Why Women Persevere When Men Don’t

A very interesting gender difference emerged at the Boston Marathon this year. Lindsay Crouse of the New York Times explains that the Boston Marathon is “one of the most competitive marathons in the world.” In other words, this race is one of the toughest courses where thousands of the world’s elite runners and runners who have completed multiple qualifying races to gain the right to enter this race push themselves to complete the course. The weather this year had heavy rains and was the coldest in decades, and women endured to the finish at much higher rates than men did. Crouse notes that this year’s Boston Marathon provides an opportunity to consider why women were able to persevere in exceptionally miserable conditions at higher rates than men to finish the race:

  • For men, the dropout rate was up almost 80 percent from 2017.
  • For women, the dropout rate was up only 12 percent from 2017.
  • Overall, 5 percent of men dropped out versus 3.8 percent of women.
Crouse discusses some theories about why women may have more physical endurance than men:
  • Differences in body fat composition
  • Decision-making tendencies
  • Pain tolerance, including the experience of childbirth where quitting is not an option
The body fat composition argument says that women can deal with cold weather better because essential body fat composition is about 3 percent for men and 12 percent for women. The subcutaneous fat layer is twice as thick for women, thereby insulating women from cold and increasing their ability to finish the race in conditions of extreme cold. Crouse points out the flaw in this argument, though, when she notes that “in 2012, on an unusually hot 86-degree day, women also finished at higher rates than men,” which was not the case in the years between 2012 and 2018. The gender difference then is not explained by body fat composition. Differences in decision-making traits may provide at least part of the explanation for the differences in finishing rates for women and men in races. Dropping out of a race is a decision. Previous research has shown gender differences in decision-making that are just as applicable to business situations as to running races. Crouse also lists psychological differences:
  • Women are better at pacing themselves.
  • Men start out more aggressively and take more risks—and can lose steam before the end.
  • Women are better at recalibrating behavior and adjusting their goals and expectations to keep going.
  • Men see “succeed or fail” as the options and drop out if they think they will fail.
Crouse cites psychologist Adam Grant’s research to offer another possible explanation of gender differences in finishing versus dropping out. Grant suggests that there exists a “biological and social tendency for women to tend toward caregiving.” He goes on to state that “when the going gets tough, the men either quit or they double down and say, ‘I’m just going to push through,’ whereas women are more likely to reach out to runners next to them and offer support and seek support. Sharing pain and being part of a group can make it easier to withstand pain.” In fact, Crouse offers several stories of women running the Boston Marathon in pairs or small groups and encouraging each other to keep going. In one case, a woman who wanted to quit kept going to support her friend and then ended up winning the race herself when she got a burst of energy toward the end. While no one has a definitive explanation of why women endured at higher rates than men in 2012 and 2018 in extreme weather conditions, the fact that this did happen—and the possible supporting theories of why—should encourage women to persevere. It can also add fodder to the argument that women can add value to any endeavor. Let’s hope that the old stereotype of women being fragile and unreliable is finally collapsing under the weight of all the evidence to the contrary.   Photo courtesy of Patrik Nygren (CC BY-SA 2.0)]]>

Why Do We Have Fewer Women in the Workplace?

I was surprised to read recently that the number of women in the workplace in the United States has declined. In a recent article, Gail Collins of the New York Times reported that the United States now ranks twentieth out of twenty-four industrialized countries for women in the labor force. We used to rank seventh. This can’t be good for a number of reasons, including the following:

  • The US economy has not been robust since the great recession of 2008. Higher employment is needed to stimulate the overall economy.
  • Wages have been stagnant, and Americans report feeling economically fragile.
  • Most US households are more dependent than ever on two incomes to maintain a family. When one parent leaves the workforce in a two-parent family, the standard of living falls for the family.
So, why are women leaving the workforce in the United States in greater numbers than in other developed countries?  Collins says the answer is the cost of childcare. She cites these statistics from the Economic Policy Institute on family budgets:
  • The cost of childcare for a family with a four-year-old and an eight-year-old exceeds housing costs for the family.
  • A single working mother with those same two children spends one-third of her income on childcare.
  • In most states, infant care is more expensive than college tuition.
Other countries, like Japan, which now has a higher proportion of working women than we do, recognize that higher employment rates for women is good for the economy. They implement family-friendly policies, such as subsidized childcare and paid family leave, in order to encourage women to enter and stay in the labor market. In a previous article, I reviewed lessons learned from the implementation of family-friendly policies in other countries. There are many best practices we can learn from. It really does not make sense for the overall economy, for families, or for women’s careers for these obstacles—childcare costs and lack of paid family leave—to exist in the United States of America. Let’s hold our presidential candidates and law makers accountable for correcting this problem.   Image provided courtesy of nenetus at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>

Now That Men Can Cry at Work, Why Can’t Women?

