Actions more important in equality debate

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It was Han Solo who said "never tell me the odds" in Star Wars, not Princess Leia. Photo / Supplied
Maybe there's nothing wrong with women, after all?

By Deborah Hill Cone

As a business journalist I used to cover conferences and events - good times, sigh - where there would be a group of speakers sitting in a row along a table on a stage.

I have bad eyesight (-8.5 diopters if you must know) and couldn't see name tags, so I would try to write in my notes descriptions of the speakers to put a name to their quote afterwards.

But, later, it would be hard to untangle.

"WMAM, GSGHG said this, WMAM, GSGHG said that."

Gah. White middle-aged man, grey suit, grey hair, glasses. (I never seemed to get in trouble for attributing wrong boring quote to wrong bespectacled dude so in retrospect not sure why I bothered.)

But the homogenous WMAM, GSGHG line-up might be changing.

Vend Software founder and moustache-twirler Vaughan Rowsell is refusing to speak on panels without women and he has called for more men to join him in boycotting men-only panels.

Go that guy!

This seems to be part of a new approach to attacking the problem of lack of diversity. Pretty much: you need to do more than just tell people to be less sexist, because it simply doesn't work.

Oh sigh. Do I really need to explain this? AGAIN?

Prejudice lingers in the subconscious so we commit the same mistakes over and over again; it takes constant vigilance to catch our often inadvertent moments of sexism or racism.

Right. Got it now?

Probably not, but I guess that's the nature of bias: we don't see our own, including me. But what I really liked about Rowsell's panel boycott idea was that he is not blaming women for failing to muscle their way on to panels: for not being pushier, more self-promoting, more freaking leaning-in.

Wacky thought: maybe there is nothing wrong with women, after all? Maybe we need to change the system instead.

Continued below.

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The leading researcher in this area, Stanford University professor Muriel Niederle, was recently asked by the Washington Post: "So how do we get women to be more competitive? How do we encourage them?" She replied: "Why do we need to do that? Why is competitiveness something that we have to value so much?"

Another researcher in this area, Harvard's Professor Iris Bohnet, said: "Muriel and I are completely aligned on this. Why don't we de-bias the system? Why don't we change the way we do things?"

You need to do more than just tell people to be less sexist, because it simply doesn't work.

The work of Niederle and Bohnet makes it clear that women judge risk and compete differently to men, but this is not necessarily a bad thing. In one experiment Niederle made men and women do some maths sums. They could get paid by the number of questions they got correct or choose to get a winner-takes-all payment: 73 per cent of men opted for the winner-takes-all system but only 35 per cent of women.

This made it look as if women were afraid of competing in a win-lose situation and that was largely how Professor Neiderle's research got reported. But for most people - unless they are brilliant at maths - the rational choice was not to enter the tournament.

Not all of the 73 per cent of men could be above average at maths, which means there are a lot of deluded souls who falsely believe they are going to win. So it may be that women are not risk-averse or afraid of competition, but they are better at recognising when they will probably lose. Being more in touch with reality is kind of smart, don't you think?

In their book Top Dog: The science of winning and losing, Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman question why more women aren't in politics and end up concluding men will run for office even if they have virtually no realistic chance of being elected, whereas women compete primarily when they think there is a reasonable likelihood of winning.

It was Han Solo, not Princess Leia, who said: "Never tell me the odds."

But not all types of competition are the same. The authors make the distinction between "finite" and "infinite" games, and their different consequences. Table tennis and Scrabble are finite games, but modern corporate life is an infinite game - no winner ever secure, no break in the contest, just a treadmill you stay on forever.

Bronson and Merryman believe women handle these kinds of infinite competitions better than men, finding ways to recuperate and recharge without burning out.

This might be a more sustainable kind of competitiveness. Who's to say playing a long game is less valuable than being a blowhard who wrongly thinks you're great at maths.

Don't agree? Tell you what: I'd be happy to get on a stage with a whole panel of WMAM, GSGHG blokes to debate it. Winner takes all.

