Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Explaining why women succeed

There is an article on the BBC website today entitled "Can hormones explain female high flyers?". The article quotes a study which suggests that women with higher levels of the male sex hormone testosterone are more likely to be risk-takers and so succeed in business. Someone in the US has deduced this from studying female business students who are asked if they'd take risks in a particular hypothetical investment scenario. Like a good journalist, the writer even finds an Exeter profession who points out, in so many words, that desperately searching for biological explanations for difference is bad - "it's a way of justifying the status quo, and often prejudice. Sadly we seem to prefer this explanation than one that emphasises society, choice and the ability to change." And yet, she still goes on to write a feature about how the women who succeed in business must be doing so because they have more testosterone.

I've recently realised that there are actually many people in the world who don't automatically see the problem with that, so let me explain it. The basic premise of any study like this, of any exercise that tries to explain why successful women are successful is that there is some thing abnormal about a woman succeeding. This article, in particular, implies strongly that the world of successful business is the natural preserve of men and women who get there must be somehow strange, unusual and different to other women.

So women who succeed are aberrations. It's abnormal for a woman to be successful. There must be something different (and maybe even wrong) about a woman who succeeds. It's not a difficult leap, at least in a conservative mindset, to the idea that she is acting like a man. From where it's an easy glide down the slippery slope to saying that she must have some masculine biological characteristics. She must be part man. That's the only possible explanation for the status-quo-challenging behaviour of some of these 'ballbreakers'. They must have that 'essence of man', testosterone.

Mystery solved, men sit back with whiskey and cigars and relax in the knowledge that their position in society has been affirmed and they've successfully explained away the odd aberration of the successful woman. Across the globe, meanwhile, ordinary women - successful and not, businesswomen, professionals and stay-at-home Moms - are fed this nonsense in an attempt to convince them that the women who succeed are somehow different and odd and possibly even abhorrent. At attempt, of course, to convince other women not to try anything like that. Society once again, with subtle pressure, turns femininity into a virtue which subverts the drive to succeed into 'socially acceptable' pursuits like childrearing.

It is possible that female business students who have higher testosterone levels choose higher risk investment models. It is possible that hormone levels play out differently for a person in a high-responsibility professional position than for someone who is doing something else. This doesn't mean that succeeding as a woman is a biologically predetermined (im)possibility. Women are no more destined to stay at home with the kids than men are. The women who succeed in business, just like the men who succeed in business, do so by working hard and playing the game effectively. And, just like the men, they don't need any excuse or justification to sit around with their whiskey and their cigars and enjoy their hard-earned success.

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