentialise men and women," Professor Verene Shepherd, university director of the Institute for Gender and Development Studies at the University of the West Indies, told AW.

If anything, she said it is the PM's own personality and upbringing that would see her guiding her People's National Party administration in that direction.

"If the new Prime Minister of Jamaica demonstrates a more caring and humane attitude towards the Jamaican people, it is probably because that is the way she is, based on her own upbringing. It could also be because her regime, judging by her inaugural address, has embraced the philosophy that it is important to balance the books alongside balancing people's lives," noted Shepherd, also a professor of social history.

"Not all women leaders, whether in public or private enterprises, are considerate and humane, even though there is a general view that women use power "to" and men use power "over". Still, not all men rule without concern for the social welfare of the citizenry. We need to judge people by what they do and not by our stereotypical views about the so-called gender differences," added the academic, who is also a member of the United Nations Working Group of Experts on People of African Descent.

Anthropologist Dr Herbert Gayle was of a similar mind. He said that any expectation of Simpson Miller's policy direction must be about more than her gender.

"Portia carries that kind of agenda all of the time — as the mother. I think it is more than gender. There are women who are some really hard nuts (to crack), so it is gender blended with her signature personality; that kind of cocktail creates high expectations which she has to be careful of..." he said.

Gayle told AW that Simpson Miller's policy direction should really have its impetus in necessity, given the harsh economic realities with which Jamaicans have had to contend over the past several years.

"You will notice that a lot of people appeal to 'nurture' in recession. (Members of) the middle-class had to actually double up and help the poor and suffering (in recent times). In fact, that is how a lot of middle-class people that we spoke to in one of the Snapshot (studies) said they had become near poor," he said, referencing the series of Complete Snapshot studies done to inform his Complete Picture talk show, hosted on NewsTalk 93 FM Monday to Thursday afternoons -- the results of which have been published in the Sunday Observer.

"In trying to rescue their families, their family form changed from nuclear to extended and, therefore, they shifted from middle income to near poor. That is why a lot of persons have said that Portia should do well in her appeal in the recession. When you weigh that against the JLP's (Jamaica Labour Party's) whole macroeconomic policies, you can see where Portia became appealing (in the election campaign)," Gayle added.

Expectations of nurturing, he said, could, in fact, backfire, even as it could work in Simpson Miller's favour -- provided she is able to deliver the goods.

"Gender has no value after the perception; her gender has nothing to do with economic policies. The perceptions could create a nasty backfire on her because perception is that she will nurture. There are greater expectations of nurture on her so somebody has to ensure that she blends the macroeconomic (with the social) so that the poor benefit directly and not indirectly," Gayle said.

One initiative that may work in this regard, he noted, is the Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP).

"I think JEEP sits well with her as a woman because JEEP clearly is a nurture policy; it should be a mop up that addresses the poor directly. But she will need other policies, such as the expansion of the welfare service, to help stabilise the poor and even for, I would say, the suppression of the homicide rate," Gayle said.

"Remember that we have managed to have a cold, indifferent, macroeconomic frame under the JLP and enjoy suppression of murders concurrently. But that is not sustainable... It means that Portia Simpson Miller has a major task ahead of her because in the next five years, we expect the murder rate to spring back if we continue with the same indifferent macro-policies with a suppression policing frame," he added.

"Basically what they have been doing is not been allowing violence to breathe. It means, therefore, that she has to also begin targeting education in a very serious way, as well as unemployment, people's sense of belonging which means social partnerships and addressing inequality, (in addition to) the plight of 15 to 24-year-old males. She has to look at all of these things that are breathing this hard violence. In other words, the social machinery has to be put into gear," the UWI lecturer, who specialises in the study of social violence, said further.

Sociologist Dr Orville Taylor said it was foolhardy to think that the PM's gender would prompt her to design and implement policy designed to nurture.

"I would hope that it does not have anything to do with her being a woman; it would mean that there is no other qualification. It would be a disservice to her and any kind of ability she has to run the country for people to focus on her being a woman. And being woman does not naturally make you more of a nurturer," he told AW.

Certainly, Taylor said, history has not given credence to such an assumption.

"Some of the coldest people in history have been women. Margaret Thatcher was certainly not a nurturer in public office. Her policies were not very sensitive to the Third World and Third World development. She was known as 'the Iron Lady'. In our own Caribbean, we had Eugenia Charles who was called the 'Caribbean Iron Lady'. She was part of the decision to lead the invasion into Grenada, that was as a US-led invasion," he said.

"Some of the coldest people in history have been women. Margaret Thatcher was certainly not a nurturer in public office. Her policies were not very sensitive to the Third World and Third World development. She was known as 'the Iron Lady'. In our own Caribbean, we had Eugenia Charles who was called the 'Caribbean Iron Lady'. She was part of the decision to lead the invasion into Grenada, that was as a US-led invasion," he said.

Charles, Prime Minister of Dominica from 1980 to 1995, also survived two coup attempts.

"And you go back into prehistory, the Queen of Sheba and Cleopatra were not pushovers. Queen Victoria presided over the British Empire at a time when it was going through a whole range of changes and ultimately, I believe, she is the longest reigning monarch in history. The British Empire was no joke; it was the centre of the emerging world economy. She controlled India, the colonies in Africa, the colonies in the Americas and at the same time she had to consolidate her own power," Taylor added.

"There is not any natural predisposition that would make Mrs Simpson Miller a better nurturer that anyone else, but her own persona as Portia is that of a nurturer," he said.

Gayle, for his part, noted that coupled with the fact that historically women have not ruled differently from men, Simpson Miller is in charge of a Government dominated by men.

"Usually female prime ministers operate very similar to men in the sense of the policies, in the sense of their decision-making making sharpness. Remember, too, that the bulk of the Parliament around them are men; they don't make decisions alone. They make decisions in conjunction with the men who are around them. In other words, for Portia Simpson Miller to make very nurturing policies, she would have to sell this nurturing position to the men in Parliament," he said.

However, Gayle said, given her persona, the PM may well be up to the task.

"I think she is up to it and I think she will. I think there is a kind of thing about Portia Simpson Miller. If you look back to one of our Snapshots, you saw where so many people saw her as the ultimate civil servant. And then you get the impression, when you talk to the men who have been around her, that she tends to get her way; she negotiates her way quite well," the researcher said.

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