Stuart Wheeler's claim that women are not competitive enough to get into company boardrooms has led to accusations of sexism. Such moralistic bleating, however, distracts us from some interesting issues.
The first is: what's the link between competitiveness and success in business? This does seem to be positive: people who play sports tend to go on to earn more, and many bosses (both men and women) are sporty types. It is at least possible therefore that, insofar as women are less competitive than men, they will be under-represented in boardrooms.
However, it's not clear whether this is the fault of women or of companies' selection processes. The link between an individual's sportiness and economic success might exist for healthy reasons: sporty people get on well in teams, and have high self-motivation. But experiments show (pdf) that sporty types are also more likely to engage in envious anti-social behaviour. This suggests that competitive people might rise to the top not because they have desirable characteristics, but because they are more likely to trample over others. It's not obvious that it's efficient for companies to reward such behaviour.
So far, I've assumed that women are indeed less competitive than men. What's the evidence for this? It's certainly true that women are under-represented along top chess and bridge players, to take Mr Wheeler's examples. But it's not obvious we should infer much from the far tail of a distribution - just as we shouldn't put weight upon the single data point that is Clare Gerada's mum.
We do, though, have some scientific evidence here. This suggests that women - on average! - perform less well than men under competitive pressure, and prefer (pdf) less competitive (pdf) pay structures.
However, this difference might be endogenous. It might result not from innate differences between men and women, but from the genders being primed to conform to their stereotypes. Evidence for this is:
- Girls from single-sex schools tend to be more competitive, and to choose more "masculine" subjects than girls from mixed schools. This could be because mixed schools make girls more aware of their gender than do single-sex schools. In depicting the girls of St Trinians as criminal Amazonians, Ronald Searle had a point.
- In matrilineal societies, it is women (pdf) rather than men who are more competitive.
From this perspective, Mr Wheeler is committing the fundamental attribution error. He seems to be attributing women's lack of competitiveness to individual dispositions, when it might instead be due to societal forces, such as gender stereotypes. Because of this, he seems to be blaming the victim; he's attributing women's under-representation on boards to their own failings, rather than societal ones.
In doing this, he is being not so much sexist as characteristically right-wing. Just as the right blame the poor for their poverty by citing fecklessness and idleness, so they blame women for their lack of economic success. The error is the same.
Another thing: in saying all this, I'm not suggesting that a lack of competitiveness is the only reason for women's under-representation on boards.
Yet another thing: as a Marxist, I have no dog in this fight. I couldn't give a toss what shysters, exploiters and rent-seekers have in their trousers.