Are girls good at hard sums? This question has started a culture war in the US in recent weeks.
In the eye of the storm was the brilliant economist Larry Summers, president of Harvard.
Summers mused on the issue of why there were so few female academics in top positions in maths and sciences in American universities. He offered three reasons for this. As well as discrimination and the fact that women might not be interested in making the sacrifices needed to get these top jobs, Summers suggested that maybe women’s brains were different.
He suggested that women were hardwired differently from men, and part of that hardwiring appears to indicate a proclivity for non-mathematical or non-scientific studies. In other words, girls can’t do hard sums.
Now, he may have been mischievously trying to stoke debate, but I doubt he expected national vilification.
The feminist and equality movement went bonkers in the US, labelling him a sexist. His defenders, on the other hand, said that he simply made the mistake of questioning a taboo.
While all this is spilling over in the US, Summers’ second assertion – that women choose not to make the sacrifices necessary to get to the top of the corporate world – is the subject of a fascinating study in the Harvard Business Review this month, called Off-ramps and On-ramps: How to keep Talented Women on the Road to Success.
The article focuses on the problems for corporate America of a new female brain drain, whereby highly-talented women in their 30s and 40s opt out of corporate life. The Review found that 58 per cent of high-flying women take time out – usually a number of years ï¿½ from their careers.
They choose to do a variety of other things with their lives rather than continue to climb the greasy pole. This is causing a huge brain drain, particularly in the professions. Corporations are also finding it difficult to deal with.
According to the Review, firms that manage to hold on to their talented women have a huge competitive advantage. These firms will be more profitable and secure more prestigious contracts.
Anecdotally, this suggestion was supported by a recent conversation I had with a friend involved in investment banking in London. After my bragging about the English getting a hiding at Lansdowne last Sunday, he told me that he was in Dublin to change his Irish corporate lawyer. This was the second time he had to do this in a year. In each case, a brilliant woman he had been dealing with had left and, in both cases, the male partner who had replaced her was, to his mind, entirely useless.
The issue for corporate Ireland is how it can find a way to keep highly-qualified women at work. Quite apart from the brain drain today, the impact of it in the future will be more significant.
The facts are startling. This year, girls will do better than boys in the Leaving Certificate and more girls will go to university. There are also more female lawyers qualifying than males.
The same is the case for many of our creative industries, such as advertising, media and marketing, and finance.
This trend has been evident since the mid-1990s and, as it continues, women will continue to make up an increasing proportion of our professional workforce.
What will happen if they all decide to leave in mid-career? Will we be left with a cohort of possibly second-rate men running our large firms? And what effect will this have on their success?
Coming back to Summers’ assertions, it might be more interesting to focus on his second suggestion: that the reason women are not at the highest level in (mathematical and scientific) academia and in corporations in the US is because they don’t want to be, rather than because of the way their brains are hardwired.
What if the issue is that women see through the nonsense that is the corporate world, its late nights, golf outings, client dinners, lap dancing clubs and sports weekends?
What if women are actually too smart to be suckered into it all? What if women have a greater sense of their own individual identity than can ever be bestowed on them by their position in an institution?
For corporations, a worrying finding to emerge from the Harvard Business Review was that not one of the high-flying women who left their jobs would return to their former employer. The overriding reason for their career breaks was not family commitments but a lack of job satisfaction.
But job satisfaction and family are related because, as soon as a professional working woman starts a family, her commitment to the job is secretly questioned by her male colleagues, whose kids are looked after all day by someone else, probably a wife or a nanny. (There are exceptions of course; we are talking generalities here.)
These days, the most precious commodity for people and corporations is time. Brains are plentiful, as are qualifications and technology, but at the highest level, commitment is measured by time.
The law firm, bank, accountancy outfit or consultancy that is available 24/7 is regarded by clients – who pay top dollar – as being the best and most reliable.
Therefore, the enemy of the firm becomes the family. In the presenteeism world of 24/7 service, time allotted to one means time taken from the other. The two institutions grind up against each other like tectonic plates, and typically (but not always) it is the professional mother who straddles the faultline. Her working day comprises a series of impossible choices, trading off work and family.
When she eventually decides to work part-time, flexi-hours or from home two days a week, she condemns herself to the twilight world of corporate isolation.
When you are not present, you are not one of the gang. There is nothing so debilitating in a corporation as not being part of the gang. In corporate twilight, she gets ignored, she is not invited to pivotal meetings and she is forgotten.
There is no direct discrimination, but it is subtle. It is the politics of exclusion, and anyone who has worked in an office knows exactly what I am talking about.
This matters enormously, because quite soon our former high-flyer becomes invisible; decisions about her work and workmates are taken over her head. Like Leon Trotsky, she begins to be airbrushed out of history.
She is not around, so it won’t really matter if the 24/7 lads take credit for her great deals and blame her for their mistakes.
The Harvard Business Review suggests a number of ways to keep women interested, such as working on projects and specific assignments, rather than the typical corporate ladder hierarchy of functional rungs.
It advises opening up flexi-hours at every level and says that companies should rethink the linear career path where you join at 24 and keep going in a straight line until you drop.
But most of all, the lesson is that families count and smart people get bored.
Maybe what the hapless Larry Summers was trying to say was, yes, women’s brains are different from men’s, and maybe extreme maleness can manifest itself in a proclivity for sums, but the biggest difference is that women can see that sometimes the corporate emperor is in the raw. If only he could see himself.