Op-Ed

Woman's touch might help church

Being always a little behind the times, I've only recently started watching Mad Men, the TV series about the 1960s world of high-powered New York advertising agencies.

It's a mesmerizing tour of a strikingly homogenous culture.

Twice in the episodes I've seen there have been glancing references to situations in which male professionals committed a petty crime — taking a typewriter home from work, stealing a few dollars from a co-worker's locker — and a lower level worker got the blame.

With all the sex and alcohol and cynicism of this series, it may seem like a leap from Mad Men to the Catholic Church.

Or maybe not.

Certainly sex and alcohol play prominent roles in the scandals that continue to rock the church. And goodness knows they've engendered plenty of cynicism.

But that's not the link that triggered the connection for me. It's the social structure that in Mad Men allows the misallocation of blame to pass with barely a frown. In the church, it lets bishops, cardinals, popes and canon lawyers look the other way or drift off into some kind of theological fog when faced with clear evidence that priests were sexually abusing children.

I'm a lifelong Catholic so I can say this: The church, like so many organizations, has been deeply damaged by its good/bad-ol'-boy culture.

Sordid, shameful and painful as they are, stories about sex abuse are also about the mundanity of an organization reflexively protecting itself, because the people making the decisions identify much more with those committing the offenses than with their victims.

People often argue that priestly celibacy is the issue, but I don't think so. Far be it from me to make a case for that rule, but men don't become persistent pedophiles because they aren't having sex with women.

It's a bit more persuasive to argue that if the higher-ups in the church were married and discussed the abuses at home they might get some push back from their wives. But that still doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

The problem is who sits around the table when upper management talks about these problems, or chooses not to.

The church management, after all, could be Exhibit A in a study of closed power structures. There's no gender diversity among the membership, very little ethnic diversity; the members rise or fall according to the assessment only of others within the group, and they all learn from the same texts.

Not much different, really, from the executives in Mad Men.

Or a lot of real-life environments.

How, for example, could regulators at the Securities and Exchange Commission overlook years of warnings about Bernard Madoff's investment scams?

How could board members at the Blue Grass Airport fail to question management excesses for years?

How many women were on the visits that executives of Kentucky non-profit organizations made to strip clubs? Let's not even start with sports scandals.

Have you ever studied the photos of the boards of directors of major publicly held corporations? Ever tried to make a chart of the multiple connections among these high-powered people in employment, board or club memberships, colleges and business schools or fraternities?

There's a lot of research on diversity in business settings. Among the things it reveals is that there is more conflict of ideas when a group is more diverse.

Interestingly, group members are bothered much more by conflict within a homogenous group than a diverse one. This is because — rightly or wrongly — they don't expect divergent ideas when they're in a group of people who resemble themselves. Think about it.

How does this play out? Again, research tells us that female-headed investment funds fared much better in the recent market debacle than those run by men. Firms that have women in upper management tend to have better results over the long term.

The 2009 report, Women in Fund Management, summarized research on gender differences in processing investment information: "Women tended to consider information that was contradictory or that did not confirm an initial decision.

By comparison, men in the study tended to ignore such information and process only information that confirmed the initial decision."

I'm not arguing that women in high places will solve all our ills. We know that's not true, even if we didn't have the examples of the League of Cities and the Lexington Public Library so freshly before us.

But we do know that more women, in fact more different voices, in the upper ranks of financial management and regulation probably would have saved us all a lot of money and headache these last 18 months.

And there's every reason to believe that more women in the inner sanctum could also have saved many children the horrors they suffered at the hands of men society trusted and church leaders refused to discipline.

Jacalyn Cafgano is a Lexington writer and a former Herald-Leader editorial writer. Reach her at jacalyncarfagno@insightbb.com.

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