By February 1, 2012 5 Comments

A Tale of Two (Gendered) Cities

I spend an inordinate amount of time on the Eurostar, going back and forth between the two cities that I now call home: Paris and London. Every single time, I am bemused and delighted by the extraordinary contrast between these two cities. As a gender balance consultant to business, I can’t help but see it all as a vision of Masculine London and Feminine Paris, on almost every level. It starts at the train station. London, once it caught up to Paris by getting the high-speed TGV train to actually be high speed on the north side of the Channel (it took several years), made a big fuss about the Eurostar. Special train stations were devoted to it (two,actually). St Pancreas has the Eurostar at its heart, a revolution in connecting the proud isle to the continent. The huge, kiss sculpture welcoming arrivals to London always makes me think of Darcy finally dropping his pride and accepting his connection to Liz, the masculine welcoming in the feminine… And a veritable onslaught it is. Today, the French are the largest community in London, some 300,000 strong. For the Parisians, the Eurostar is stuck in a corner of the Gare du Nord, only now being expanded under the crush of traffic trying to squeeze up the single escalator. Paris has long been a (not very faithful) lover of many destinations, as the French are generally much looser in their amorous norms. So the French TGV had many lovers before London: Brussels, Amsterdam, Frankfurt… Like the trains, when masculine London does adopt something, they make a big deal out of it. It becomes a specialty, an expertise, a star system. Food, for example. It’s pretty hard not to eat well in Paris. Good food abounds from every market, every green-grocer, and every French dinner table. But it’s not considered anything special. Just a daily ritual of life, and love. A very feminine embrace of the every day, of repetition and balance and family meals. In London, it’s about Master Chefs and pretentious restaurants and powerful prices. It’s about fame and brands and cookbooks. It’s a sophisticated, competitive game among huge supermarket chains to align the latest management science to a data-driven understanding of customer centricity. In London, food is big business. In Paris, it is social glue. Architecture is also big business to the Brits. London is a centuries old city that has always embraced the new while celebrating pockets of its past. So it is a wonderful mish mash of the extremely modern erupting from a context of columns and castles. Think the Shard. But the amazing consistency is the masculinity of the built space. London is all about power. The old buildings are vast, heavy squares of imposing facades and dignified stone. The modern buildings vie for erections higher than the neighbour next door, with ever greater feats and feasts of technology, money or, now, environmental greenery. Get off the train in Paris and you are immediately embraced by a bevy of nude lady angels that decorate almost every train station. The city was transformed by Haussmann a couple of centuries ago and the broad avenues designed for war have been reprised by savvy couturiers into a gorgeous, green CHANEL suit. Trees and contemporary design, or this year’s simply lovely Christmas market on the Champs Elysees, welcome the 60 million tourists that traipse admiringly through her skirts every year in rapt adoration at the lady’s scrupulously maintained elegance and beauty. Masculinity celebrates individuality, feminity embraces the collective. Check out how France and UK cultures compare, including a masculinity/ femininity scale on Geert Hofstede’s website. How lovely it would be to find the two co-exist politically in all their obvious complementarity. But London and Paris also typify the results of anglo-saxon, private sector worship of the individual to the continental belief in government’s role in managing the greater good. So, one example among millions, London slaps a congestion charge on cars in the inner city, citing personal choice in allowing the wealthy to drive relatively easily about town. Paris imposes a draconian narrowing of streets, halving the space for cars and yielding much of the road to buses and bikes, creating a hell for drivers who now suffer gridlock if they are too stubborn to yield to the city’s densely connected (and increasingly automated) metro system. I could also note the very different approaches to mothers, fathers and parental issues, but Katrin Bennhold has dne that beautifully in a recent IHT article… just note that France has the highest birthrate in Europe and the vast majority of highly educated women work full time. in London, the challenges of conciliating work and family seem to have completely stumped most of my clients, who’se leaders tell me that it is personal choice that women drop out of work in their 30s… I can almost hear my readers yelling that yes, and look at the trouble that profligate femininity has gotten Europe into, letting big bad Standard & Poors come in and measure her unacceptably expanding waistline… it is worth noting, with Nick Krystof’s article about Europe that France is Europe’s second biggest economy and that France has more multinationals in Europe’s top 300 than either the UK or Germany… Like in everything else, a little gender balancing would go a long way to improving both cities. A bit more breathing room for the striving individual in Paris, a bit more care for the rest in London. The rage in London these days seems to be cupcakes. A friend on Primrose Hill, John Ryan (#newstores), is bitterly complaining about the sixth cupcake shop to open on his street. It is a sickly sweet metaphor for the way masculine cities offer up the feminine: in decorated, tiny, bite sized pieces sold at inflated prices. Give me the French frame any day: Marianne on my money, CHANEL on my back, and Christine Lagarde running the IMF…

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About the Author:

Avivah Wittenberg-Cox is CEO of the consultancy 20-first, one of the world’s leading gender consultancies. 20-first works with progressive companies interested in diversifying their leadership teams and optimising both halves of the talent pool and both halves of the market – the female and male halves. 20-first works with CEOs, executive committees and managers to build gender ‘bilingual’ organisations. The firm’s renowned Building Gender Balanced Businesses programmes and suite of online tools help companies harness the talent and market opportunities of the 21st century. Avivah Wittenberg-Cox’s two bestselling books: > HOW Women Mean Business, A Step by Step Guide to Profiting from Gender Balanced Business, Wiley 2010 > WHY Women Mean Business: Understanding the Emergence of Our Next Economic Revolution, Wiley 2008

5 Comments on "A Tale of Two (Gendered) Cities"

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  1. ronthebuilder says:

    “Masculinity celebrates individuality, feminity embraces the collective.”

