Cocksure hens can rule the roost

Sydney Morning Herald
11 July, 2009
By Jessica Irvine

Two weeks ago I went to a friend's hens' night at the The Artful Hen life drawing studios in Darlinghurst to celebrate the end of another single life with some tasteful male nudity.

About a dozen of us girls, liberally administered with a few bottles of red wine, spent two hours learning the drawing techniques required to do justice to our beautiful and buck naked male model. A recipe for hilarity and much misbehaving, you may think. But what struck me most was the silence that descended on our little group at 9 o'clock on a Saturday night as we studiously worked at our easels. The competitive atmosphere was palpable.

Surrounded by such determination to succeed, I got to thinking if we could only bottle that spirit and translate it to the workplace, perhaps the imbalance of men and women in positions of power might simply slip away, like our model's clothing.

Explanations for the persistent gap between men and women's wages boil down into roughly three categories: a) the loss of work experience and income associated with child bearing, b) outright discrimination, and c) that perhaps there is something about women's behaviour that holds them back.

While the first explanation appears most powerful, the last offers easy avenues for change.

While not true for every woman, academic studies have consistently shown that under test conditions, women on average exhibit behaviour that is less competitive and more risk averse than men. This can have a very direct impact on wages. Less competitive people are less likely to put themselves forward for promotion which might stretch them and enable them to learn new skills. Being risk averse may also deter a person from pushing for an overdue pay rise. It was a man, and a small one at that, who coined the phrase "Show me the money".

In a rare foray into self-help literature a few years ago, I came across a book titled Nice Girls Don't Get The Corner Office. In it, the American executive coach Lois P. Frankel outlines the 100 "unconscious mistakes women make that sabotage their careers".

They include such gems as: "decorating your office like your living room", "feeding others", "needing to be liked", "viewing men in authority as father figures", "speaking at a higher than natural pitch", "tilting your head" and my personal favourite "smiling inappropriately".

"From early childhood, girls are taught that their well-being and ultimate success is contingent on acting in certain stereotypical ways, such as being polite, soft-spoken, compliant and relationship oriented. Throughout their lifetimes this is reinforced through media, family and social messages." Frankel's advice? "Quit bein' a girl."

But are women less competitive by nature or nurture?

Two economists, Alison Booth, from the Australian National University, and Patrick Nolen, from the University of Essex, have set out to find out. Their results bode well for girl power.

To conduct their experiments, the economists assembled 260 students aged 15 into a large auditorium at the University of Essex in Britain. The students came from a mix of single-sex and co-educational schools and were not told of the study's purpose.

To gauge the student's level of risk aversion, each was invited to participate in a "fiver lottery" in which they had to choose between Option One or Option Two. Option One meant a guaranteed payment of 5. Option two meant a coin toss and payment of 11 if it came up heads and 2 for tails.

Overall, girls were found to be more likely to choose the fixed return than boys, conforming to stereotype.

But when school background was taken into account, girls from all-girl schools were found to be just as likely to participate in the lottery as boys, and much more so than their counterparts from co-ed schools.

To further test the dynamic, researchers split the students into three randomly assigned group types: all-girl, all-boy and co-ed. Once again, girls in all-girl groups were found to be equally willing as boys to choose the lottery and more willing than the girls in co-ed groups.

"This result after 30 minutes of being in an all-girls group suggests that women are not more risk averse than men by nature."

Experiments were also done to test students' competitive impulse, yielding much the same results. Students were given a set of maze puzzles and told to solve as many as they could in five minutes. They were then given the choice to receive a set rate of 50 pence per maze completed, or earn 2 per maze completed, but only get the money if they solved more mazes than anyone else in their group.

Girls who attended a single-sex school were significantly more likely to choose to enter the tournament than girls from a co-ed school. "A girl's environment plays an important role in explaining why she chooses not to compete," the researchers concluded. "Girls from single-sex schools behaved more like boys."

The results fit with a previous study of men and women from two indigenous tribes with different hierarchical structures - the patriarchal Maasai tribe of Tanzania and the matrilineal Khasi tribe in India, where inheritance flows through the females of the tribe. In tests involving tossing a tennis ball into a bucket placed three metres away, Khasi women were found to be more competitive than the Khasi men, but Maasai men more competitive than Maasai women. Crucially, Khasi women were just as competitive as Maasai men, showing females can be just as fiercely competitive as men given the right conditioning.

Turns out hens' nights are the perfect laboratory conditions to bring out women's competitive streak.

We just need to keep doing it when the boys have suits on - other than their birthday ones.

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