Debate on this article is now closed.

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20 Comments

Arch

- Mt Wellington
12:09 pm Thursday 12 May 2016
What do I mean by "The delicately balanced ecology becomes terrifyingly unstable"?

Milt Taggart and Mary Hale Woolsey wrote the words. Robert Sauer composed the music. Gene Autry sang the song in the 1937 movie of the same name.

"When it's springtime in the Rockies
I'll be coming back to you,
Little sweetheart of the mountains
With your bonnie eyes of blue;
Once again I'll say I love you
While the birds sing all the day.
When it's springtime in the Rockies
In the Rockies far away."

Some people are having springtime. The Rockies are not far away - because they live in Fort McMurray, Alberta - all 88,000 of them. Or at least they did, until it became necessary to leave town in a hurry.

Friday's Herald describes Fort McMurray as a "western Canadian oil city." So it looks like what goes round comes round. Climate change, caused by a ruthlessly competitive species, Homo sapiens.

durrrga

- New Zealand
12:09 pm Thursday 12 May 2016
No, just pointing out that SOME people achieve for their own satisfaction rather than in a competitive spirit, that's all Lovey.
& really, in the real world I think that's more valuable.
Less unpleasantness in a work environment, less envy.

I've worked in offices - & the old uni attitude (some lecturers, old school) of putting the main marking on the exams would not have been useful in such offices where solid work on a daily basis was required, not a spurt of energy on Friday afternoon!

Usain Bolt is a SPORTSMAN. If the competitive attitude was confined (to the old degree - there were still advances in science etc) to sports & didn't infiltrate areas where co-operation is more useful, then your remark would hold water.

But I think you are twisting the point a trifle yourself, grin!
PS - Arch's arguments are often outside the square. Extend yourself!

Lovetruncheon

- Ponsonby
01:44 pm Tuesday 10 May 2016
umm...what you say about one species dominating and using all the planets resources has already happened?

i don't really get your argument.

Lovetruncheon

- Ponsonby
01:44 pm Tuesday 10 May 2016
nonsense.

if mallory (or the many others that tried) had succeeded he probably wouldn't have bothered?

you appear to be deliberately missing the point. in the above article it seems to say that men shouldn't be competitive because women aren't to the same degree. i might as well demand usain bolt shouldn't run so fast because i'm white.

its so unfair!

Kiwimac

-
10:43 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
War is resolved by killing the other side. If women wish to participate, they are free to do so.

Kiwi Rambled

- England
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
The problem with this is that masculin values such as competition and assertiveness are no downplayed in child rearing and education, as a consequence our boys are failing.

Arch

- Mt Wellington
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
Competitiveness is an algorithm that is built into all successful forms of organic life - and even into formations that behave as if they were organic life, such as viruses.

Anything that does not behave as if it were alive is non-competitive and non-cooperative. The planets Jupiter and Saturn do not compete to see which of them can have the greater number of moons.

Humans compete - because the genes that transmit (or fail to transmit) characteristics into future generations are in competition with each other. Without sufficient competition, a species would quickly die out.

We've just had Mothers' Day. But who would bother making and raising children (or even undergo the mucky business of sex) if human beings did not have this competitive algorithm in the genes? Motherhood is a lot of bother - I knew that even before Deborah reminded us.

But what if human competitiveness becomes too successful? One species comes to dominate a small planet. Its appetite becomes insatiable. Resources become exhausted. Life forms that this species doesn't bother preserving become extinct. The delicately balanced ecology becomes terrifyingly unstable.

Be careful what you choose to call "great"!

Dayan

- South Auckland
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
"Vend Software founder and moustache-twirler Vaughan Rowsell is refusing to speak on panels without women and he has called for more men to join him in boycotting men-only panels.

Go that guy!

This seems to be part of a new approach to attacking the problem of lack of diversity. Pretty much: you need to do more than just tell people to be less sexist, because it simply doesn't work.

Oh sigh. Do I really need to explain this? AGAIN?"

Oh not this old chestnut again.