    That is pseudoscience at its self-congratulating best. I suppose you believe too that women are natural “caring nurturers”. That would help you overlook the institutionalized narcissism that is pandered into the massive profits of the fashion, cosmetic and self-help industries, selling self-realization, self-improvement, self-fulfillment to women lining up around the block to find products and services that (until the fix wears off) help them feel better about themselves. Is that collectivism? And, what is the factual basis for this stereotype about masculine individualism? Accoring to other feminist thinkers, men are the ones who network and collaborate and achieve together, while women hold themselves back by sneering at each other’s hairstyles, lifestyles and clique alignments. Which is it?

    Looking over some of your work, I am coming to the conclusion that in this gender game, you are a tourist. The whole thing is wondrously quaint and picturesque, the little men and little women making a world together. Oh, look, there’s two gals going shopping. What lovely collectivism! And over there, a man driving a garbage truck by himself. Isn’t he just so handsomely self-reliant?

    You must have already made your fortune, peddling decades-old platitudes and telling women who already inherited the advantages another generation of real reformers fought for, that the struggle is still on. Now you’re free to wander the streets like some Audrey Hepburn character just basking in the excitement and the colorfulness of it all. What is really happening, whether you want to accept it or not, is that the status of men, at least in the US, is almost gone, and the place of women, working or not, is being upheld more and more as noble, heroic, progressive. The women who abuse their husbands, abandon their children, play the welfare state for all it is worth, underperform and overconsume because they are allowed to, just never show up on your gilded radar.

    What a lovely fantasy you inhabit! I challenge you to contact and refute me, because real men and boys in the real world are really trying to adapt to a real marginal status, and your starry-eyed idealism about it all is nauseating.

  2. ronthebuilder says:

    I have an even bigger challenge for you. If you really want to promote balance, offer me a job. You can see I am a skilled writer, editor and proofreader (self-taught, I’m also a high-school dropout). That last comment to you took me about eight minutes to compose. If you want to put up intellectual courage alongside your obvious intellectual capabilities, bring on a man, a proletarian, an underachiever, an iconoclast, a redneck hippie WASP, everything you are not, and let some of your readers tackle me. That is balance. I await your offer. (I’m also a pretty likable guy, when I’m not dandered up about somebody’s insular misconceptions).

  3. avivah says:

    OK, Ron, you’re on.
    Since you obviously feel strongly about this, write me a 1000 word response. if it isn’t full of ranting and raging, but a clear setting forth of where you think this issue sits in the US (i agree that it is very different there, and i sympathise with a lot of your points), i’ll be delighted to publish it on our website.

    How about something on How One White ex-Protestant American Male feels about the Rise of Women?

  4. Alison Konrad says:

    Avivah, I love how you play with the metaphor of cities in this article. I’m seeing some resistance to a gendered view of the values of individualism and collectivism in ronthebuilder’s comments, but I don’t think anyone would argue that Anglo cultures such as the UK, Austrlia, and the US are more individualistic than continental cultures, such as the French. Having been steeped in the extreme individualism of the US all my life, escaping to Canada has been a refreshing change!

    Part of the profound impact of US culture around the world has been the exportation of individualism and materialism. Individualistic values fulfill human needs for gratification of self-oriented desires, and benefit the society by motivating people to perform productive work and solve problems. At the same time, we need balance with collectivistic needs to promote and preserve cooperation within and across our societies. Individualists can be blind to the “wind beneath their wings” created by altruism, caring, and hard work of others.

    And historically, that un-sung work has been conducted by women more than men. I wish what ronthebuilder said was true – that there was complete equality between women and men today. Women are becoming more and more assertive and taking on more and more leadership roles, but men are not choosing to contribute equally to the caring and nurturing side of society. As a result, in the US anyway, our society is becoming more and more individualistic, aggressive, competitive, and dare I say it, masculinistic (by which I mean valuing the masculine over the feminine). Because the US has such profound influence on the world, I fear that we may all be moving in that direction – more and more out of balance. Without cooperation and caring, I fear for the future.

  5. Marianne says:

    Why would ronthebuilder want a job with 20-first? Not sure there’s a mutual fit of goals and values. Keep up the good work Avivah. I loved this post and it resonates with me, even if that does make me one of those underperforming, overconsuming women.

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