Maybe there's nothing wrong with women, after all?

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.

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.

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