This guy is a fool. Women are not on these panels because they choose not to be, just as men don't choose to enter beauty pageants.

Oh sigh. Do I really need to explain this? AGAIN?"

durrrga

- New Zealand
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
No, Lovey, Ed was beating the mountain, not the human competition.
As for the US & USSR, if they'll pooled their know-how, might have got out there faster & further! It's good see they've seen some sense in that regard now, if not on others (& don't blame Russia, ho ho.)

Richard Watts

- Mt Maunganui
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
Why are men competitive? Because you have twice as many maternal ancestors than paternal ancestors. Because for a man in competition the answer really is 'winner takes all/most'. Women on the other hand don't have this aspect to their evolutionary psychology.

There is only one X in experimental, just as men only have one X chromosome. Men dominate the demographics of the most exceptional people, exceptional people are the people that get discussed a disproportionate amount of time. it's not discrimination that men dominate many of the top rungs. It's evolution.

Osiris

- Kelston
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
Adding to the military analogy - in my personal experience out of the all the women who joined when I did, within 1-2 years 75% of them were out, pregnant and married/in relationships - to soldiers.

No wonder most of them never made it to serjeant-major but apparently, listening to Debbie, it's the blokes' fault. Ptish and Ptarrgh.

Observer

- Wellington Region
10:42 am Tuesday 10 May 2016
So long as it's business "policing" itself, I have no problem with this. (Women are half the population and do a lot of the purchasing out there, it makes sense to have them represented at business conferences.)

But to take the extra step and have government mandate such things would be going too far in my opinion.

durrrga

- New Zealand
01:09 pm Monday 09 May 2016
"Not all of the 73 per cent of men could be above average at maths, which means there are a lot of deluded souls who falsely believe they are going to win. So it may be that women are not risk-averse or afraid of competition, but they are better at recognising when they will probably lose. Being more in touch with reality is kind of smart, don't you think?"

This is why more women need to be involved in war resolution, Deb.
Did you know that in Native American society (or at least some of it) it was women who made the decision to go to war? They also made the decisions about food too. No doubt women listened to the odds that men put forward about winning the war but they had the sense to refrain if necessary!

(However as someone is sure to pick me up on it, I agree Deb, not all women (or men) are the same & I think Clinton belongs in the male category!)

I think there's far too much focus of competition in today's world.
Take uni marking. Nice to get an A+ as a measure of how good your work is, but if you are worried that someone else beat you to it, that's a problem! (In fact some of the scaling in marking I thought was unfair - it is possible for 2 people to get an A+ on merit)

YouKNOWItsTheTruth

- Mairangi Bay
12:18 pm Monday 09 May 2016
There are two problems with the 'lack of diversity' whinge.

1. It is assumed that all white middle-aged men are clones who all think the same.

Mike Hosking and John Campbell are the same gender, same colour and of similar age. Does that mean that they think exactly the same way and have the same values?

2. Having male-only boards isn't proof of sexism. Our Air Force is 96% male. Does that make it sexist? Or could it simply be that many women don't want to join the military?

Arch

- Mt Wellington
12:17 pm Monday 09 May 2016
"So how do we get women to be more competitive? How do we encourage them?"

Perhaps this is a question that is NOT about "competitive" but about "aggressively assertive."

Why can't all women be like Margaret Thatcher? Well, I'm not sure that I would want all women to be like Margaret Thatcher.

In the urban mythology, a man strides confidently into the interview room, sits down without being invited to, adopts a power pose (there are whole books on body language and business), and asserts unblinkingly (as if he were John Wayne or Arnold Schwarzenegger) that he is God's gift to the industry.

Pardon?... Did someone mention Mark Weldon?

In the same situation, the female interviewee doesn't make the mistake of thinking that she is in an episode of Game of Thrones. She doesn't imagine that she is Helen Mirren playing the role of Chief Inspector Tennison in Prime Suspect. She obstinately remains in contact with reality. So she's considered to be "less competitive."

As Deborah says, there might be a more sustainable kind of competitiveness.
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