All modern societies evolved out of agrarian societies. Before the Industrial Revolution, the male endurance value and physical strength translated directly to political power. Men fought in wars, hunted beasts, erected buildings, and plowed fields PRECISELY because they possessed the physical stamina to do so at a far greater degree than females.Why Did Almost All Societies Believe that Women Were Inferior to Men? (Slate)
Back before the Industrial Revolution, human fertility was the highest premium factor in existence. People lived to have babies, and babies were the most important thing men and women brought into the world. The female role in reproduction—shall we say—involves a lot more time, effort, and pain (and before recently, a hell of a lot of death). Every moment women spent pregnant (which was a LOT of time) was time that she would have been taken away from power-playing.
This was for a very good reason, reasons that no longer exist (and a reality we now live in that we take for granted). More than half of all human beings died before their second birthday. Life was largely physically challenging, oftentimes painful, and disease was relatively rampant. Life wasn't quite as short as most people make it out to be (mean life expectancy was around 38 years because of child mortality, but only another 10 years is added once we factor in those who make it to their teens, meaning that life expectancy hovered around 48—still awfully short).
So, to put it plainly, women had a place in society that wasn't just dictated by male prejudice (while it certainly existed); it was dictated by the needs of society. Gestating was (and is) a very time-consuming affair. Rearing children could not be done in day-care centers or public facilities. There were no public schools, no social safety nets, no labor laws: All that existed was family and church/temple/mosque (and religious organizations weren't in the business of providing much in the way of social safety nets). Women were needed at home because the lack of sophistication in society basically relegated most men and women into the roles that they had: men = physical power / social manager and women = home power / child-bearer.
Now, with the advent of the industrial and medical revolutions, suddenly there was surplus wealth (to pay for schools, social programs, safety nets), machines that equalized strength, education to give both genders a chance at contributing to society and longer human lives to fill our cities. With this, the necessity of having babies to preserve society diminished. The need for strong and durable men to work in fields, factories, and in war began to diminish because machines did the "equalizing" work. This has continued apace even to today, in places where machines do ALL of the heavy lifting and all that matters is brain power. Now, there may remain a few select jobs where brute physical strength is at a premium (front-line soldiers, miners, construction, etc.) and those are likely to continue to be dominated by men for obvious reasons.
And so the equalizing of the genders is not something that "men granted" but which society needed and women rightly demanded.
Thus, traditional "women's work" was no less important. In fact, it is surely much more important, because without the bearing and rearing the next generation of the tribe, the culture would vanish entirely making men's work meaningless. Of course, the difference is that some societies treated women in this role with respect, while others treated them as practically chattel in an attempt to control their reproductive abilities (Middle East, I'm looking at you). Of course, this is a varied cultural phenomenon; we do not want a society, traditional or otherwise, that mistreats it members, men or women. I think we can all agree on that.
But why are men still disproportionately represented at the top of the pyramid when brains, not brawn are needed? According to this terrific article, it's because we mistake confidence for competence. Men's narcissistic, histrionic, strident, bullying, extroverted personas catapult them to the top where they are terribly incompetent leaders (I witness this up close and first-hand in my own firm).
Based on this article, I think we should only have women as leaders. Maybe some future society will wise up and pass a law only permitting women to be admitted to the highest stage of leadership for the good of society. As I explained a long time ago in The warlord vs. the bureaucrat, most men are more likely to make decisions to burnish their own status and stockpile and sequester resources for their own blood relatives rather than make judgements that are good for the society as a whole:
In my view, the main reason for the uneven management sex ratio is our inability to discern between confidence and competence. That is, because we (people in general) commonly misinterpret displays of confidence as a sign of competence, we are fooled into believing that men are better leaders than women. In other words, when it comes to leadership, the only advantage that men have over women (e.g., from Argentina to Norway and the USA to Japan) is the fact that manifestations of hubris — often masked as charisma or charm — are commonly mistaken for leadership potential, and that these occur much more frequently in men than in women.Why Do So Many Incompetent Men Become Leaders? (Harvard Business Review)
This is consistent with the finding that leaderless groups have a natural tendency to elect self-centered, overconfident and narcissistic individuals as leaders, and that these personality characteristics are not equally common in men and women. In line, Freud argued that the psychological process of leadership occurs because a group of people — the followers — have replaced their own narcissistic tendencies with those of the leader, such that their love for the leader is a disguised form of self-love, or a substitute for their inability to love themselves. “Another person’s narcissism”, he said, “has a great attraction for those who have renounced part of their own… as if we envied them for maintaining a blissful state of mind.”
The truth of the matter is that pretty much anywhere in the world men tend to think that they that are much smarter than women. Yet arrogance and overconfidence are inversely related to leadership talent — the ability to build and maintain high-performing teams, and to inspire followers to set aside their selfish agendas in order to work for the common interest of the group. Indeed, whether in sports, politics or business, the best leaders are usually humble — and whether through nature or nurture, humility is a much more common feature in women than men. For example, women outperform men on emotional intelligence, which is a strong driver of modest behaviors. Furthermore, a quantitative review of gender differences in personality involving more than 23,000 participants in 26 cultures indicated that women are more sensitive, considerate, and humble than men, which is arguably one of the least counter-intuitive findings in the social sciences. An even clearer picture emerges when one examines the dark side of personality: for instance, our normative data, which includes thousands of managers from across all industry sectors and 40 countries, shows that men are consistently more arrogant, manipulative and risk-prone than women.
The paradoxical implication is that the same psychological characteristics that enable male managers to rise to the top of the corporate or political ladder are actually responsible for their downfall. In other words, what it takes to get the job is not just different from, but also the reverse of, what it takes to do the job well. As a result, too many incompetent people are promoted to management jobs, and promoted over more competent people.
Unsurprisingly, the mythical image of a “leader” embodies many of the characteristics commonly found in personality disorders, such as narcissism (Steve Jobs or Vladimir Putin), psychopathy (fill in the name of your favorite despot here), histrionic (Richard Branson or Steve Ballmer) or Machiavellian (nearly any federal-level politician) personalities. The sad thing is not that these mythical figures are unrepresentative of the average manager, but that the average manager will fail precisely for having these characteristics.
In fact, most leaders — whether in politics or business — fail. That has always been the case: the majority of nations, companies, societies and organizations are poorly managed, as indicated by their longevity, revenues, and approval ratings, or by the effects they have on their citizens, employees, subordinates or members. Good leadership has always been the exception, not the norm.