April 21, 2002

Women are too smart for work

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These are political and social questions that economists tend to avoid for fear of what the dismal science calls value judgments – conclusions that cannot be validated in fact or incontrovertible evidence.

Yet economics does involve itself in the issue of equality in the workforce. Having more people in the workforce is good for the growth rate of the economy. For example, Arab countries that ban women from participating in the workforce are highly unlikely to grow as fast as countries where women play an active role. Total productivity of the workforce is likely to be much less when women don’t participate.

This is not only a quantitative observation but a qualitative one too. If the growth rate is a function of brainpower and brainpower is a function of education, aggregate intellectual agility and deductive reasoning, then there may be a qualitative difference to the type of growth rates countries have depending on the participation of its female workforce.

On a macro level therefore, the case for women in the workforce is unambiguous. Governments should do all in their power to make it easy for women to work.

If the aim of the state is to maximise the growth rate, the fastest way to do this is with policies like individualisation and free and widespread creches.

It is hard to explain rationally why women do not get to the top in the same numbers as their male counterparts. Women are getting better Leaving Cert results, women are more likely to be in third level courses and are beginning to outnumber men in traditional male professions such as law.

Yet they are not breaking through. This is observed across the western world not just in Ireland.

In Ireland, we have the possible excuse that our baby boomers are about 20 years younger than those in the US and continental Europe. So in Ireland there are still fewer educated women in the workforce compared to other developed countries. But how do we explain the lack of career enhancement for women in the US and the continent? Also how do we explain the freakish way female chief executives are viewed? For example, Carly Fiorina at Hewlett-Packard and Majorie Scardino at Pearson are looked at totally differently from Bill Gates at Microsoft.

There are many answers for the inequality of the sexes in the workplace. The most persuasive (to an economist at least) is that women don’t actually want to succeed under present day corporate structures. Not that they don’t want to succeed as such but the process doesn’t suit them. The long, unsociable and in many instances impossible, hours that argue against rearing a family fuel the guilt many working women feel about leaving their children in creches for long periods.

Contracting out parenting doesn’t appeal to everyone. Sometimes even the sheer childishness of corporate ladder-climbing may dissuade women, particularly in their 30s, from playing the corporate game.

Taking a bit of altitude, it looks as if the women’s liberation movement has got half-way.

Women are now on the pitch but many have concluded that the rules of the game do not suit them. Corporate rules are still very much male rules.

The children issue is a big obstacle. One of the rules of the corporate game is time: you give your time, in return the corporation gives you cash and status.

So many mothers have to make a choice between children and career. This is sometimes easier for men. Many (but not all, clearly) successful corporate fathers are rather remote from their kids.

Anyone who has tried both the incessant frustrating chaos of rearing children and the relatively tolerable but at least adult environment of long office hours would know which is easier – the office any day. The point is that at some stage the trade off between being a good mother and a good employee kicks in. Typically, this applies to women in their thirties and may well explain why there are simply fewer women around in corporations in their forties.

The structure of corporate life also militates against mothers.

Arguably, joining a corporation is like joining the army.

Despite all the touchy feely late 1990s stuff about corporate families, my experience in large corporations was that politics and only politics ensures advancement. Everyone watches their back and makes alliances where they are necessary. Rarely does anyone in a corporation stand up for a colleague who is being hung out to dry and typically cute hoorism as much as talent, dictates your career path. Women are obviously not above such duplicity but what argues against women choosing to stick with the corporate route is the career path.

Most corporate men join at 25 after college and work their way up, taking two weeks holiday a year and usually putting in a few brownie hours at the weekend.

The tyranny of presenteeism, together with an acceptance of being almost “on call” for the institution debars many women from happily embracing such a career path.

An extraordinary number of men, on the other hand, seem to accept the progressive narrowing of lifestyle choices that a corporate career, even a good corporate career, implies.

The most alarming example of a rigid corporate structure is the partnership.

For some reason, yet to be explained to me, the partnership still has cachet in business circles. Thus when Goldman Sachs abandoned its partnership structure there was much gnashing of partners’ teeth, likewise at Lazard Freres. Usually when someone tries to preserve something and argues against change they are raking in the lolly, whether it be taxi drivers or partners in accountancy firms. I’m not surprised that existing partners at partnerships try to maintain the structure. It is a licence to print money once you get to the top; however the process by which you get up the ladder can only be described as professional bonded labour.

Professionals on the partnership treadmill work in institutions where for the first 15 years of their career they work as hard as possible. Any profit they generate goes directly into lining the partners’ pockets. Then they are made a salaried partner which implies that they are well on their way. Yet the holy grail is to be an equity partner. This is where you make the serious shekels.

The partnership works a bit like a religion, where tomorrow always promises to be better than today and if you just do this extra bit today, your rewards tomorrow will be stratospheric. By keeping the carrot in front of the donkey, the incentive structure works and partners can have in effect, professional slaves working for them. Loyalty is rewarded but loyalty implies the same careers at the same place for many years.

Perplexingly, many smart men accept this bonded slavery and revel in the status like that of Boxer in Animal Farm where blind faith and sheer persistence are rewarded.

For many smart women faced with a lifetime of choices, such rigidity is simply not on. The alternative of a “portfolio” career, involving job changing, pregnancy leave, motherhood and an element of financial uncertainty appears to be the path of choice. And looking at the alternative available at the moment, who can blame them?