The cultural climate may finally be changing for men—which could be good news for women in the workplace. In a recent New York Times article, Jim Windolf makes the case that “the cultural bias against male tears” may be a thing of the past. This bias equates tears with weakness and treats the ability to “quash or conceal sadness or pain” as a manly virtue and a sign of strength. I have always felt that suppressing tears and quashing feelings cuts us off from full and authentic self-expression in the workplace. The author agrees that “crying is part of being human, and men are probably just as human as anybody else.” Windolf notes that these days male politicians are practically required to show their humanity by shedding a few tears in public. He recalls that Barack Obama cried in public before he was elected in 2008, and Newt Gingrich, Mitch McConnell, and John Boehner have cried in public, too. While it is true that Boehner still gets teased about how easily he cries, he may have done more than any other politician to normalize the sight of a strong male leader crying. Windolf goes on to identify other examples of men “slipping out of the emotional straitjacket” by crying in public, including Justin Timberlake, Kanye West, and several sports figures such as Wilmer Flores of the New York Mets. Why could this change be good for women?  I have written in a past article about the pressure my female clients are under to suppress their tears at work. They have been told that it is bad to be seen as “too emotional” and that “leaders don’t cry.”  Yet tears are a natural form of expression of a wide range of feelings from intense joy to deep frustration. I offer tips in my past article about how to handle authentic emotion in the workplace. Being able to express a full range of emotion is part of effective communication and authentic leadership. Let’s hope the emotional straitjacket is finally coming off for both women and men in the workplace. I know we’re not there yet, but the signs of change in the larger society are encouraging. Image courtesy of David Castillo Dominici at FreeDigitalPhotos.net]]>

Women Worry More than Men about Family Chores: Why This Matters

  • Is he lazy, or not really committed to equality?
  • Is she doing it all so well that he doesn’t feel a need to do more?
  • Are her standards so high that she doesn’t trust him to “do it right” regarding child care?
  • Is she really unwilling to let go of control?
  • What is clear to her is that she is becoming resentful and exhausted. Why is this important? There is the obvious potential damage to her relationship if her resentment continues to grow. There is also a potentially negative impact on her career. In an article in the New York Times, Judith Shulevitz noted that it takes “large reserves of emotional energy to stay on top of” all the details in the management of family life. Shulevitz cited research on heterosexual couples (she noted gay couples as being more egalitarian) from all strata of society that confirms that my friend’s experience is not unusual—women do the larger share of “worry work” about the details of family management. Tracking all these details can actually be a significant distraction for women at work and can scatter our focus, potentially disrupting our careers. Shulevitz speculated that these distractions “may be one of the least movable obstacles to women’s equality in the workplace.” Wow! Think about the possible significance of this statement. What, then, could be our part in keeping this inequality in place? Shulevitz related a story about young women in a recent undergraduate course on women and work who were making presentations at the end of the course. Many of them slipped in their language and talked about the importance of men “helping out” with household tasks and “babysitting” the children. Helping out and babysitting are not the same as sharing responsibility. These slips in language probably reflect traditional societal stereotypes that create pressure for women to be the right kind of mother. These pressures seem to be alive and well in our society, and even young women seem, to some extent, to be internalizing them. I think my friend may be asking the right questions. As women, have we internalized the traditional role expectations for us as women and mothers? If so, are we acting out these expectations by
    • Sending a mixed message to the men in our lives about whether we really want them to do an equal share?
    • Feeling we “should” do more of the household/child-care tasks to be the right kind of mother?
    • Keeping control of the lists because we really like being in control?
    • Being inflexible about our standards for doing family management?
    What is the truth of the matter for you on the questions above? What can you let go of? What has worked for you to equalize the load with your partner?]]>